Combat posttraumatic stress injury and military issues

What to do with memory: thoughts for our veterans on Memorial Day

Roger Brooke, Ph.D., ABPP

Most veterans don’t know what to do with memory. Some hope to forget, but also cannot bear to be forgotten. Some hope to forget by hurling themselves back into civilian life, often drunkenly, but going down that path is not going to end well. Almost all combat veterans whom I know try to protect those they love from the memories that crowd in on them, especially at night. Down range they have often remembered with longing the atmosphere of a loving home and the ordinary pleasures of running water, toilets, and a clean bed. It has kept them going. The last thing they want to do when they get home is to spoil this with memories of war.

Combat posttraumatic stress injury and military issues

The qualities veterans possess

This article appeared on Memorial Day 2016 in the local newspaper, The Tribune Review. It is pasted below.

When I ask students at Duquesne University if they or a family member are veterans, there is usually a sprinkling of hands. More hands are raised when I ask about neighbors, then former school friends, fellow parishioners, then friends of friends.

By this time, nearly everyone in class has a hand raised.

When veterans and civilians feel disengaged, which they often do, it is partly because they simply don’t know each other. What civilians should know, contrary to popular misconceptions:

• Veterans are generally better educated than their civilian counterparts.

• They have lower rates of incarceration and violence.

• They tend to be highly disciplined and excel at initiative, leadership and teamwork.

• Even the minority with PTSD generally function fairly well; their suffering is largely private and evident only to those who love them.

• Veterans look back on their time in service with many impressions and often contradictory feelings, but pride is nearly always one of them.

What veterans want from their civilian friends and associates is to feel welcomed and appreciated. They bring extraordinary life experience to their classes, workplaces and communities.

On Memorial Day, many veterans feel called to honor the dead, whom they carry in their memories. It is a time of private grief and public mourning — or at least a time of respect. It is a day when many veterans privately recommit themselves to living lives worthy of those who never came home.

Many are offended by the day’s flag-waving hoopla and by civilians who think no further than shopping or barbecuing. On this day, civilians might let their veteran family and friends know that they are holding them in their thoughts and prayers, knowing that this is a sacred day.

The English essayist, Chesterton, wrote, “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” In traditional cultures the moral contract is that the warriors will surround the civilians and fight, risking their lives and limbs, with the understanding that, upon their return, the community will surround the warriors, tending to them in body, mind and spirit, honoring their sacrifices and sharing their burdens.

With regard to PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder: Dr. Ed Tick, co-founder of the nonprofit Solder’s Heart, says that it should also mean post-traumatic social disorder.

And clinical psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Shay writes that what a veteran needs most is not a mental health professional but a community for whom his experience matters. Yes indeed! The psychological and spiritual wounds of war are a human universal, named and ritually addressed in all traditional warrior societies. Because this universal warrior experience has not been appreciated in our time, contemporary veterans with PTSD have felt stigmatized and isolated; and their families and local communities have often felt unsure of their role in helping facilitate the transition home. [This sentence had been shortened in the newspaper copy-RB].

Let’s do what we can to make our region a strong community for our veterans. Not only can civilians help veterans make the return, but veterans can also help civilians with their lessons learned, a continued sense of service, and the qualities mentioned above.

Combat posttraumatic stress injury and military issues

Project 22 interview

Phenomenology Combat posttraumatic stress injury and military issues

The soldier’s grief

Roger Brooke, Duquesne University
[This is what I said at the Sunday morning service at Memorial Park Church in Allison Park, Pittsburgh during a service to welcome home returning warriors. The service was Christian, of course, but drew from the Soldiers Heart model and its archetypal understanding of the requirements for the warrior’s return. It was a moving service. Pastor Paul Becker and his team did superb work. The service was recorded and is available on their web site.]

Phenomenology Combat posttraumatic stress injury and military issues

Memorial Day Thoughts

This appeared in the Duquesne Times, June 1, 2011.

In our fast paced culture, speed wobbling towards an uncertain future, it is good to have at least a few days dedicated to memory. Religious and other public holidays are mostly celebrations, but this day is dedicated to the memory of those who fell fighting for us.

Memorial Day reminds us that there is no such silliness as “closure” when it comes to grief. Memorial Day dignifies our lives with grief. For some families, of course, this grief is a gaping wound, and our hearts and prayers are with them. But for many, the grief is communal, and is held for men and women we never met, who died in service for people whom they never even knew.

Our grief, even if simply held as a quiet acknowledgement of this Day, makes us better people. Grief is the most original way of remembering the dead. As the years go by Memorial Day is our way of honoring our forebears. Grief stabilizes our lives, reminding us that we are not self-made but belong to a story that is older and larger than ourselves. On Memorial Day, we are reminded that our personal history is not something that belongs to us–as though we can do with it what we like–but rather, it is the other way round. We belong to that history; we are their heirs carrying an inheritance to the next generation.

The images which stay with us, of the dead at their best, are always a mirror to those values we hold most dear. Remembering someone’s good cheer, helpfulness, or courage, for instance, makes us better people, dedicated to a future that might be worthy of their continued presence in our memories. I am struck how often I have heard a combat veteran come away from the funeral of a buddy determined to get his stuff together, and to live in a way so that his dead buddy would be proud of him (–like the aging private Ryan at the graveside of those who rescued him).

Think of how much a dog’s friendly approach means to us when we are in grief. Unlike depression, which distances the world, grief brings things and others closer. We are made tender in grief, and intimate with the world.

So I hope we never reach “closure.” I hope that we allow our grief to dignify and steady our lives, and to recognize the preciousness of the living to whom we remain indebted. I hope that today reminds us of the appalling waste that is war.

Roger Brooke.
Director, Military Psychological Services
Duquesne University