“the most devastating perpetual trauma I had to overcome was civilian transition… I know the changes I see in myself are not a result of the war in Iraq. Even though those memories are still there and are traumatic, it goes much deeper than that. The changes are the result of a man who wishes he was at war.”
– Jessie Odom, Through Our Eyes
Sometimes the most troubling thing about combat is having to give it up. Many infantrymen who have experienced the harshest conditions in combat are not traumatized by war; they are traumatized by civilian life upon return.
After facing heavy gunfire and the daily threat of being exploded, how can an individual find civilian life the most troubling? Although it’s not a formally recognized condition, many veterans who have experienced high levels of combat develop combat withdrawal when they return home. More than just wishing they were back at war, combat withdraw can traumatize an individual. This trauma from civilian transition can lead to serious psychological distress, even suicide.
Combat withdrawal is a two-part problem: 1) the loss of belonging to a close-knit group; and 2) the loss of high-adrenaline missions. I focused on the ‘belonging’ aspect in my post, ‘War is Hell, Civilian Life is Worse’. The feeling of belonging combined with a sense of mission is captured in the following lines from Chris Hedges’ book, War is a Force That Gives Up Meaning:
“We discover in the communal struggle, the shared sense of meaning and purpose, a cause. War fills our spiritual void. I do not miss war, but I miss what it brought.”
Along with it’s violent destruction, war builds iron-clad bonds between individuals. This bond fills a “spiritual” void once filled by religious affiliation in pre-modern times. Though unlike religious or nationalistic affiliation, individuals in modern combat are committed to the group itself, and demonstrate these commitments by self-sacrifice. Chris Hedges writes:
“Just remember,” a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel told me as he strapped his pistol belt under his arm before we crossed into Kuwait, “that none of these boys is fighting for home, for the flag, for all that crap the politicians feed the public. They are fighting for each other, just for each other.”
Along with the profound sense of belonging, combat missions provide an unparalleled sense of thrill. Hedges writes, “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug, one I ingested for many years.” In his book titled War, Sebastian Junger also writes about this sense of intoxication:
“It’s as if there was an intoxicating effect to group inclusion that more than compensated for the dangers the group had to face…. Collective defense can be so compelling — so addictive, in fact — that eventually it becomes the rationale for why the group exists in the first place.”
Junger illustrates this in a scene following a firefight:
…Steiner was running around with a big grin on his face. “It’s like crack,” he yelled, “you can’t get a better high.” I asked him how he was ever going to go back to civilian life. He shook his head. “I have no idea.”
A firefight stimulates the dopamine neurotransmitters in the brain, producing an effect similar to a cocaine high. Upon return to civilian life, an individual not only looses the bond of the military family, but is forced to neurologically adjust to an environment with significantly less potential stimulation. This abrupt transition makes civilian life look flat, dull, and meaningless. Veterans of high-combat deployments may resort to drugs, alcohol, or risk-taking behaviors to rebalance their neurology, still in combat-mode. Junger describes this sentiment in a quote by a U.S. Airborne Infantry veteran: “People back home think we drink because of the bad stuff, but that’s not true… we drink because we miss the good stuff.” Junger continues:
“War is supposed to feel bad because undeniably bad things happen in it, but for a nineteen-year-old at the working end of a .50 cal during a firefight that everyone comes out of okay, war is life multiplied by some number that no one has ever heard of… in some ways twenty minutes of combat is more life than you could scrape together in a lifetime of doing something else.”
Veterans struggling in civilian society are often regarded as broken or traumatized by war. This is an oversimplified view that does not consider the harms caused by civilian transition. Veterans are often misunderstood by civilians who cannot grasp the mission-oriented intensity and sense of brotherhood derived in combat. Many combat-veterans come back seeking a sense of mission and are left feeling empty and unsettled by the dullness of ordinary living. Combat veterans should not be simply dropped off, forgotten, and left to self-medicate. Combat withdrawal is a unique issue rooted in the abrupt transition between two radically different social contexts.
Rather than having veterans face this abrupt transition, options need to be made available that provide a sense of purpose and communal bond that assist an individual’s adjustment. For some, this may be work with an Emergency Medical Service or humanitarian relief aid. Veterans possess an incredible capacity to help others and should be given the opportunity to put their skills to work. Not only would the veteran benefit, but those in need of assistance would stand to gain as well. Combat withdrawal needs to be recognized and addressed more adequately; rather than treating individual symptoms, mental health professionals need to address the root causes which lay in the social environment.
Here are a couple organizations that have great potential. Please comment if you know of any other organizations that might assist with this issue:
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