A few years ago, when I was commanding a brigade in the 101st Airborne Division, I invited one of our Vietnam veterans to speak to my officers about his experience with post combat stress. His stories of his time as an infantry platoon leader in the jungles of Vietnam were horrific. Even among a room full of combat veterans you could sense the shock. My respect and admiration for him grew, especially because of his willingness to share his struggles. What stuck with me most was that his stress truly surfaced only after his retirement from the Army when he found himself separated from his military tribe. I use tribe as Sebastian Junger uses it in his book “Tribe, On Homecoming and Belonging” (2016) to describe the camaraderie and kinship-like bond shared by those who have experienced the trauma of combat. I use it to describe the unexplainable bond we all feel toward each other even in our years far removed from the battlefield. It is a relationship we share referring to each other as brother or sister even though we came from different families, served in different wars and in different units and services.
Approaching my second year since retirement, having immersed into society, I have returned to the tribe speaking to veterans and being their champion in companies which show interest in hiring them. I cherish my days in uniform and am deeply honored to call myself a veteran. Leading and commanding remains in my DNA so I have this enduring desire to give orders and inspire and care for people and their families. Indulge me for a moment if you will, or in classic military parlance, “listen up soldier!” Speaking at a few veterans’ events recently I have narrowed my message or my “orders” down to three things. They are my guidance to those who have served and who find themselves feeling a bit isolated, troubled in their post-military lives or suffering from mental wounds. Here they are.
Stay connected to the tribe
If you have not read Sebastian Junger’s book “Tribe,” I highly recommend you do. It spoke to me and gave explanation to many of the feelings I was experiencing. As I (and my wife) immersed back into a society it felt alien. It felt completely opposite of the way I felt while in uniform. In the Army, my family and I assimilated quickly at every one of the 16 bases we moved to in a 27-year career. Soldiers and families in our new neighborhoods understood what we were going through and surrounded us with support long before getting to know us. As soldiers we rarely, if ever, stood around and shared the horrors of our combat experiences, yet there existed this unspoken connection, as if we knew and understood the visions and memories which haunted each of us. I never thought about it as I do now but I believe this was the magic of the tribe. It felt healthy and while I do not require the healing effects of the tribe in each day of my life (my wife is an incredible partner and tribal member for me), I do know that I need to return now and then if only to talk about interests like motorcycles or sports. When I am there, in my tribe, surrounded by veterans like me, that unspoken understanding and bond returns and its healing powers take over. So here is your first order soldier! Connect with the tribe as much or as little as you need to but keep it close as you navigate your own post-military journey.
Your new mission: Heal!
You dedicated your life to the missions you were given. Whether taking a hill, reacting to an IED or even qualifying with your rifle, mission failure was never an option. You gave your all. To do anything less could cost lives and this was foremost on your mind. Your buddies left and right were counting on you and to let them down was unthinkable. There was no 9 to 5. Nights, weekends and holidays, no matter when, the mission always came first. While this practice and culture requires little explanation to those of us who wore camouflage and body armor, we do not look inward enough with this same devotion to mission accomplishment. Your new mission is to heal! Give the same fierce commitment to this mission as you did to those you received in uniform. Create a mission statement centered on your physical and mental health and dedicate your life to it. Write it down. Revisit it daily or from time to time to refocus yourself. Join a group in person or on a social media platform like Facebook which can serve as your new squad and push you to accomplish your mission, to take your own hill with everything you have.
Expect no pity
Remember your squad leader, drill sergeant or instructor at the military school you attended who showed zero sympathy when you failed or were worn to the core by a physically demanding task? Remember these leaders, who you probably loathed and wanted to punch in the face? Well, they actually meant well. While that may have seemed impossible to you to comprehend in your moment of pain, they wanted to challenge you because they knew you had more to give. They showed no pity because they knew the enemy would not. They treated you harshly to harden you for the rigors of life in the military and in combat. If you sought sympathy or showed weakness they only got tougher on you until you grew stronger and more resilient. You overcame their harshness, persevered, survived and succeeded. Impossible to imagine perhaps but deep down they cared. So do I. In fact, I am here for you. Reach out to me on Facebook or LinkedIn anytime but do not expect pity. I’ll pull out my colonel rank and whistle and tell you to toughen up. I’ll give you a mission to heal and I’ll be standing over you barking in your ear until I see that you accomplish your mission. I’ll do this because I love you and know you have it in you to overcome, adapt and accomplish your mission. If it is medical help you need, then by all means go get it and do everything they instruct you to do. But seek no pity. Not from me, not from the VA, not from countless Americans who want to shower you with praise, pity and money. Stand your ground. Be proud of your service and grateful for the outpouring of support from our citizens but let them know that “you got this.” Even if you have a long road of healing ahead, show them that same confidence and bravery you did when you stepped on that airplane in combat gear, headed for harm’s way to protect our country.
I’m counting on you and I am with you in your journey. Don’t make me show up at your house with a steel pot helmet upside down full of white gloves to inspect your dedication to mission accomplishment. Enjoy this next chapter in your life. Sit back like I do and bask in the glory of having served your country in a time of war. Grow that hair out. Skip PT and sleep in. Drink a cold beer. Tattoo yourself and pierce your nose if you want. Be proud of your service. Try not to live with regret. Look back but don’t stare. Remember the fallen, your friends, your brothers and sisters. Honor them by living a good life. Honor them by following my orders. I’m with you always.