Military Psychology Sociology

Combat Withdrawal Among Veterans

The below pieces are comprised of fragments from interviews with 35 Canadian Veterans of Afghanistan. Although the participants had widely varied experiences, they speak with one voice regarding the fundamental difficulties associated with the social transition to civilian life. Their voices have been anonymously woven together, line by line, demonstrating this reality. 


 

THE RUSH

I’m looking for a rush, I’m looking for a reason to help people,
I want near deadly experiences, I want an apocalypse of this world,
I want everything to go bad,
I want you all to fucking need me to fucking save your life.

Our tracers were red, their tracers were green,
At night you would see red and green tracers going back and forth, one to five ratio.
It was an addiction to have the adrenaline going through you every day.

Jumping out of a plane is better than any orgasm I’ve ever had.
Talk about peak life experiences…
coming off of that and going into a sedentary job…
…it’s like the world is moving in slow motion.

The first months walking in Afghanistan you’re fucking petrified…
It’s that bone chilling fucking feeling: “did I take the wrong step?”
That happens for three weeks or a month, until becomes normal.

For six months or whatever, you’re really in the shit,
You’re in the thick of it, you are really doing something;
You’re doing something that people are talking about.

You’re doing something that’s cool,
You’re doing something with your friends,
It’s hard, it’s crazy, and it feels like you’re really alive for the first time in your life.

When you come back and you don’t have that anymore, it’s hard.
It’s hard to think to yourself, “I’m never going to do that again, I’m never going to be that cool again, I’m never going to be able to go back to that.”

ANOMIE

As an eighteen-year-old kid, the military gives you a sense of purpose,
It give you a sense of responsibility that you don’t usually get at eighteen.
At thirty-five I have to be my five-year-old self all over again,
“What do you want to be when you grow up?’”
Trying to find my place; who am I? Where am I going to go?
What am I going to do now?
You don’t have an answer for who you are, you’re just kind of a lost soul.

The military is like your parents,
You’re taught how to behave, how to look, how to react to things.
You don’t have that military conscience on your shoulder anymore,
Now I just have to be accountable to myself, and that’s a problem.
I found it easier to think on my feet for eight guys than it is to organize my day-to-day here.
There were rules in the army, there was a reason for people to do better and to be better.

Everything is so black and white when you’re in the military,
Do something wrong, you get jacked up hard,
In the civilian-world,“something got missed? Oh well, we’ll get it next time,”
To me that’s like “what? Get it next time?”
I came from an environment where sometimes there is no next time,
You do this right or that’s it, somebody fucking dies.

The military is an F-1 racecar in comparison to the company I am at now,
Going from working in a high-performance team to working in a B team or a C team.
I would walk out of meetings going, “that was two hours of god-damn time wasted,”
I work really long hours, but that’s our commitment, that’s our dedication.
I find meaning working with a bunch of people that are motivated, driven, and ambitious,
That’s what I had in Afghanistan.

It’s hard to care about things you should care about in civilian life,
There was just an overwhelming sense that nothing mattered.
I felt like that was the pentacle of my life,
And now you’re supposed to find something else and find new meaning?
I wondered whether my life would be better if I were dead than alive,
I wondered whether my best days were behind me.

The most difficult thing is knowing that I can’t go back.
I don’t necessarily miss being blown up and shot at,
But I miss the sense of purpose that comes with combat.
Beyond your paycheck, you get paid psychologically in the military,
…a sense of purpose, focus, comradare, mission, and all those kinds of things,
There’s a lot of people that would just do it for the psychological payoff alone.

ALTRUISM

In the army, everybody sinks or swims together,
What ultimately matters to you most are the guys in your section.
These faceless soldiers in uniform, these guys are friends,
What keeps you going is that you’re there to look after each other.
I might fucking hate you because of what you did to my girlfriend last Saturday,
but in this moment, I need you – everything I did over there was for them.

There was a certain utopia to it…
Everyone’s focused on the same thing, everyone focused on getting the job done.
We were attacked, hungry, tired, wet, stinky, no shower or shitter,
Bullets don’t discriminate, so watching each other’s back was an unwritten rule.
Everything was everyone’s and for that moment in your life it’s true communal living,
What brought us together was conflict, and now that conflict is gone.

I miss being in the forces every day, it’s who I was,
It’s not a job, we’re always military.
It’s the only occupation where you can truly serve in an unlimited capacity,
We would redeploy on a dime to get back to that balance that being in combat brings.
Once you’re out of that environment, it’s like god, what do I do now?
Everybody’s kinda sleepwalking through life here.

When you get out in civilian life, you don’t know who your friends are truly,
You’re always investing in the group… that doesn’t really exist at the office.
Joining a team I intuitively connect as much and as fast as I can with people,
That actually freaks out my civilian counterparts.
Once we leave, we are thrown back into civilian society,
Back to dog-eat-dog competition

I have a really hard time connecting with people in the civilian world now.
Their experiences aren’t relevant to me, and my experiences aren’t relevant to them.
We want to serve, that’s our mantra…
“Society is the end on which our better selves depend…
When community becomes foreign to the individual, he becomes a mystery to himself, unable to escape the exasperating and agonizing question:
…to what purpose?”

*The final quote is from Émile Durkheim’s book, Suicide.


 

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42 comments

  1. I really thought I was the only one that could not fit anywhere. I have some “friends” from the church I visit and we get together on Saturday mornings to drink coffee and connect. About 2 months ago I finally told them that I didn’t fit with them. I couldn’t relay to them and they sure shit couldn’t relay to me. They talk about possessions, the next big vacation and shit that has no meaning to me. I want to help my brothers and sisters in arm not to kill themselves and help them any way possible. They always talk about them and I want to talk about how to help. And living in a non-military town does not help matters. Thank you Steve for what you do. Bravo Zulu.

  2. Great post, Steve. I’m reminded of my own return from combat, resuming college, and then joining corporate America. I never found the same level of camaradarie here that I felt in the military, especially in combat. It took some years to figure out why. As you point out so here, the combat deployed military is simply unique. There is no other context like it.

  3. Hey Steve,
    These voices are particularly interesting to me. One thing I always emphasize when teaching History classes is that the reasons why governments fight wars compared to why soldiers fight wars, along with the corresponding hopes and fears, are very, very different. Possible rewards and consequences are different too. This seems to make talking about the even more problematic wars manageable to talk about because we’re not criticizing, per se, the men and women who fought but the governments fighting over various intangible, subjective geopolitical, economic forces. I was curious as to any thoughts you might have about this given your research on vets.
    Talk to you more later 🙂

  4. I’ve learned over my years in ministry with people, institutions and communities who’ve endured trauma that some are entirely too comfortable sweeping the evidence under the rug. If they do this long enough, they or a loved one will trip over the hidden bump. At least you all are sharing your pain, which I find hopeful. You will find others who are strong enough to stand in the storm with you. Of course, these will be folks who’ve been there & experienced your pain. My old daddy used to say, don’t expect a pig to tap dance. I think he meant we should give up hoping those who’ve never had our experience to understand us. They haven’t been there. They don’t know. They are like fish out of water. Find others who do know & heal with them. When you are knitted & stitched together, you’ll comfort those who don’t understand why no one else gets them except for you. There is a light at the end of this dark valley, and a brighter day to come. Survivors know this.

  5. This is why manipulators in politics are applying the same tools to make civilians to their bidding. You tell people there’s a way to save the world from cataclysm and it becomes the new religion, no questioning allowed. And this also works in early ages via stuff like online games where a greedy corporation feeds your ego with hero self-image and gets you hooked on that.
    First they create the misery and then they exploit it by offering the ‘solutions’. It’s an old sleazy business trick. Set out rats, then sell rat traps. And it seems too inconvenient to investigate where the rats are coming from. That is ensured by keeping people in the “got no time, too busy” trap.

    “Society is the end on which our better selves depend…
    When community becomes foreign to the individual,…”
    So true. Serving society has highest priority, yet people build their endeavors on a rotting foundation.
    Community has become foreign to me because of the many experiences of seeing all the cowardly fakery when people are put to the test. You think you are surrounded by likeminded people, great pals, and then a crisis happens and you’re surrounded by monsters, unable to fend for yourself because you don’t even know what the point in all that is anymore. You think people with phantasy and imagination are visionaries bringing those ideas and ideals into our world, and then you realize they’re just practicing escapism.

  6. You are being asked to login because jdkneddy@gmail.com is used by an account you are not logged into now.

    By logging in you’ll post the following comment to Veterans Critique Modern Society:
    I am this modern veteran. I am disconnected. I have been back in the world for almost six years and not a day passes I don’t go through these exact struggles. I crave to belong and serve. I withdrew from almost every civilian relationship after a few months of being discharged. I Worked a couple odd jobs never fully belonging or fitting in and believe me I tried. I don’t know who to trust in this society anymore. I attempt to build similar relationships I once had with my comrades but like the quote pointed out this makes civilians very uncomfortable. Our honesty, our openess, and our willingness to help strangers comes off as weird and overwhelming to many. The search for fulfillment and meaning post afghanistan I would not wish on my worst enemy. The deployment was the easy part. What it seems these expierenced have done to us (in my opinion) has opened our eyes to the failings of our society, our communities and our collective. I can’t tell you what it’s like to yurn for something to die for. Drugs and alcohol are always there for us to fill these voids inevitably bringing torturous amounts of shame driving us even farther away from the society/ideologies we were once and still are willing to fight and die for. What comes of this is the questions. What was the point? Why did you send us there? Why don’t you care? Who gives a fuck about halftime shows, Kanye west, the weather, your uncomfortable computer chair or traffic that you suffer through to get home to your wonderful family and home. People are dying. Our friends died horrible deaths. Our friends put bullets in their brains. Our friends, my brothers and sisters, are suffering while everyone small talks and complains. I came home with a strong urge to teach. To teach how wonderful we have it. How unfair it is out there. How unfair it is that a small few have to bear the burden so you can trample on your fellow citizen to get that flat screen tv. Not to help a starving child. Not to help your neighbour. Not to stand up for those who can’t. So you can stay numb to the world and distracted. We no longer have that luxury and some days I would kill to have that back. Ignorance can be bliss. The majority of the time I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I know how terrible humans can be to one another. It is deeply saddening. I also know how good we can be to each other. How a section of infantrymen can welcome a stranger with open arms and willing to die for them at the drop of a hat. The genuine love and caring for one another was the most beautiful thing I have gotten to expierence. These are the things I wanted to spread once home so no one took for granted the peace we share here. Quickly I learned nobody wants to hear that shit (at least the impression I got). Did you kill anyone? Was it hot? How was the food? What kind of gun you shoot? These all sound like a question an innocent toddler would ask a cop or soldier but unfortunately the majority were grown ass adults. Nobody wants to hear we have it all wrong. At least from the eyes of an infantryman…that’s what I see. Thank you for your blog. Pro patria.

    1. Hi Jon, thank you for this comment! Everything you’ve said sounds very similar to what so many Veterans have repeatedly told me over the course of the interviews. I believe Veterans have a lot to teach civilians.

    2. “I don’t know who to trust in this society anymore. I attempt to build similar relationships I once had with my comrades but like the quote pointed out this makes civilians very uncomfortable. Our honesty, our openess, and our willingness to help strangers comes off as weird and overwhelming to many.”

      “Quickly I learned nobody wants to hear that shit”

      “How unfair it is that a small few have to bear the burden”

      My experience to this day, as a total civilian. Cowards everywhere, mortally scared of dealing with the truth and becoming heartless monsters because of that. It is destroying the little spark of passion I am trying to keep alive. I’m a teacher/entertainer/artist at heart, but when your audience wants to see you dead, how can you find fulfillment? It’s insane.

      “People are dying.”

      In civilian life, too. I guess, in a way, the plight of veterans, their pain, also defines the path they have to go in civilian life. To keep being a fighter, to keep having courage, and find support networks, because strength in numbers is (sadly) crucial.
      But of course, few can afford to work for charity, and that’s where it becomes clear that way too little money goes into social improvement jobs. And now imagine if we stopped waging war against others and worked on the pressing internal problems – the problems that cause that outwards denialist projection in the first place. How much money there would be for such jobs. The beautiful and simple solutions are right there for those who can see. If we cut back war funding, all those disillusioned veterans would immediately have a meaningful life again. All the ups without the downers of having to kill people. Actually becoming a force for peace. A win for everybody.
      The convenient servitude to fear needs to be broken.

  7. Although I’m not a veteran, I’m retired clergy. I always had same intensity of purpose and commitment during my years of service, but found my civilian congregations to be in the same world as these vets found on their return home. People stateside are focused on individual goals, not group visions and projects.

    1. Thank you for sharing your personal experience. This reminds me of a quote by Karl Marlantes in his memoir titled, “What it is Like to Go to War.” He states that simply expecting veterans to ‘adjust’ to civilian life is not enough. He writes, “adjustment is akin to asking Saint John of the cross to be happy flipping burgers at McDonald’s after he’s left the monastery.”

    2. The USA still has that old propaganda implanted. As long as people think socialism/communism is evil and don’t frickin’ look at the words – “social” “commune” – they will be chauvinistic Devil’s helpers. No extremes necessary. Balance brings health. But the USA as an entity is basically a fanatic egomaniac. I found it very good when, a while ago, a psychologist diagnosed the “patient USA” and revealed that it checks on all the psychopathy points. But such studies are not allowed into the mainstream consciousness, and that’s the crucial point: communication. (Notice there’s that “commun” again.)

  8. Hi Steve – great work. Wish I had been in contact with you before as this touches heavily on my PhD research regarding veterans’ anomie and suicide at University of Ottawa. I’ll be following your work. Keep the faith!

  9. Thnx so much for the insight
    Of what combat military life, lives,comraderi, beliefs and spiritual beliefs are all about…I for one can only imagine what it truly is like
    But all the experience from the vets actually felt it n lived it and still battle with living with it tday…GOD bless you, hold each of you in his hands and allow the sun to shine upon your hearts and faces….thnx for my life…Tom Richard

  10. Thanks for sharing this, Steve. I won’t lie, I have no idea what it’s like to be in the military or to have to make the transition back to civilian life. I feel like these words have helped to give me a better understanding of the challenges facing veterans.

  11. very well done. What I’ve seen with vets here in El Paso resonates with what you and the vets shared. I also hear a real spiritual vacuum. Most vets’ spiritual beliefs are severely tested by combat. Others left the God of their understanding on the battlefield

  12. We all want that environment where we know that those around us have got our back. In the workaday force it is not so. It’s like dream walking in a place we desperately need to get out of.

  13. This is extraordinary. Oddly enough, or maybe not so oddly, I caught glimmers of myself in there, though I’ve never been in the military. A few times in my life I’ve been able to work in a team that believed in what it was doing and did it well. I miss it.

  14. Steve: Thank you for posting these soldier accounts. They point to something essential that often gets missed under medical diagnoses, especially for veterans who are released. I have written about these and other issues in my upcoming book – Ghost in the Ranks. I think you will find many of the same issues and themes that you have utlined in this post. All the best. John.

  15. I felt each phrase and word. Very well written. Makes you feel so many emotions, but mainly ‘understanding’. I loved how you put this across
    “Beyond your paycheck, you get paid psychologically in the military,
    …a sense of purpose, focus, comradare, mission, and all those kinds of things,
    There’s a lot of people that would just do it for the psychological payoff alone.”

    Thank you for sharing.

    1. Rather than “well written,” I would say, “well spoken.” I took a step back in this one, letting those who’ve been there do the talking. I pieced together their voices to demonstrate their raw eloquence and provide a window into their world. Although, this may illuminate the struggles they face, it would take actually being there to truly understand. Thank you for your comment.

  16. Well done Steve, This is so true. This is what happens when you are part of a collective that works and thinks as one. It is also true that society’s obsession with the mundane is inconceivable to a forces man or woman. it is up to us civilians to help them find purpose and keep them buoyant. High adrenalin rushes can be achieved without jumping out of a plane if one is given a high purpose to serve in the civilian life. My brother was a TA and now he is a social worker for forces’ personnel who come back with head injuries. He works within the same structure and is surrounded by the same men. Helping and supporting his comrades gives him an adrenaline rush everyday.

    1. Thank you for the comment. I am glad to hear your brother has found this role! I’ve talked to a few individuals who have regained a sense of purpose by going back to work in these types of support roles.

  17. An interesting compilation. I had a similar feeling and experience, being inducted into combat in a similar situation in India.
    The doubts that creep in and your fears that to remand,
    the comradery you feel with the soldiers under command,
    the pain you share with them and the uncertainties ahead,
    it all becomes an addiction and you march forward.
    You want your adrenaline to be pumping; you look for motivation to keep going;
    the Regimental spirit keeps pushing; You move to the impossible achieving.
    The soldiers you lead,
    you to your Lord you Plead;
    Always you owe it to them for ever;
    A coffin to carry never;
    On your soldiers you do not want a scratch,
    because it pains you more than any snatch.
    Oh my Creator and God!
    Was it all with Your nod.

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