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.