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What You Never Knew About the Mental Health of Veterans

War shows us that we are desperately interconnected.

Key points

  • Treating the complexities of combat trauma is very complex.
  • One of the great paradoxes of war is that it can show us how we are desperately connected.
  • Frozen in time, he patrols the perimeter of his suburban home, searching for the Viet Cong.
  • Like a strange souvenir, an empty plastic bag floating down a U.S. interstate paralyzes him. The dull asphalt has been replaced by images of roadside explosives and dismembered body parts.
  • A punch to the face leaves a chatty moviegoer covered with blood. Talking once the movie starts is a clear rule violation. Everyone knows: You follow the rules or you risk everyone getting killed.

When they finally make it to me, it is only because their lives have become unmanageable. And so we begin treatment. I am a neuropsychologist. As an expert in the relationship between the brain, trauma, and behavior, I have treated male veterans for many years.

In my work, I make plenty of evidence-based plans to help them live more functional lives. But, at its deepest core, treatment is about bearing witness. Treatment is church. A holy confessional. It is a place where we take our shame and our rage and our inadequacies and we present them for another human to see.

Treatment works in proportion to the amount of truth we tell.

If the patient tells a little bit of truth, the patient gets a little bit better. If the patient tells a lot of truth, the patient gets a lot better.

The reason this works: The human spirit longs to be understood. Without feeling that there is at least one other person who understands us, who sees us in all our splendor and our shame, we cannot be well.

In my work with these men, there were two central storylines.

First, that war exacts casualties far greater than we meaningfully understand. Behind each broken man are streams of shattered spouses, children, families, and communities. That the exciting, early chest-pounding glory of war is quickly extinguished by the crushing weight of something so ugly you can never really know it unless you actually know it. That moral injuries are far worse than broken bones and that ghosts are real. War, of course, comes home. The trauma of the father belongs not just to him but to his children and their children.

The second story took me longer to hear.

A wife cries softly in my office. “I will never be for him what they were to him.” The husband shifts. He is uncomfortable, but he agrees.

From Vietnam to Iraq, man after man has spoken of his deep love of the other men with whom he served. As horrible as the war was, the bonds they had with these men were sacred and now, so many years later, deeply missed. They longed for each other.

Is war the only environment where grown men are allowed to love each other freely and profoundly without accusation or insinuation of something unwanted? It is breathtakingly ironic that it might be in these collective, shattering acts of aggression that men are finally able to access the one thing we all came into this world wired for: Each other.

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