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Take Care of Yourself


Danny Ingram
President, American Veterans For Equal Rights

How many times have we said that to a young warrior passing through the airport? It's that thing you say when you don't have enough time, you feel a little awkward, but you really care, and you want to give a heartfelt message to someone going off to a dangerous place, knowing the reality that there is a chance, however slim, that they won't come back. Or they won't come back whole.

In March, I went to a lecture at West Georgia University given by Dr. Edward Tick, a PTSD guru, as part of the Psychology Department's Jim Klee Forum. The Psychology Department at West Georgia specializes in Humanistic Psychology. For those of you who don't know a lot about different schools of psychology, Humanistic psychologists are the "touchy-feely", long hair and beards, jeans-wearing folks who believe in meditation, healing circles, and lots of hugs. They are the ones who have weekend retreats in the woods, beat drums, and sing strange chants (badly). It was of course my preference when majoring in Psychology.

Although I disagreed with some of Ed Tick's ideas, he did raise some very interesting points in his lecture. Dr. Tick is the founder of Soldier's Heart (www.soldiersheart.net), an organization that approaches PTSD from the perspective that the entire community is responsible for taking care of its warriors. He has researched Native American and ancient European cultures to show how being a warrior was an integral part of overall society, and how rituals of preparing young people to be warriors, honoring their experiences, and caring for them afterwards, was an ongoing part of community life.

Dr. Tick pointed out that the military spends a heavily structured training period to prepare young people to fight, but does comparatively little to prepare them to stop fighting. Basic Training programs train individuals to perform in new ways that allow them to face the harsh realities of warfare. Basic Training changes people to become something unique and very different from other members of society. We create warriors. We teach them to be different. We "turn them on." We "pump up the volume." We change them into something new. Then we send them off to fight, which they do well. But we do very little to turn them back off again. We take time to create a well-functioning warrior. But we do little to systematically train them to return. A pumped up warrior does not belong in society.

He also spoke of the "circle of protection" and the "social contract" which should be a basic commitment made by society to its warriors. The "circle of protection" refers to the idea that society sends its fighting men and women off to form our protection against our enemies, and when those warriors return society envelopes them to form their protection against the injuries they have suffered as a result of their service. Dr. Tick referred to this circle as a basic "social contract", or an unspoken trust where members of the armed forces agree to place themselves in harm's way, and in return society agrees to care for them should they be injured as a result. I would note that there is another such unspoken trust, that our service members agree to do whatever is necessary to win, including the ultimate sacrifice of their lives, in trust that the American people will never ask them to do so unless it is absolutely necessary. I think we as a society have failed on both counts, and part of the sacred trust that is the underlying backbone of military service has been damaged, even betrayed. Just my opinion.

According to Dr. Tick, things were different in societies where being a warrior was an overall part of the community. Warriors were trained, they fought, they returned to societies that continued the warrior "process". There were rituals for each step. Every other member of the tribe understood what the newly returned warrior had experienced. There was an acknowledgement of the experience, and a process in place to take care of the wounded warrior, acknowledge the life-altering experiences, and help the community as a whole turn that experience into the wisdom of an honored elder. Combat transforms people. It is inevitable that wounds result from that transformation, and the way society as a whole handles those war wounds determines whether the warrior becomes an opportunity for everyone to grow, or remains little more than a broken liability and outcast.

I have often wondered why things seemed very different for World War II veterans than for vets from Korea and Vietnam. When I think of "honored elder", the people who immediately come to my mind are people like Jack Strouss, John McNeill, Frank Kameny, Tommie Kulpinski, and many of AVER's other World War II vets. Dr. Tick pointed out that America spared no expense in honoring the veterans returning from WW2. There were countless victory parades, programs established to help vets that transformed society, creating "suburbs", creating homeownership as a new norm, and generally honoring these heroes in every way. Add to this the fact that as many as 40% of military age Americans participated in that conflict and it is easy to see that society enfolded itself around the returning WW2 vet. Dr. Tick pointed out that what happened after WW2 was the exception and not the rule. Almost no other conflict in US history, from the Revolution, to World War I, and on through Korea, Vietnam, and the current conflicts, garnered as much overall respect and support as did our honored WW2 vets.

Additionally, there are the very serious experiences of sexual trauma suffered by both men and women that the military doesn't event like to talk about and the country doesn't like to acknowledge because it is so shameful to the image of our military.

America dishonors our warriors in failing to care for them when they come home. If we don't acknowledge the horrors of war, the personal sacrifices of those who fight wars, and the transforming experiences of those men and women who experience them, we lose the opportunity to help our wounded warriors heal. And we lose the vital opportunity to grow as a society by learning the wisdom of those we send off to fight for us. Civilians as a whole in the US are not involved with returning veterans and have become numb to war. We're tired of hearing about it, and what we do here makes us fear vets and further wish to evade them. This must stop. It's our responsibility, our part of the "contract".

Dr. Tic told a lot of stories. I too, believe that telling stories, and honoring stories, is an integral part of the healing process for any psychological injury. It works for me. I've seen it work for others many times. He finished his lecture with a really good story. He had a guest speaker at one of his retreat programs, an active duty chaplain. When the weekend was over and it was time for everyone to leave, Ed did the usual thing you do with an active duty warrior and said "You take care of yourself." The chaplain gave a fascinating response. "I can't take care of myself", he said. "I have to follow orders. I have to do what the generals tell me to do. I have to do what the President tells me to do. I can't take care of myself. You have to do that. You have to take care of me."

Of course he was exactly right. It is the warrior agreement. They give up their freedom to defend our freedom. They don't have choices. They don't choose their missions. They can't take care of themselves. Only we can do that. When we vote for candidates who will honor "the contract", when we fight to make sure our warriors are honored, cared for, and treated fairly, we take care of them. When we take the time to stop in the airport and listen, we take care of them. The only real question for us is, "Will we?"


Danny Ingram

  2012 Gay Military Signal