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Last week I had a chance to work with a new colleague. As we are both “old army” and seemingly surrounded by those cultural mysteries known as “former air force,” it seemed fate we would instantly bond. Somewhere along the way, however, things went awry. It happened when we struck up “small chat” on a large subject – PTSD.

I mentioned how painful I find it to see young men and women return from combat, often with broken bodies, but perhaps less perceptibly, with broken hearts and minds. We’ve all heard the party line that emotional troubles are nothing to be ashamed of and can readily be helped within the military – one need only ask for help. I would love to believe that is true today. But I wouldn’t have believed it during my own couple of decades “in” though I would have insisted to my soldiers I’d never hold their needs against them. And I see what neglect of such issues wrought in my husband who served in Vietnam at oh-so-tender-an-age, and the unending effects from which he still suffers today. So I continue to doubt soldiers, et al, feel free to own up to what some will perceive as weakness, and seek some mending.

The guy I was speaking to reinforced this concern, though I suspect he didn’t know it. He said, “If I may speak candidly, those who come back with PTSD were not mentally prepared to serve.” His meaning became clear, arguing good training can best prepare troops for the rigors of combat. He didn’t necessarily blame sufferers for having weak minds – though it came out that way – but rather implied their training was inferior.

I countered that training troops to kill or die is arguably the EASY part. It is surviving what you never conceived you might do, that takes immeasurable strength. When a Specialist shoots at a vehicle speeding toward a checkpoint, he is legally, ethically, and morally covered in his actions, especially as folks in the theater of operations should well know that is a reasonable expectation for a like circumstance. But when the vehicle careens to a stop and the door opens, spilling out a dying mom and her injured or dead children who were driving in terror, that combat soldier gets to live with his legal, ethical and moral decision. I went to basic training and OCS … I don’t remember any training to prepare me for taking that memory home with me or teaching me how to reconcile any psychic pain I might feel.

Add to this multiple tours in a few short years and we seem to be stretching even the most elastic of minds to a point of aneurysm. Training does not simulate your buddy being blown all over the back of you; it doesn’t capture begging a grievously wounded soldier to stop weeping so as not to give away the detachment’s position; it doesn’t mentally prepare you to view everyone as your potential adversary while treating everyone as your potential ally.

Perhaps the difference between me and my newly-acquainted coworker is – I don’t think surviving with whole mind, body and spirit takes a simple act of will. I don’t write this as some anti-war sentiment. I guess I am just venting that there are enough folks who superficially point at battered soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and coastguardsmen and somehow characterize their pain as a product of their own making. People who do that are ignorant and without compassion in my beliefs.

Most of all, inevitably, I don’t expect, or perhaps accept them among the ranks of my “old army” pals.
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