There was a picture in The Gazette a couple of months ago that really got to me. The photo was front-page, full-color, and it was pure heartbreak. In the picture a grieving mother is on her hands and knees decorating the grave of her son. I could feel the pain of her broken heart. That awareness prompted me to propose a solution for veterans’ suicides.
The suicide of that mother’s son, the “ideal Marine,” as he was called, a young Colorado Springs veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was a senseless tragedy. It was senseless because the alienation from society that often precedes suicide can be prevented. We already know how to do it. We have solutions. We just need to implement them.
I would like to propose one good solution, simple, easily done and effective in healing the soul damage caused by war. Once we understand the soul damage of war veterans, especially combat veterans, we then have the option of implementing what we call The Military Veterans’ Community Dialogues. What are the Military Veterans’ Community Dialogues? They are opportunities for soldiers to tell their stories of war and coming home from war to other soldiers and veterans in non-judgmental, supportive, structured but informal sessions, in the presence of families, friends, and community members.
Please note: In the presence of loved ones, spouses, families, friends, and just as important, members of the public, the community at-large. It is common for veterans not to talk about their war experiences to “civilians,” which includes their families and friends. But in the Dialogues, they will open up and tell their stories to other soldiers and veterans. The families, friends and community members listen, absorb many things they have never heard before, and they react, they begin to tell their stories. All the group – soldiers, veterans, families, friends, community members – start to talk.
Healing begins once psychically damaged veterans start to tell their stories and listeners extend acceptance. All veterans deserve help in their readjustment to civilian life, which for many can take a whole lifetime. What is commonly not understood, however, is that like the young Marine who committed suicide, those who are combat veterans very often need a heightened level of support. Tragically, the “Ideal Marine” never got that. As a combat veteran of the Vietnam War I know the need for this kind of support. Because they are built on community, the Military Veterans Community Dialogues, which we have been doing since 2005, can provide some of that support. No amount of professional therapy at the VA or any where else, however competent and well-intentioned, can substitute for true community.
The principle idea motivating the Dialogues is first an honest understanding of what happens to soldiers in war, especially the soldiers who do the actual fighting. Secondly, it is to propose the creation of a true community, a network of responsible people actively bringing war veterans back into the embrace of the society they have fought to defend. When soldiers tell their stories there is a chance they will heal their trauma. If we heal trauma we reduce suicides. What is combat veteran trauma? There is an emptiness in the lives of many war veterans that is difficult to fill.
When infantry soldiers and others who actually fight are trained for war. they are trained to be the weapon that we use against aggressors, the sharp edge of the sword that bends our enemies to our will. This is the morality of war, if we can speak of war as a moral thing. We must destroy our enemies before they destroy us. This justification – however much it is believed in the beginning – ultimately fails to convince many soldiers, especially in the kinds of war we have been fighting since 9/11. We have been fighting insurgencies which create a moral dilemma because we kill non-combatants.
Like the Vietnamese in my war, Iraqis and Afghans will resist. They will fight against us. This resistance causes untold civilian casualties, including women and children. The consequence is that we have many soldiers who did their duty honorably but are now afflicted with soul damage, who are suffering from what is called “moral injury.” Moral injury can create a corrosive guilt. Out of this guilt a fateful remorse is born and a terrible sadness that defies healing. Soldiers who return from fighting insurgencies struggle to forget the war, to conquer guilt, to re-integrate. But for some this is very difficult if not impossible.
They do not see any hope of becoming normal again. They are at home, but not at home. Many develop a consciousness of futility which leads to depression. This leads to a desire to end the suffering, to seek solace in oblivion, to just slip away into nothingness. To die.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, a combat veteran of the Vietnam War and one of the founders of the Colorado Springs Military Veterans’ Community Dialogues.