March 3, 2013

Fighting the Battle For Your Indentity One Tattoo at a Time

The work of Jonathan Shay, on the Odyssey and the Iliad, illustrates the long history of the phenomenon of PTSD. Shay cataloged Odysseus's effort to return to an immemorial sense of home. Though I value the majority of Shay's claims, and I applaud his life long commitment to helping veterans I am however, troubled by a few of the approaches he has taken into his study of PTSD. He seems to wipe away all of the chauvinism in the Odyssey and in veterans as if it were caused by PTSD. This has real problems because, as this blog shows, women in combat are actually more likely to have PTSD because the increased risk of sexual trauma. Moreover, he portrays PTSD as a completely determinate condition that a veteran cannot be self aware of or win his internal battles. Certainly these symptoms are hard to shake and are permanent, but as veterans we do have power to fight for our identity and preserve themselves.

I think a key obstacle in retaining the best parts of our identity is breaking away from the aspects of the immemorial homeland. Certainly at war we use the concept of home as place for our minds to escape the harsh realities that we lived in. I often wish that instead of the figure of Odysseus we looked at the life of Aeneus. He was a Trojan figure who lost his homeland and was forced to rediscover and redefine one after the Trojan war. I wish that instead of trying to regain a sense of the immemorial home, we would struggle to redefine our home after war has changed our lives, and preserve the best parts of our identity and our values.

One way that I have fought for my identity, both consciously and intuitively, has been with tattoos. After the suicide bombing I slowly recognized that I could not feel anything but anger. I noticed that I could not develop a close relationship with anyone (accept other people in my unit) and I was becoming an individual obsessed with instincts and self preservation. I tried to go to church, but all of the silent prayer made me have flashbacks (my first serious flashbacks came at services) and all I could do was sit there and be angry. I could sense that I was loosing who I was and my value system. I had experienced other veterans who began to think of all Arabs or Muslims as terrible. I feared that I might lose my moral compass because of how angry I consistently found myself.

Team RWB
I had seen and experienced what it was like to watch a man's life end and I was afraid that I could never forgive myself if I ever took an innocent life. As a person raised in a religious evangelical family, I was a faithful person. I could no longer endure church services, but I wanted to express my values in a way that would constantly remind myself who I was. I started by expressing the hopes that I would never taken an innocent life by tattooing a double edge sword and the words god's breath on my firing arm. I could effect what I could effect, but I desired divine intervention every instance that I used my weapon. I had a great desire to never be the agent of the horrible things I saw after the suicide bombing.

There was something really freeing about that experience and it made it easier to grasp who I was. PTSD as a culturally negotiated and defined soul challenges our ideas about our self, but as a simple neurological phenomenon it damages the place in our brain that manages conscious memory, and identity. Both have extreme impacts on our lives so tattoos can become powerful reminders of who we are when the world that we know falls apart. I recognized the utility of wearing my values on my sleeve so when I was having trouble conceiving of them so I permanently placed on my body.

I recognized that with grace and perseverance that any storm could be weathered. There was a simple solution. I tattooed the words on my forearms and recognized that my greatest resource was myself. The left forearm would be perseverance because "the first rule in a knife fight was that you are gonna get cut, get cut in the left forearm" and reinforced my desire for divine help with grace on my firing arm. I deployed again and it was the worst year of my life. I had serious PTSD and mTBI, but I was officer and lives depended on my performance.

I was broken and worn down, but I had my values on my sleeves. My attitude was terrible but my performance never waned. I could perform my job, but everything was painful. I left the Army bitter and alone. I began blaming myself and thinking that is my fault that I had succumb to an invisible wound. I began to believe that I was letting soldiers down in Afghanistan. I should be better by now, right? No one would ever concede that I even had any problems because I was articulate and I was in shape. No visible wounds.

I began to really despise myself and believe that it was my fault. I was weak, a coward, or immoral. Three tours in Iraq as infantry platoon leader and Iraqi Army Operations officer was not enough service. I was letting my country and soldiers down. I was training Cadets and no matter how well I did by winning the top instructor award, I was not doing enough. I was not on the line fighting, keeping soldiers alive, bringing drinkable water to villagers, and safeguarding civilians. I could do more, I thought it was my fault that I was no longer fighting. Their was something wrong with me.

But this was bullshit. Sure the feelings were strong and survivor guilt is unshakable, but my logic was absurd. I had done everything I could, fought as hard as I could, and longer than most in my situation. An army officer who fought on the line for 20 months before company command is more than rare. An ROTC instructor who despite serious medical issues won the top instructor position has done enough. A historian working to challenge the notion that PTSD has existed and been a problem for every generation of American veterans is still producing fruitful work and still serving soldiers. Nothing was good enough so I  had to step outside of my emotions and look at what I contributed on paper. In writing.

Just like when my world first collapsed I had to give myself a visualization, on my body, that this was not my fault and in a lot of ways I am better. I was beginning to become open unashamed and even in ways proud of my struggles after my service in Iraq. I read Hemingway's "The world breaks everyone, and afterwards, many are strong at the broken places." Though I did not yet feel strong, I again decided to fight for that idea. To place it on my body as commitment to myself and my identity. I also wanted to to use Hemingway because, in the end, he lost his battle with mental illness and took his life. I wanted to be reminded that even in a victorious idea that we, who have had our identity challenged by the crucible of war, have to fight everyday to preserve ourselves in spirit and in body. That this is both a neuro-chemical battle and fight for our own souls.

There is nothing wrong with anyone of us who struggle to come home. Tolkien's famous "not all who wonder are lost," is such a fitting metaphor for the long road home. I think it is a never ending battle to preserve our identities and I would challenge others by stating that the fight is worth it. If you have this conflict your are not alone, this is not a new problem, you are not weaker and the world needs people who have been broken by trauma. Tattoos are culturally ubiquitous in our generation but they can be a kind of cognitive therapy. An idea that you choose to embrace, even when you don't initially feel it, that changes patterns of behavior and eventually emotions. We can only spend so much time with our therapists, but our greatest resource is ourselves. So fight for yourself as hard as you fought for your country.

I would urge others to share their tattoos stories in the comments.


  1. Apparently others have used tattoos as well

  2. That was a beautiful expression of your journey. Thanks for sharing. My husband has a similar story with all the guilt and fear. We struggle every day to remember who he is and try not to loose his soul in the midst of PTSD. I may just gift him with new ink for the purpose of a reminder... May you be Blessed on your Path

  3. Thanks, just make sure the ink is about moving forward. It ha been important for me to highlight values that I was struggling with. The ink itself was like a contract with myself.


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