August 7, 2012

When, Where and How to Approach a Combat Veteran

I'm on the floor
I was talking to one of my new Journal of Military Experience friends and she expressed a discomfort in approaching me during the Military Experience Arts Symposium. She wanted to respect my space but didn't know a comfortable way to approach me in relation to PTSD symptoms in a group setting. It made me start to think about the intense air I must emote for her to question when and how to approach me. I love talking to people, it's where I get some of my greatest inspirations. But, sometimes my condition may not permit me to interact on a desired level or in an expected way. In a couple of the pictures floating around from the symposium you could find me off by myself concentrating on breathing and meditating.

The PTSD mind sees all interactions and people as a possible threat, even loved ones and friends we have known our whole lives. In between events and workshops I was concentrating heavily on trying to talk to people and maintain my anxiety level which gets in the way of communicating. Internally we may be caught up in our inner world and if we are wrapped up in high emotional states we may be displaying body postures and facial expressions that says, "I'm not at home right now, please don't leave a message." Our body language may be misconstrued as offensive and therefore subject to misinformation, stereotyping, stigma and personal biases. To the uninitiated in trauma we may appear as someone to wary or fear.

A common aspect of our mental wound is the defensive state of mind, when understood in this context may help facilitate communication. If I am not completely zoned out my hypervigilance is zapping my energy on purely defensive matters. Whether from fighting my delusions rendering reality obsolete to dodging my many triggers so that I may not hallucinate. Our triggers are many and some of us hallucinate regularly, please consider this and be respectful. Balance this with knowing that we don't want to be feared or treated as though broken. This inner battle we wage is against ourselves, not you. You would be safer standing next to a combat veteran with PTSD than most people. When our symptoms manifests try not to take it personally and see at it as a learning opportunity. It's easier to accept the pain and discomfort of a veteran wounded from a bullet or bomb and much more difficult to see our mental wound and difficulties in interacting as our scars.

I've met some combat veterans with some intense stares, some just recently. But the funny thing is one of the most intense looking guys at the symposium had a wicked humor and a huge heart. No, not me. I was having the same trouble as my new friend. How to approach an intense looking combat veteran? I would imagine my new friend would also be thinking, "What do I do if he begins to share some of his burdens?" A veterans sharing lightens their burden and extends a unique opportunity and honor to the recipient. Less than 14% of our nation has served our republic in the military and when we opt to open up, our voices should resound. I am starved of human interaction due to my superhero ability to run people off who have little understanding of my condition. Sharing nurtures the healing process soothing the mental wound, filling me with empathy. Even though I resist talking about my experiences, I feel compelled to share.

I am willing to expound upon on my condition and life, but many veterans do not feel comfortable discussing their experiences and wounds, mental or otherwise. If you want to approach a veteran and they have a flat affect as the textbooks like to call it, assess the situation. That's what we are doing during those intensely long pauses, you might as well do the same. Do we wear military fatigues, insignia or medals? Do we appear anxious, guarded or rigid? How about spring loaded? What is that all about? Unresolved trauma becomes locked in the body giving our posture the appearance of aggression or overly assertiveness thus reinforcing the stereotype. 

If you were to notice my hearing aids, I would be comfortable with questions on how it would be best to communicate with me concerning my hearing. I have bilateral hearing loss and being able to see the lips move enables better hearing. This could be a possible segue into how I lost my hearing, which I would tell you was from enemy artillery. I'm not suggesting that asking a veteran about how they got a prosthetic limb is a good idea, that may be akin to asking about someones sex life. Never ask a veteran if they have killed someone. Might as well say, "Hi! I don't know you. But, would you completely bare your soul to me here and now?" It's rude and completely disrespectful. But asking a warrior about a pin worn may be a good way to see if she is open to sharing.

Many veterans are open to sharing about the Military Experience, it wasn't all bad and in many ways better than today. If we are approached with respect and treated with dignity we may impart upon a part of our nations living oral history. Who knows you may become a member of their trusted inner circle, their squad at home.  

28 comments:

  1. Hi Scott. Thank you for sharing your insights and for your honesty.

    Also, of course, thank you for your service

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    1. Hi Jerzygirl45, thank you and you are welcome.

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  2. VERY educational and shared! Many shy away or don't know how to approach. Wonderful piece!!

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    1. Hey thank you for sharing USM, love you girl.

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  3. Hi Scott thank you for your insight. My husband is a disable combat veteran as well. We find it dishearting when people say what happened to you over there?, Did you get blown up? He just shuts down automatically. I am the only person he will talk to and even then he wont tell me everything wich is totally fine with me, he knows i am there for him when he needs me. Thank you for your insight once again and always stand your ground. Thanks for your service!! God Bless You.

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    1. Thank you for your continues sacrifices you make each and every day as a caregiver and welcome home to your hero (we don't like that label but, but you see his heroism everyday).

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  4. Thank you for your response. My son is a double amputee from the war and people continulally do not know how to react around him. Most ignore him which pisses me off, while others try to make small talk. It is a difficult situation to be in one that is life changing. I am happy to take this life as opposed to the alternative. I am very interested in PTSD and I am reading, Unitl Tuesday A wounded warrior and the golden retriever that saved him.. Great book, describes the anxiety and hyperviligance very well. I would recommend this book to many who are experiencing PTSD.

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    1. I usually don't mind when people ignore me unless I am trying to get their attention, then yes that is annoying. I have not read the book yet, I have a dog that is my buddy.

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  5. Well written, Scott. I shared this in hopes that others, both combat and non-combat, can understand this issue. Keep up the great work in sharing your stories and bridging the gaps for PTSD. You rock, buddy.

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    1. Thank you Torrey, I appreciate your help in spreading the word by sharing this article.

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  6. Spot on; as a Marine vet who served in Vietnam, I agree with your assessment.

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  7. My ex-wife, wife at that time, know something was wrong almost immediately. She asked where was her husband and who was I. My life reached an incredible low before I could admit and comprehend that I had become a different person and that the person I had been was not coming home. PTSD destroyed my career and what I felt was going to be a successful life. Scott Lee is exactly right when he says that "The PTSD mind sees all interactions and people as a possible threat, even loved ones and friends we have known our whole lives". The rational part of my brain knows that very few people are my enemies, but the part of my brain that controls reaction and fight or flight,emergency reactions, comprehension of danger processes information as though anyone and everyone can be the enemy and is always hypervigilant, to the extent that I must plan whenever I go outside, avoiding crowds,loud noises, and especially anyone walking behind me. Controlling my environment is critical. What is simple to the average person, requires great planning and preparation for me. This all makes close relationships very difficult. An excellent insight on the way the PTSD mind functions. Thanks Scott.

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    1. I had the same reaction from my ex-wife when I came home. Who was I? Where did the husband she married? I had the same questions as she did. Who was I and where did I go?

      I don't go many places and when I do planning as you said is important. Even better is to go places with the few people who belong in my squad at home. That way they can deflect many issues and reality testing against them is paramount in maintaining my sense of sanity.

      There are many links here to help with what to expect before and in therapy, how to fire your doctor or therapist, mental health emergencies and how to communicate more effectively, etc. The links are in the label cloud below and above in the navbar.

      You're welcome and welcome home Joe.

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  8. Thank you for writing this. It has been a challange for me since I returned in 2010. I have shared this with my friends and family... so thank you for writing this.

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    1. You are welcome Marga, welcome home.

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  9. Thank you for your service!!!! I grew up my whole life around ft. Campbell ky. After getting my degree in psychology I have made it my life goal to help injured vets with PTSD and tbi. My boyfriend is also a combat injured vet and like you we have to plan plan plan if we go out which is few and far between. again thank you and God bless!!!!!!!

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    1. Thank you for having arrived at a purpose in life and that it revolves around veterans is even better. We need psychologists with experience dealing with combat vets. Thank you for your chosen profession, but I bet you consider it having chose you.

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  10. Thank you Scott for putting into words what so many with PTSD experience. As a combat vet myself dealing with PTSD for 20 years, it often feels unexplainable how deeply PTSD affects your life. It permeates everything. My PTSD caused me to need to completely change my line of work and return to school. Thankfully school was/is an excellent therapy and allowed me to refocus my intensity into my studies but the side effect was the more I excelled in my studies I found people to say I was "cured" and question whether PTSD is real in me or in anyone. Laughable really.

    PTSD is a chronic condition and I wish more people understood that like many chronic conditions, there are fluxuations in how it affects the person and their life at any given point. Some days I feel like what I imagine normal to feel like. Others, the world feels too dangerous and overwhelming and isolation and depression are the modus operandi.

    Articles like yours highlight the world inside our heads and hearts. You have done a wonderful service to vets like us. Thank you.

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    1. When I was in school they put my PTSD in remission, on paper. Didn't turn it off though and I was able to channel my symptoms into my work in college as you did.

      You're welcome and welcome home

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  11. I served with the Marines in Vietnam (68-69), and appreciate your insights. I am in a PTSD group that meets weekly at our local Vet Center, and some of your concerns are ours, as well.

    I was in a 155mm self-propelled howitzer battalion in I-Corps, and also wear hearing aids. When I can read lips, it is so much easier to understand others.

    Thank you for this contribution to help the general public, our friends and family members, and even our colleagues. Bless you.

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    1. Hoorah, King of Battle I was grateful for our artillery guys. Thank you for you service and welcome home, I need the blessings thank you.

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  12. Scott, I wanted to thank you from the bottom of my heart for putting this article out there. I couldn't agree more with the things that you stated, for my family this was the norm. One of the kindest and best men at our Church was a World War Two Veteran who saw some of the worst jungle fighting in the Pacific Campaign, I grew up listening to my parents friends talk about Vietnam experiences and wanting to be accepted and I realized the struggles they went through. I go to every airshow and local military function I can, take cookies to recruiters, and thank every one of you that I can. I don't see a war torn monster standing in front of me, I see my brothers and sisters standing there deserving my respect because I talk about being a patriot and you have shown that you are. I don't expect you all to "tell me what happened", but I am standing here beside you because you stood up for me. Thank you for your service. It will not be forgotten.

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    1. Thank you for seeing past our gruff exterior and standing next to us by showing your patriotism in attending veteran and military functions. We need a strong inner circle, it seems you are part of that circle for your veterans. If they haven't told you, you are much appreciated and needed part of the family. Have a great day and be blessed.

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  13. Thank you for this article! You made it pretty clear on how we feel. Im gonna share this artilce with family and friends so they can understand us a little more. Im 2x afghan war vet and people seem to think im mean or heartless but thats what they see on the outside...im a fun, friendly good hearted vet. If they only knew!!!

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    1. I am a fun and friendly guy underneath my tough exterior also. Welcome home.

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  14. No posts for a while, Scott. I hope you are doing okay.
    I stop in regularly and read again and again.... trying to gain a better understanding of my guy (and remind myself it isn't about me!). I appreciate your candidness - it has been a big help to me.
    Thank you - wishing you peace.

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    1. I'm still here, kinda stuck in emotional limbo but getting ready to work on projects and write again.

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Please share your comments, stories and information. Thank you. ~ Scott Lee