February 19, 2013

The Terrible Moments That Define Us

Warning: This contains profanity and descriptions of war wounds.

One of my greatest sorrows is how some of the most memorable and significant events of my life were driven by bind hatred. I want to talk about an event that has challenged the very fabric of my humanity and has changed me.  An event that probably lasted less than ten seconds has irrevocably altered my life. During my second deployment as Anti Tank Platoon leader I was serving as the escort for my Battalion's Operations Officer Major (now Lieutenant Colonel) Massaracahia. While placing our vehicles in positions to move out we heard an explosion. After the fact we learned that a mentally ill women,  reported to be carrying a baby and, most likely remote detonated, blew up on a crowd of civilians waiting in line to receive compensation for damages to their homes (sustained during a massive clearing operation of the city). This was the most horrific event that I have ever experienced. There is still blood stains on my boots; blood that literally and figuratively will never wash away.

Because we were already in position to move my platoon was among the first elements to arrive and because my platoon had less than 4 soldiers who could dismount their vehicles, I went out to help who I could. I ran out with a combat life saving kit and came across the most significantly wounded human being I could ever imagine. At first he simply looked as if his injures were a severed leg, but when I tried to lift him his torsos gave in ways that they should not have. Gravity rather than the sinews of his body held him together (this moment was something I could not even remember in therapy and was blocked out until I wrote this account). His torso was rocked with multiple injuries that I could not even see through all of the blood and charred clothing.

He was bleeding from his head, but his worst injuries were on his left leg. Even with the damage to his abdomen I hoped  maybe he could be saved so I struggled to find a place to put a tourniquet. But, his left hip more resembled ground beef than human flesh and it was hard to tell where the wound began. It was difficult to determine what parts his body was intact and what had liquefied. His leg was still technically connected, but by what I could not determine because it all resembled a bloody and dirty gelatin warmed by the sun into a substance that was slightly between liquid and solid. No place for a tourniquet and the wound was far to large for an occlusive dressing. This poor man whose only crime was trying to replace the damage cause by a major U.S. operation was going to die and there was nothing I could do. Worse, in that moment despite the carnage I noticed that their were multiple supporting elements coming to help and that the security was getting really disorganized.

I was a platoon leader and though every fiber of my body just wanted to comfort this man who was going to die. I could not save him and now this poor bastard would die alone on street corner in Tal A Far Iraq. I will never forget the look on his face when I left him there to die. He did not know I was leaving to keep others alive and that real threats were trying to exploit our lapsed security (threats I would help eliminate). That poor man just thought I had given up on him. It was like watching a man's soul die along with his body. I am sure there have been worse moments, but I cannot fathom a greater amount of grief that has ever existed than watching his face as I left to take charge of the perimeter. I know that I did the right thing, but he did not understand. He died on that street alone and abandoned as an expectant casualty.

I wanted to curse the world that made me look a man in his eyes, realize that he was beyond help, and move on to things that I could effect. I wanted to say fuck the universe that made me have to be so callous and so methodical. For a moment I hated a world that possessed hate to such a degree that a man might see another man suffering, recognize the tragedy, and be forced to move on because he was an expectant casualty. If I or someone I loved was exposed to a similar circumstance all I would wish was that someone could comfort them. But, I had a platoon to manage and the area was less than secure. I thought to myself "I can feel this later but I have a job to do right now." I would not be able to feel anything but anger for years.

I will never dispossess that moment, with the sorrow and empathy that I gained from that man's terrible injuries. Moreover, how I left him their to die alone. I will possess that man's humanity to my last breath. Yet, I have no idea who he actually was, what he did for a living or even his name. Watching a man in such pain, with no help for survival, die made me feel like I let him down. It broke down cultural barriers. No worldview is worth what happened to that poor man, and you would have to be taught to hate others your whole life in order to justify the brutal killing of civilians. I just cannot fathom what it took to commit such a terrible atrocity.

I hope to never believe so passionate about a cause that any actions are justified. Because when "the ends justify the means" where does it stop before another innocent man is lying on the ground bleeding out with no possibility of aid. I came from that broken, but better. In the years that followed I would be asked to train Iraqi units. My empathy for the Iraqi people became the source of strength for the most difficult time period of my life. But that is another story altogether. It is not necessarily the moments by themselves that define us, but how and what we learn for them. In the same set of circumstances, other men, even better people might have learned another lesson. In the end all I know is that I did all I could do and that is enough. I was not then nor am I right now afraid of what I felt in those moments (though at times in between and certainly in the future I will be). But, I have had to fight to get there and I will have to keep fighting in order stay where I am. All of that is worth it because that poor nameless man's life is not wasted because I struggle everyday to never forget what hatred brings to our world and that beyond all the misery of that moment, which will never go away or be made better, I am so beyond lucky to have survived it. Better to have my moral compass still intact. This has been the hardest battle I have ever fought, and I think I winning.

My take away is simple. Do something tangible that helps others everyday. That is all I could do then and it is all I can do now. But, that is not a burden, rather it is a hard earned privilege that I am lucky and better to have gained. I owe that nameless man who taught me this terrible, but valuable lesson and I owe myself to have the courage to face it and apply it. Lest it be for nothing.

February 11, 2013

The Writings of J. R. R. Tolkien: A Tale of Post Traumatic Growth

The World War I generation is often only characterized by writing influenced by transubstantiation. Many of the writers who fought in the Great War never quite recovered from his experiences. Their collapsed worldview often overshadowed those who used their experiences in war as source of understanding humanity. J. R. R. Tolkien’s service in the trenches invalided him for years after the war. Despite losing two of his best friends and his immediate difficulties after the Battle of the Somme Tolkien utilized his experiences to create a truly powerful story. Rather than focusing solely on loss Tolkien found away to use his service in the trenches as a source of personal growth(This is an adaption of a khronikos post).

J. R. R. Tolkien was an outspoken critic of a young intellectual discipline of psychology.[1] His stories were often criticized because of their setting in the fantasy world of middle earth ignored the world that Tolkien lived in, but this view ignores the parallels between his characters and his own life. It also ignore the fact that the heroes of his tales, Hobbits of small stature that lacked physical courage, challenged the notions of ”Social Darwinism.”  This ideology dominated British jingoism and the early profession of psychology.[2] His two heroes Bilbo and Frodo Baggins challenged archetypes of masculinity while criticizing nationalists that attempted to subsume or overtake other culture. The Hobbits fought for other homelands because of their attachment to the shire.

Bilbo Baggins’s decision to support the quest of dwarves struggling to recapture their homeland would parallel Tolkien’s decision to serve in World War I. Moreover, Baggins’s selection was a purposeful rejection the ideals of soldiery. In his undergraduate education J. R. R. Tolkien joined a group of friends called the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS).[3] Like Bilbo Tolkien was a reluctant to serve and was the last of his peers to join up. He instead finished his degree at the top of his class at Cambridge and, though he could have easily taken a less dangerous assignment, he followed his friends into the Lancaster Fusiliers. Unlike his friends who served in the intelligence or in the infantry Tolkien became a signals officer, and would play a supportive role. When Baggins was selected as a thief Tolkien stated that a warrior would have been more appropriate, but the wizard Gandalf observed that the “warriors are busy fighting one another in distant lands.”[4] Tolkien was no advocate of war but his love of his country urged him to serve and his friendships urged him to serve in a front-line battalion.

Like the Hobbits of his tale Tolkien would be constantly exposed to danger. Tolkien survived the Somme—which was largest battle in history. Though not serving as an infantryman he was repeatedly exposed to artillery inside of underground command posts. His insights are evident in the Lord of the Rings by his use of onomatopoeia for drumbeats of “doom, doom” inside of dank tunnels while being chased by orgs.[5] Even the poisoning of Frodo by the Black rider held correlated with the death of his friend Geoffrey Smith after a minor shrapnel wound proved fatal due to “gas gangrene.”[6]

For Tolkien challenged the “Social Darwinist” theories championed by Kenneth Spencer as well as the eugenic theories of psychologists Francis Galton, H. H. Goddard by his use of non-archetype heroes.[7] Hobbits broke the mold of stereotypically larger heroic figures, but their value system gave them a unique strength against the dark power of Sauron that stronger men could not resist. He also challenged Galton’s concept of nature over nurture by making Frodo the adopted son of Bilbo Baggins rather than the genetic offspring. Again Tolkien’s value of place as significant source of person’s culture and identity without justifying ones place as superior to any other. His mythical world was a nuanced of expression of cultural values in reaction to scientific and psychological theories of his day.

 Tolkien was also illustrating how individuals were corrupted by conflict and a quest for power. Bilbo and Frodo desired adventure and wished to help their friends yet the only ones to fall in their circle of companions would succumb to their desires for power. Boromir would try to prevent the destruction of the one ring and Thorin would succumb in battle only after alienating allies in securing wealth for themselves.[8] In both cases Hobbits strengthened by their values, which were a product of love of their home (environment), alone secured the a the quest’s outcome. Bilbo would broker an alliance in The Hobbit and in the Lord of the Rings Frodo, Sam and Gollum would alone reach mount doom to destroy the power of Sauron.

Tolkien’s precise critique of “Social Darwinism” and genetically deterministic psychological theories are only present within in a proper understanding of the historical development of psychological theories. For Tolkien WWI, like his stories was an internal battle of the individual’s character. One could not sit on the sidelines while their colleagues were fighting terrible war and their homeland needed them, but one should also not assume that ones homeland was superior to others. Tolkien said, “I don’t defend ‘Deutschland ├╝ber alles’ (Germany over all) but certainly… ‘Alt for Norge’ (all for Norway).”[9] For Tolkien love of nation created empathy for other cultural understandings of place. His values did not praise violence, but equally would not abandon his friends and countrymen in their greatest struggle. His mythological world became an escape and means of expressing his own difficult experiences and values in relation with the Great War. Even in victory Tolkien and Bilbo believe it seemed “a very gloomy business.”[10] Most importantly, for Tolkien “The anxieties of war… stoked his creative fires,” and the culturally iconic figures in his stories also served as a social commentary about World War I.[11]

Tolkien did a few things that enabled him to grow as person following World War I. He kept friends who pushed him to succeed and who also understood what it was like to survive a war. The remaining members of the TCBS pushed each other towards continued success and used their loss as catalyst to speak for these who no longer could. In this way they leveraged survivor guilt to push they’re lives forward. Tolkien’s work was both a commitment to his own growth but also an act of morning. At my lowest I think about the gift of life that I have and the men I served with whom no longer have that gift. Tolkien also found a way to escape and express his own difficult experiences through the mode of writing. Fiction is often clearer than the truth and the sentiment of his books have deep insights about the nature of war. I would urge veterans to pick up his novels both to recognize his insights about war, and to recognize a figure that endured the worst campaign imaginable, and found a way to grow because and not in spite of it. Growth is hard, but Tolkien found a way. So by studying his life and writings you might find inspiration for your own problems.

Image credits
LT. Tolkien
Bilbo and Frodo Baggins

[1]John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-Earth (Mariner Books, 2005), 14. iBook.

[2]Ibid., 66

[3]Ibid., 23

[4]J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (Mariner Books, 2012) 27. iBook.

[5]J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005) 441-448. iBook.

[6]Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, 271.

[7] See H. H. Goddard. See Francis Galton. See James C. Goodwin, A History of Modern Psychology (4 ed. Wiley, 2011), 215.

[8]Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, 536. Tolkien, The Hobbit, 257.

[9]Garth, Tolkien and the Great War 77.

[10]Tolkien, The Hobbit, 267.

[11]Garth, Tolkien and the Great War 245.

February 4, 2013

Military Sexual Trauma in Aberdeen, Last Part

Warning:  This article contains graphic accounts of Military Sexual Trauma. 

The person sitting next to me in school at Advanced Individual Training was a Sergeant there to train for a new Military Occupational Specialty. When I extended my arm to cut the inside, he noticed the cuts on my hand and wrists. He turned my arm and saw the other cuts. I smiled and said, "Doesn’t hurt." At break, he reported me for cutting myself. I was called to the office of the training school. I had a choice, either tell them why I was cutting myself in class or get charged with destruction of government property. I told about the rape and named the rapist. I didn’t want to get in trouble and wanted him to pay for what he did to me. I don’t remember what happened the rest of that day. I do know that Molina was arrested in class and carted off in handcuffs in front of everyone. And then my life went to hell, fast.

I had to tell the story to military police. When it was determined that the incident happened off post, I had to talk to civilian detectives. My chain of command decided to move me to another platoon so the rapist would not be removed from his support system and because they said it was easier to move a female. I was referred to alcohol assessment because drinking was involved. My rapist’s name was on the attendance list, but he didn’t show. I was sent to a military psychologist who wrote on the report that I had anger issues and should be in a rape victim support group and receive treatment for the trauma. I hand carried that report back to my company and never saw it again. The only support group I was sent to was a general support group and everyone there attacked me saying that I was lying. They defended him because he threatened to kill himself. I wished he had. They felt sorry for him, and I was the evil one bucking the system we lived under.

My female drill sergeant called me into her office with several other people to include some who where at the party and some who were not. She wanted to hear what happened and why the incident wasn’t reported. She told me, looking straight into my face, that because I had been drinking, I put myself in that position and asked for what I got. I deserved it. I was to stay away from Molina because he threatened to kill himself. I never went near the prick and someone should give him a loaded gun and be done with it. I’m the one with no support system. I’m the one being humiliated…again…in front of others.

My Drill Instructor proceeded to tell me that I didn’t act like a rape victim. She had a friend who was beaten and raped and her friend hid from the world, especially men. I was numb. I didn't know how to act or react much less what I was "supposed" to act like. I was trying to show her I was tough enough to "adapt and overcome" as the Army drilled into us. That didn’t change that I was raped. She had no sympathy for me and wanted me to stay away from everyone.

My class of 13 was moved to another company further separating me from the rapist. I thought I had a chance to start over. My new first sergeant immediately made it known that he had heard from my previous command about what happened and none of that shit was going to happen in his company. From the lecture he gave me, he was told and had decided that I was full of shit and a trouble-maker and liar. He immediately jumped on everything I did and I avoided him as much as I could. I avoided many things. I went on sick call so much that I almost got held back to the next cycle that was three weeks behind mine. I tried to be invisible. I tried not to do or say anything that made me stand out from anyone else. I just wanted to blend into the background and be lost.

At the same time that I wanted to go unnoticed, I also wanted companionship. In the new company, I had a roommate I got along with. She already had friends and tried to include me but it wasn’t all that I was looking for. I did want friends and appreciated her being there and not judging me. I was sure no man would look at me or want me considering what happened. My only course of action, in my mind, was to take the dredges I could get and pretend to like it and want it just to not be alone for a few moments. I wanted someone to put their arms around me and tell me that everything I feared would not happen and the fears themselves would go away. I wanted someone to put their arms around me and tell me I was safe. I wanted too much, so much more than I felt I should expect or deserve. I wanted the fairy tale I thought in the before was still possible and in the after I didn’t stand a chance of getting.

This state of mind is how I ended up with my first husband, Steven. I think he was as desperate as I was to be loved. He said he didn’t care what happened. Looking back, I think he just didn’t want to be alone.

My parents didn’t want me to join and this was their big "I told you so" moment. If I had only listened and not joined that damned Army, everything would have been fine. My mother never said those exact words, but I still can easily hear them in her voice in my head.

Eventually I was able to leave Aberdeen and return home. It took a Senator’s intervention to make it happen, but I was home. Steven was so insecure about who I was talking to at the same time talking about a woman he had met, I made the assumption he was cheating and projecting his guilt onto me. I worked in a factory surrounded by men so Steven made me quit my job. If I was not home for his calls, he gave me the third degree as to who I was with and if I talked to any men and who and how long and what did we talk about.

I didn’t believe a decent man would fall in love with me and want to be with me. I believed if anyone was with me, they had nothing better going on and were settling. When my marriage to Steven fell apart, I had an affair with a nice, married, sergeant from my Army Reserve unit. It started out with just talking, some flirting, and then I fell back into not saying no even though I very much wanted to. I talked to him because he was married and I thought he was safe and wouldn’t try anything. He was a serial cheater. I was the fourth and not the last. I didn’t want in that relationship but there was one more thing I wanted, and he was willing to give it and walk away. I wanted a child. By that point in my life, I knew as fact that I would never find a man who wanted me.

I got pregnant, he walked. I told Steven, we got divorced. I went on to marry ex-husband number two. We were friends for three years. I liked him. He liked me. He was lonely and had been single for three years. I was damaged goods with a baby on the way. I thought it would be a good idea to build a relationship with a friend, he agreed. Joe took my daughter as his. We had another daughter. We had a boy. Then we had another boy. One day, Joe threw our two-year-old son across the room for bumping into him with a butter knife. And that was it. The marriage was over. I got out and started a new life. I got married again.

The way my therapist explained it to me, I had buried Aberdeen under a mountain of problems. Some of the problems were mine. More often I took on someone else’s problems to keep myself busy and my mind occupied. When I remarried, I married someone I loved, not just friends. I didn’t have to worry about burying my problems to deal with his. He was financially stable, lessening another worry. My kids were getting older and needed me far less. I had overwhelmed myself with work and volunteering but cut back because of the stress on myself and our family. With more time to myself and less of other people’s garbage on my mind, I had uncovered the trauma I had never dealt with. I was now in a safe environment where I could deal with these issues and my mind decided I had to whether I wanted to or not.

There had been signs something was amiss for a few years. I had a really great job as a Training Specialist for the same military trucks I drove and repaired in the Army. That job also meant I was around military men. Subconsciously, I resumed the defense mechanisms I needed in Aberdeen because of the rape in and my Army Reserve Unit because I was a woman. I was antisocial, critical, cynical, and obnoxious. I was fired after nine months.

I fell into depression and blamed it on losing my job. That was when the infrequent nightmares became nightly. That was when singing along to the radio in the car became dwelling on every minute detail of my experiences in Aberdeen. That was when I started taking closer looks at people, first the men that resembled the rapist and then at everyone paranoid that they new I was anxious and damaged. That was when my world shattered like a mirror into thousands of shards that only showed a small piece of who I was and none of them fit back together.

I did two things to fight this. First I fell back to trying to be invisible. I had to split myself into the public me the private me that hid tears and anxiety and paranoia that people knew about the nightmares and insomnia and knew about my hyper vigilance and new about the rape. And then I tried to bury that second self and make the images in my head go away. It has been fifteen years. I should have forgotten. I should be fine and normal. And I couldn’t feel farther from all of that.

In September of 2008, I attended a weekend conference for women veterans. I sat in on a session about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of Military Sexual Trauma. I spoke to the lecturer who is a woman in the military whose job it is to educate the military on sexual assault in its ranks. She encouraged me to file a VA claim to get help and called a couple of times after the conference to make sure I contacted a therapist. Finally I did overcome my fear that talking about what happened would make it real and I wouldn’t be able to bury it and hide it anymore. I can’t bury this anymore because it is digging its own way out. I can’t hide it anymore because it isn’t my shame to hide. I was raped. It happened. I couldn’t stop it. I have to let myself believe that I am not weak. I did not ask to be raped. I did not deserve to be raped. I am not a whore, I am not worthless. I am not damaged. But right at this moment I don’t really believe it…yet.

February 2, 2013

Daily Dealings with PTSD

This week has been the worst in a while. I am in week 4of CPT. I am working 3 part time jobs to make ends meet as a single mom. I also volunteer some time as an editor and am taking two graduate classes.

If I were an alcoholic or on drugs, people would be right there with a program, sympathy, empathy, some kind of words of encouragement or helping hand. My addiction is filling my schedule and helping everyone else so I don't have the time or energy for flashbacks and nightmares. I numb myself with work and helping others. There is no 12-step program for that addiction. People don't look at me with the sympathy drink or drug addicts get. People respond to me with, "Are you nuts?" As a matter of fact, I am. I am also struggling to support my family.

I know I am in a bad place in my head. I requested Cognitive Processing Therapy would help me deal with the aftermath of being raped twice while in the Army. Now in week 4,  I wonder what I was thinking and why does VA jump all over this therapy as a cure. For the first time in years I have thought that death would be so much easier. Suicide is not an option for me, but death seems so inviting and easier than what is in my head. 

I look to the scars on my arms and wonder if I could explain new ones. while I don't mind being alone, it is a rare treat for me, I feel completely lonely. I see people with their friends and loved ones, particularly the ones who are in each other's arms for love and comfort and I die a little inside. Yes, I can find that comfort easily for a few minutes with some stranger or friend, but it is not the same as the nurturing and lasting love and understanding I long for and crave.

I am frustrated and angry because I was not always like this. Living with PTSD, I had my down days, but most were good days with at least one thing I could find to be grateful for. Since starting CPT, there are no good days. There are days filled with as much as I can pack in them to not feel the emptiness and loneliness and pain.