We choose to serve. And when we choose to serve, sometimes chance chooses us. Every deployed service member leaves behind someone who cares, someone who, when giving one last hug before their warrior ships out, feels their pride clash with the fear that this last hug might be the last hug. After that, every call from an unknown number, every unexpected knock on the door, reignites the constant worry in the daily lives of those on the home front, making them shudder at the prospect of what might be.” – Gus Biggio served as a Marine in Afghanistan in 2009, quoted by the Washington Post
Last week I[i] wrote to an Army general that the life I’ve known since first being introduced to the ill-mannered end of a bayonet in Africa at age 5 has prepared me better than most civilians to tell our wounded warriors’ stories. I asked him to support my work.
“‘hope he agrees that I’m up to the task and will do what he can to see that happen,” I thought. After all, my record of research products that other writers still cite in their own published works began in the early ‘90s with an article about Libyan-assisted Jihadi terrorism in this hemisphere. And it’s not a secret that Tennessee Bar officials turned to me for an article after six of my fellow attorneys killed themselves in short order. Besides, I’m a son and grandson of veterans.
But he may say “so what? You’re still a civilian. You don’t get what military service is like.You don’t know anything about why 20 American vets kill themselves each day.”[ii]
The general would be right. I wrote a Memorial Day piece about the men from the U.S. Army’s 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division who were owned by Uncle Sam lock, stock, and barrel when, in late 1950, they were ordered into a Communist Chinese hornets’ nest they had heard didn’t exist.[iii] But I didn’t know – I couldn’t know – how even one soldier felt when he learned that what he’d been told about being home by Thanksgiving wasn’t true. I don’t have a single reference point to help me understand how grandad felt as his soul bled out on the battlefields at Unsan, DPRK.
As much as this writer agrees that he should feel what those warriors felt and know intimately what too many still experience, I don’t have a way to make that happen.
But I want to propose something to that general. And I hope he’ll agree with me.
It’s this: the thing about meeting the unfriendly end of a bayonet when you’re a five-year-old kid living below the Sahara is that early on you get to see things different from most folks back home. It’s even better if – like I was – you’re a kid living in a place where the bodies of family members who vanish are sometimes returned in horrible shape but with a certificate of natural death. Of course, as a lot of veterans’ kids know far better than I, it sucks when each moment is drenched in fear that those who love you and protect you will end up dead, leaving you to ask, “what’s gonna happen to me?”
There’s also the business of “slumming it.” You get issued a new set of lenses when, almost without notice, you have to give up your idyllic life in a dusty Nigerian city on the outskirts of the Sahel, a modernizing metropolis that’s graced by a soothing, five-acre greenway that hides a dumping ground for losers of a recent ethnic spat.[iv]
In my case, I learned early on that my country and those tasked to do its work operate under threat 24/7. The only question about my duty to God and country has always been nothing more than how I would carry it out. And even though it didn’t work out for me to serve in my nation’s armed forces, as an attorney I still have a sworn duty as to the United States Constitution.
One thing about being a lawyer who works to send people to prison and then a lawyer who works hard to keep your clients out of prison is that you ask a lot of questions and you listen carefully to what people say and to what they don’t say. There’s not a critical fact that a prosecutor presents that doesn’t have to be proved or “stipulated” to by a criminal defendant. There’s not a consequential fact alleged against a defense attorney’s client that shouldn’t be met with “prove it.”
Fortunately for some of the men and women I’ve defended over the years, a lot of those questions and answers came during my time as an assistant D.A. in a rural judicial district in Oklahoma.
Members of our team took one-week turns being available to law enforcement any time of day or night that they thought it best that a lawyer come see a dead person who’d been found. My experience was that the ME often arrived just minutes before I did.
I’m pretty sure that we all saw some pretty nasty stuff during our weeks on death duty. I can’t, and don’t think that I should, forget one bright afternoon not far from the Kansas line. I had been called to a forlorn house two blocks from the D.A.’s office. Marty got there about the same time that I did, and we followed a sheriff’s deputy down a short hall to a room that had been spray-painted in blood earlier in the day. Marty had this ritual he had to go through before I asked any questions. So, the ME lit his cigar, pulled on his rubber gloves, and donned a hazmat suit stitched from gallows humor.
I had a hard time figuring out what exactly I was looking at in the place where a mother’s head should have been. Deputies told us that the woman’s son had been to visit her a few hours before she stripped naked and fired a shotgun into her mouth. What I experienced in that room sticks with me and is probably why it was important to me years later that if, as I had planned, I fired a round into my skull with the revolver I was clutching in my hand, it was only right that I leave as small a mess as possible for those who cared about me to clean up.
My particular mix of work at the D.A.’s office meant that more often than not, I was the lawyer who represented the State in mental health commitment proceedings. These might happen in a courtroom with the judge robed and managing the hearing from the bench. That’s the way it was the day that an obviously brilliant, articulate gentleman eloquently explained that he was Jesus Christ and that he had some killin’ to do.
But the courtroom wasn’t the only place these emergency proceedings were held. Frequently the commitment hearing met legal standards but was a rather ugly, duct-taped proceeding held in the middle of the night in the local ER. Or, as happened one day, the judge held court at the jailhouse in a bare, all-concrete holding cell. Those of us who had roles in that hearing happened to be men. So, we averted our eyes and hurried through the hoops that the law required us to pass through; the person whose life was in our hands was a young woman in a nearly catatonic state. She sat buck naked in front of us, a deputy explained, because she had been so persistent in trying to kill herself that jail staff decided the only way to keep her from getting it done was to take away any clothing item she might weaponize.
There seemed to be rhythm to the series of commitment hearings held each month. But god help the families, first responders, and my secretary each time the full moon paid a visit.
Years ago, a psychiatrist I called to the stand told jurors that some of the smartest, most creative, and most accomplished members of society have, in my words, fought the devil to stay alive. The people he listed had household names.
The questions that I asked gave the doctor a chance to testify about a few things the jurors might not have heard of in our “if it bleeds it leads” news culture. Jurors found his testimony helpful, and the trial ended the way that I thought it should.
I accepted everything that expert witness had said with professional detachment. As with most witnesses, I doubt that I felt an emotional response to anything the doctor had told jurors. But I knew this was good stuff to keep at the ready.
A few years after that trial, a lot more of what the psychiatrist told jurors became personal for me. And I was forced to learn at least a few intimate truths about the wicked high wire that life demands so many of our veterans walk.
I’ve never been quite able to figure out why that happened. But at the time I was trench deep in reviewing seemingly never-ending evidence that federal prosecutors had turned over in a multi-state child-sex-trafficking case. I was having a hard time shaking an image my mind had created while reading through FBI FD-302s and other investigation documents: a ten-year-old girl who’d been kidnapped and taken from her home state so that she could be sold out for sex. What was left of the child’s broken body had been found in a dumpster behind a grocery store. The poor kid had refused a bottom bitch’s order to let an over-the-road trucker rape her.
My little girl had been that age not too many years earlier.
As far as I know, I was never involuntarily committed for treatment. And only once was an ambulance sent to collect me. It seems that once I finally decided to call the number on the “please don’t jump” sign in front of my jeep, I spent too long discussing the merits of crashing onto State Route 96 from a popular diving bridge in Williamson County, Tennessee. Number 7 on Forbes 2017 list of 10
One Size Fits All
Recently departed British historian Ben Shephard reports unsettling truths about how we now decide who suffers from shell shock aka combat trauma aka post-traumatic stress. He writes:
“The rapid growth of ‘traumatology’ within medicine was helped by the authority which Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder quickly acquired by being included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-III) in 1980. Not only was there now a ‘Chinese menu’ of its symptoms, easy for both doctor and patient to read, there were also standardised packages of diagnostic questionnaires and psychometric devices. No longer need the doctor struggle to understand his patient’s life history and personality, assess his ability to cope, make a ‘subjective’ judgement on his state. Now, the checklist of symptoms told him at a glance whether the patient’s condition was PTSD or not; it was all ‘objective’, taken out of the clinician’s hands.”[v]
I don’t claim to have PTS(D). And the experts I met with back then seemed to split on that question.
In fact, I’ve had a pretty trauma-free life. At least when compared to those we send into combat and their spouses and children who may never get back the same person who left. So, I don’t even want to go down that road.
But Mr. Shephard’s point that we’ve objectified away even the process by which a clinician asks the right questions, listens deliberately, and tailor-makes a treatment plan helps explain, at least to me, one of the reasons that veterans who suffer from PTS(D) don’t get the help they need.
People who should know better can be quick to attach labels that lack nuance. And knowing that we do it to our vets makes it easier for me to divine the frustration flowing through the words of a former Navy SEAL who broke silence in order to let others in the NSW community know about new evidence from post-mortem studies of explosive-blast traumatic brain injury. If I read the 40th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate correctly, evidence of blast-wave damage to the brain structure confirmed his concern that those who treated his son for PTS-related symptoms took the easy way out when it came to diagnosing and treating U.S. Navy SEAL Ryan Francis Larkin.
“Throughout Ryan’s painful journey, the ‘system’ defaulted toward treating him as a behavioral problem or a mental health patient. The ‘system’ hung all types of labels on him to justify their assessments and actions.”[vi]
As his father put it, “[o]ne Sunday morning this past [April 23, 2017], Ryan ended his pain, but ours only continued.”
“Time for Group!”
There are a few things only experienced by those of us lucky enough to have spent a few days, a few weeks, months, or maybe longer in a hospital with doors that lock you in, staff who immediately take your phone and shoelaces, mandatory queue for meds and meals, and maybe an hour or two during the week when the people who love you come by, avert their own eyes, and fumble for something to say.
One of those is that even if, as I did back then, one goes voluntarily into one of these places, once the doors lock behind you, you can’t just walk out of the place at will. I was there because I knew that I needed the help of professionals who know a lot more about the brain and mind than I did. But I also wanted to get the hell out as soon as I could. So, I learned quickly how many “group” therapy sessions I could miss and how much I had to participate in those groups if I wanted to be reported in staff notes as being committed to my “recovery.” The more committed you are, the earlier they let you out. At least that was my experience.
I learned how much I had to comply with staff directives. And I kept my mouth shut around the staff person we all called “Nurse Ratched.” This approach worked well, and I never had to stay in one of those places very long.
Speaking just for me, though, two facts of life about those facilities and the reasons that they exist have a way of beating up on you years after I needed that kind of specialized care. One is that while on the way there, it’s damned easy to burn just enough bridges that no matter how good you are at what you do you find yourself without enough work references to complete the job application on the back side of a McDonald’s tray liner.
The other thing is that even though they tell you not to, you come to care a lot about those who intimately understand what you’ve been through – about those who “get it” – and you stay in touch after y’all leave the place.
But too many times, these people – whom you’re sure will make it – don’t. And our hearts get rubbed raw, as mine did today on reading a Facebook post from not long ago, written by the only son of someone I shared a lot of meals and down-time with at one of those places. Both of us in love with Tennessee but with Arizona ties. Someone who made you think. Made you feel. Someone I came to care a lot about who lost her fight with her demons a few years ago. Her son, a child she always talked about and who’s now older, writes a note to his mom in cyberspace to tell her how much he loves her and how much his life hurts without her and how much he just wants to give up so that he can be with her.
My message for those I hope will help me get our veterans’ stories to those who can do the most good with them is NOT “I almost put a bullet through my skull, so I must know how those guys feel.” It’s not “I was scared dad would get killed so I know the anxiety that American soldier felt when he saw the best fighter in the squad killed in battle, when he uttered “what’s going to happen to me?”[vii] My suggestion to that general is also not “My kid didn’t want to see me after I divorced her mom, so I know what that B-17 co-pilot feels each time he indicts his own post-combat behavior for the fact that his sons haven’t wanted to see him in 25 years.”[viii]
I don’t suggest any of those things. I’m still a civilian who’s never been in combat. I’ve not lost a mom or dad or son or daughter in war. I’m not a shrink or priest who plumbs down into hell with combat-traumatized patients or parishioners.
I still don’t get it. I can’t get it.
The reason that this duct-taped, Bondo-filled life gives me a better shot than most civilians at telling our wounded warriors’ stories is that I’ve become very good at sorting out what questions need to be asked and figuring out where – and who[ix] – I need to go to for the answers, if there are any. I listen deliberately to the words that someone speaks, but I also listen hard to the words a person might never have been able to utter.
Another thing is that during my four years with a local non-profit that still does a lot right by a lot of people – veterans included – I got better at looking forward and observing how one domino in someone’s life falls onto another. And that one falls onto the next one. And so on.
That’s why it’s so troubling when we impose multi-generational costs on families by turning away immune-compromised or otherwise at-risk veterans, especially those with kids. Perhaps a young Marine who’s been sleeping rough since her return from a war zone. A woman who desperately loves her children but who still can’t look her kids in the eye without recalling in living color and odor and sound and sensation what happened to the little Afghani kids she held in her arms just a day before Hell paid a visit. That’s the kind of shit that makes NPR have to remind us just two weeks ago that female veterans kill themselves at a rate 250% that of women who’ve not served.
But then there’s that non-analytical, non-linear, usually concealed part of me that is a cocktail of everything from before and after I met that discourteous bayonet. It’s the part of me that refuses to hold back my tears and which barely conceals my rage when I hear what we did to a warrior whose whole family has devoted themselves to the underpaid, underappreciated, and completely misunderstood work of defending this nation and its interests. A former special operator who trained SOF medics and who explains to documentarians what he learned only after he had to make 15 freedom-of-information requests: that the last phone call he ever had with his son was after the soldier had been accused of faking his combat trauma and before that soldier was taken back to his quarters, handed his weapon and ammunition, and told to go clean his gun.[x]
[i] This essay was first published on Facebook 12 June 2018.
[ii] See, Nicole Fisher. Suicide Rates Show Veterans’ Biggest War Can Happen in Their Minds. Thefederalist.com. 28 May 2018. Accessed 11 June 2018. Ms. Fisher notes that “veterans’ suicides account for 18 – 20 percent of suicide deaths in the country, while they make up only about 8.5 percent of the adult population. . ..[T]his is not a new trend,” she writes. “While the Vietnam Memorial has the names of 58,315 Americans who died overseas, the wall does not document any names of the estimated 50,000 – 150,000 Vietnam vets who died from suicide in the years after returning home.”
A recent segment from North Carolina Public Radio about depression and suicide among female veterans points to the isolation felt by many on return Stateside:
“Human connections are crucial for mental health, and especially when women are just getting out of the service, said Corchado.
“The military really made it seem like all you do is this, this and this, and you need LinkedIn and you’ll be good,” said Corchado, who’s a personal trainer and real estate agent.
“Once out of the service, though, she didn’t feel tied in to any kind of support.
“You get into this free fall and you don’t know how to climb back out of it,” Corchado said.
“But I didn’t realize until years later that every veteran, but especially female veterans go through that free fall.” https://www.npr.org/2018/05/29/614011243/battling-depression-and-suicide-among-female-veterans
[iii] Charles Bloeser. Owned Lock, Stock, and Barrel. Facebook Note May 28 2018.
[iv] I’ve been able recently to revisit and fact check those days while mom finished her four-year project of writing the manuscript for an historical memoir about our years in Africa. It turns out that I’ve repressed a lot. Vaccines & Bayonets: Fighting Smallpox in Africa amid Tribalism, Terror and the Cold War. www.vaccinesandbayonets.com
[v] A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Twentieth Century at 385. Harvard University Press 2001. [author notes in chapter 27, fn. 3 that, “I have stolen the phrase ‘Chinese menu’ from G. E. Vaillant, ‘The disadvantages of DSM-III outweigh its advantages’, AJP 141 (1984), p. 543.]
[vi] Open letter to NSW community from former Navy SEAL and 40th U.S. Senate SAA Mr. Frank Larkin, featured in an SOFX Special Presentation: “Blast, Traumatic Brain Injuries, and Suicide within Special Operations.” Sept. 29, 2017.
“Like many special operators suffering from PTS and TBI,” wrote his father, “it was a struggle for Ryan to move through daily tasks; sleep was elusive and nightmares were abundant. He was always on guard for something to happen, often dealing with unannounced attacks of anxiety and depression. Ryan often expressed he was haunted by things he experienced in combat; where at times he questioned his own survival. He sought help while in the Navy and upon discharge with the VA. The help more often involved being prescribed a new psychotropic drug that only made him feel worse not better. Focus was on treating and suppressing symptoms, not identifying the root causes of his issues.”
[vii] Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington (deceased). RESTREPO: One Platoon, One Valley, One Year. National Geographic and Outpost Films 2010.
[viii] John Alpert, Ellen Goosenberg Kent, Matthew O’Neill with James Gandolfini. WARTORN: 1861 – 2010. HBO 2011.
[ix] For example, in a 2014 article looking at the use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) among Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF) veterans and OEF/OIF-era veterans, Professor Katharine Bloeser and her colleagues note that “[v]eterans deployed to a combat zone report poorer health than veterans not deployed. Conditions associated with CAM use including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and chronic pain are also associated with deployment to OEF/OIF.”
Matthew J. Reinhard, Thomas H. Nassif, Katharine Bloeser, Erin K. Dursa, Shannon K. Barth, Bonnie Benetato, and Aaron Schneiderman. CAM Utilization Among OEF/OIF Veterans: Findings From the National Health Study for a New Generation of US Veterans. Medical Care Volume 52, Number 12 Suppl 5, December 2014.
The VA encourages those who need help to reach out:
“Veterans, Service members, and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, send a text message to 838255, or chat online to receive free, confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, even if they are not registered with VA or enrolled in VA health care.” https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention/
**** The title of this essay derives from a comment attributed to T.S. Eliot: “The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.”
**** Feature image: Battle of West Point