Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veteran's Day

Veteran's Day haunts me with stories.

When I had finished my second year of graduate school, I was looking for something to keep me gainfully employed...some type of work that would give me "clinical experience" for my resume. After some searching, I applied for a summer "traineeship" at a VA hospital, and was accepted.

Mind you, at this point I had had a total of maybe two therapy cases at the college clinic. And here I was suddenly dropped into a world of severe PTSD, alcohol dependence, and misery. I sat with people recounting memories of violence that were almost incomprehensible to me -- violence from their childhoods, violence they committed as soldiers, violence committed against them as soldiers, violence from their fellow soldiers.

As I look back on it now, it seems to me that so much of what I witnessed there had to do with the impact of such experiences, of the need to escape those memories by drinking, by blaming, by dissociation, by escape.

It left me with a complex set of feelings about military service. I am amazed beyond telling by the courage and sacrifice of those I got to know. I am horrified by what we as a nation asked of them, by the human impact of what we put them through. I am mindful that sometimes such sacrifices must perhaps be asked. I question whether our leaders would ask for such sacrifices so often if they grasped the enormity of the cost.

Regardless, I am thankful to the veterans I met that summer. For what they sacrificed. For what they taught me. For making almost every clinical experience I've had since then seem easy in comparison. For letting me witness their courage in the midst of such great suffering.


bigboid said...


As always, you provide a lot of things to think about with your blog posts! On a day where so many people are thanking the service, past and present, of all members of our armed forces, you provide a very interesting counterpoint in addition to thanking those who sacrificed their own individual freedoms for the preservation of others' freedoms.

I can't imagine how terrible the stories you heard from veterans must have been. Even as a veteran myself, and one who served in combat zones around the world, I count my blessings daily and thank God that I never personally heard or witnessed a shot fired in anger. Sure, in Sarajevo in 2000, we sometimes heard gunfire in the distance, but those were usually celebratory shots fired into the air at weddings, for example. The closest I ever came to using my weapon in combat was on the gunnery range, and that was just training.

I do know that there has been quite a bit of serious academic study that involves the science of training and teaching one human to commit violence against another. John Keegan touched on this subject in his book, "The Face of Battle." For instance, the reason why troops fought in large battle formations like the squares used in Napoleonic times was to keep the soldiers pointing in the same direction, with the guns facing outward, aligned more or less in the same direction, in the hopes they would A) hit something, and B) not break and run, a situation during which an army is most vulnerable. The reason why the officers carried flat-sided sabers? So they could physically hold the saber against their men and prevent them from turning around and running in the face of horrific violence. Amazing stuff, when you think of it.

I actually rediscovered the website I once had bookmarked. It is the Killology research page, founded by LtCol Dave Grossman, and the URL is:
He also has a new partnership with the Warrior Science Group (, and they discuss quite a bit of combat-related science, including psychology.

The bottom line is humans are, by instinct, predisposed to NOT harm another human being (the obvious exception being criminally insane mass murderers/serial killers). There is an awful lot of training that goes into getting a single infantryman to pull the trigger against an opposing combatant, even in the heat of battle. Combat exacts an incredible physical, mental, and long-term psychological toll on those soldiers who experience it. There can be no doubt about that.

Thank you for your appreciation of that, and for your kind words for our veterans of all ages.

Magdalene6127 said...

Steve, my dad had nightmares for years following his service in the second world war. My mother told me of this thrashing, screaming, trembling... for years.

We place people in these situations where we ask them to do the unspeakable on our behalf. The effects last their whole life long.

Thanks for this testimony. Nice to hear your voice.

Sarah S-D said...

so good to read here again. thank you for these thoughtful reflections.

Diane said...