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The Two Afflictions That Enhance the Challenge for Returning Vets

U.S. Army First Cavalry Division soldiers prepare for their final combat patrol in Iraq, December 2011. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

David Brooks has an important piece in today’s New York Times about the moral and spiritual challenge of dealing with trauma, with particular focus on the challenges faced by returning veterans. The entire piece is worth a read, but this exceprt in particular raised what I think are issues that aren’t discussed nearly enough outside of veteran communities. Brooks addressed the power of the “hero’s journey” in the lives of vets:

People who are recovering from trauma often embrace the language of myth, which offers us templates of moral progress. Recently, in New Orleans, I met the founder of a community of vets called Bastion. The men and women there are taught to see their lives as a hero’s journey with three stages: from Separation through Initiation and then back to Return.

When we see our lives in mythic terms, we can see that life still offers a chance to do something heroic. “Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life,” Joseph Campbell wrote.

Putting aside the trauma element, two words stood out to me in David’s description of Bastion — “community” and “journey.” These words address the loneliness and purposelessness that afflict all too many men and women after they leave the military.

It’s talked about so much that it’s a cliché, but it is unquestionably true that deployed soldiers — especially soldiers who endure combat together — develop a “band of brothers” bond that’s often-described but never truly understood until it’s experienced. When a soldier redeploys, they frequently also leave the men they served with, sometimes to never (or rarely) see them again. This can create an aching sense of loss, one that’s magnified by the fact that they then integrate into a civilian world that often can’t grasp or comprehend their experience. It’s easy for a veteran to be surrounded by people who love him but still feel deeply alone.

At the same time, vets can feel a sense of profound purposelessness that corrodes the soul. I think immediately of two comments from friends I served with. One friend, a man who deployed twice to Iraq and fought under H. R. McMaster in the battle for Tal Afar, said to me, “I’m not even 30 years old, and I think I’ve already done the most significant thing I’ll ever do in my life.” Another friend told me, “Every day in Iraq I had purpose. Now, I have no idea what I’m doing.” For many combat arms veterans, this sense of purposelessness is compounded by the difficulty in finding a civilian analog for their unique skills set. “From combat to cubicle” is not a compelling journey for many men.

The most effective veteran’s groups help provide community and purpose. They help define the “next mission” and they help maintain the “band of brothers.”

And, by the way, the need for that brotherhood may sometimes fade, but it never goes away. My father-in-law, for example, has been reaching out to the Marines he served with sixty years ago. It’s brought him great joy to connect with those men again, and always he says the same thing — “We picked up right where we left off.” His statement reflects the power of that bond. Is it any wonder that men suffer when it’s broken or lost?


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