Finding Triumph in Tragedy

by David Chrisinger

 “Weep, darling. Weep…and then, tomorrow, we shall make something strong of this sorrow.”–Lorraine Hansberry, “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window”

When he was discharged from the Marine Corps in 2006, Mike Liguori knew he had changed. “My reactions to the violence of Iraq coupled with multiple near death experiences caused an immense amount of pain in my life,” he wrote. “In 2007, I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS). I remember when the doctors told me of their findings; it felt like a death sentence.”

Liguori was told that post-traumatic stress was incurable and that the only way he could manage the symptoms was through the use of antidepressants and talk therapy.

“I didn’t like the way the pills made me feel,” Liguori continues, “and couldn’t get past my therapist never experiencing combat. Everything she said to me about my experiences went in one ear and out the other.”

After he stopped going to counseling and stopped taking his medications, Liguori says that his post-traumatic stress made his daily life almost unbearable. He even considered taking his own life.

Then, when he was at his lowest, Liguori started writing about his experiences.SAMSUNG

“The moment I typed those first words on the keyboard, uncensored thoughts and memories from Iraq poured out. My first entry turned into 10 pages of flashbacks and memories that were subconsciously hidden in the depths of my mind.”

“I felt unbelievable,” Liguori continues, “to have the weight of PTS that had held me down since I left the military finally start to feel lighter…. When I decided to share my experience with others, I found my friends and families’ reactions to be insightful and powerful. It was the first time I felt connected to other people by sharing my stories.”

As human beings, we have always related to one another by telling and listening to stories about ourselves and others. We have, in turn, always understood who and what we are — as well as what we might become — from the stories we tell each other.


Those who buy in to the theory of Narrative Identity argue that identity is not a single, fixed core self that we can “reveal if we peel away the layers.” Instead, each and every one of us constructs our own identities — conceptions of who we believe ourselves to be — primarily through the integration of life experiences into an internalized, evolving, and communicable story.

According to Donald Polkinghorne, “We are in the middle of our stories and cannot be sure how they will end; we are constantly having to revise the plot as new events are added to our lives. Self, then, is not a static thing or a substance, but a configuring of personal events into a historical unity which includes not only what one has been but also anticipations of what one will be.”

These stories — life stories, if you will — provide us with both a sense of unity and purpose if we tell them the right way.

Indeed, those who are able, the theorists continue, to incorporate negative or traumatic life events into their life stories as instances of redemption tend to be happier than those who do not. In a redemptive story, the narrator transitions from a generally bad or negative state to a generally good or positive state. Such a transition is characterized as:

  • sacrifice (enduring the bad to get to the good),
  • recovery (attaining a positive state after losing it temporarily)
  • growth (bad experiences actually bettering the self), or
  • learning (gaining or mastering skills, knowledge, and/or wisdom in the face of the bad).

Incorporating your experiences into a redemptive life story allows you to organize memories and more abstract knowledge into a coherent biographical narrative. In other words, turning your disparate experiences into a coherent story helps you to construct, organize, and attribute meaning to your experiences, as well as to form, inform, and re-form your sources of knowledge and your view of reality.

Travis Switalski, an Army infantry veteran with multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, turned to writing as a way to cope, and found it to have a transformative effect on his memories.

“Writing about my experiences in the military,” he writes, “has given me more in the way of recovery than medication or therapy ever had. Putting down on paper what happened to me and those around me has helped me to understand the trauma that we were subjected to, and to help let go of some of the guilt that I was holding on to personally.”

“There is something liberating,” he continues, “about getting all of that mental mess out of my head and heart and putting it into an organized, understandable thought that others can read and comprehend. Translating it for them has helped me understand it better myself.”

In this sense, crafting a life story that makes sense of our lack of coherence with both ourselves and the chaos of life is a tremendous source of growth and transformation.

This May, at the 2nd national Military Experience & the Arts Symposium, it will be your turn to say what you need to say, to turn your trauma into triumph. Joseph Stanfill and I will be leading a workshop in which we will help you tell your stories of redemption and post-traumatic growth. If you have a story to tell, please consider joining us in Lawton, Oklahoma.

Fives and Twenty-Fives

“That sound. That groan chasing a clap. It hit me a second later. The shock wave knocked me on  my back and my helmet cracked against the pavement. Bits of dirt and gravel rained down on my face. I couldn’t hear a thing.”  – Micheal Pitre, Fives and Twenty-Fives

5s and 25s coverOne of the most recent Iraq War novels did not disappoint. Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives contains visceral illustrations of the war with passages like the one above as well as accurate renditions of being a combat veteran at home. The novel draws its readers into the worlds of the three main characters, Lieutenant Donovan, Doc Pleasant, and “Dodge,” an Iraqi interpreter, and conveys their experiences in adeptly.

The story follows the deployment of a Marine engineer platoon to the Anbar Province, where their daily work consists of filling the potholes on supply routes created by insurgents’ bombs; potholes which, more often than not, were filled with new bombs. The platoon gets hit. They suffer casualties. They interact with State Department civilians, their leadership, and other units. They see the nascent Iraqi Army at work. And, of course, the Marines navigate the emotional territory inherent in the Iraq War both during the deployment and after. The reader sees the Marine characters’ attempts at romantic relationships and fulfilling their roles as sons and comrades to their Marine buddies. By following the perspective of both officer and enlisted as they live their civilian lives, we see the contrasts, and more often, the similarities in their lives.

The reader also learns about Dodge, the platoon’s Iraqi interpreter who’s left his university studies to escape the ravages of war only to be caught up in its maelstrom anyway. Dodge’s family dynamics and his experience after his time with the Marines offers fresh insight into the other side of the war – that of the Iraqis who were caught in the middle of the sectarianism which tore the social fabric of Iraq asunder.

Michael Pitre
Michael Pitre

The narrative structure is creative. It weaves the first-person experiences of the three central characters together into an illustrative and insightful amalgam. While complex, it is not burdensome. Rather, it sets and enticing pace which is spurred on by his terse, spare writing style. Moreover, the language is readily accessible to civilian audiences. The characters are as well. Pitre, a USMC Iraq veteran, has done a remarkable job in elucidating the human condition in the context of war and its aftermath. He’s delved beneath the military and ethnic veneer of the war’s participants and shed light on the human beings they really are.

Fives and Twenty-Fives (Bloomsbury) is available through most major book retailers.

Down the Rabbit Hole

by David P. Ervin

I asked a buddy how he was doing the other day. I keep in touch pretty regularly with “Doc,” a combat medic who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. We live in the same town, but I hadn’t heard from in a while. He replied with a phrase that’s emerged in the lexicon of American combat veterans of the War on Terror; two words that act as a euphemism for a chilling component of life after war.

“Rabbit hole.”

Of course, we’re not talking about having tea with the Mad Hatter here. We’re talking about a flashback.

I knew what he was experiencing. Your palms sweat. Breaths come deeply and rhythmically as your body maximizes oxygen intake. Your heart thumps within a tightened chest as it pushes blood to every limb. Eyes dart and hair stands up. It’s not a hallucination in which you believe that you’re in another place and another time. Rather, you feel like it. Something (sometimes nothing) has elicited a very physical and emotional memory, a frighteningly intense mental space that we first discovered in combat. As Brian Mockenhaupt aptly wrote, they are the “darkened areas that for many remain unexplored. And once these darkened spaces are lit, they become a part of us.” Often, our time back in those places passes quickly. Sometimes, it does not. And, other times, we give in to the immense gravity those memories exert and venture further down the rabbit hole.

RabbitHoleImage1So I wasn’t surprised when Doc began sending me links to videos from the wars. On occasion some of us indulge ourselves in the imagery and sounds of combat. We scratch that itch in a way that’s masochistic, nostalgic, and indicative of the bizarre allure of adrenaline. Modern technology has created an internet that is awash with footage of combat. We can take our pick between an Apache strike, a machine gun’s hammering rattle, or a stream of tracers racing across those all-too-familiar cityscapes. Anyone can. Many do. We wouldn’t be the first generation to revisit these things. In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussel told us about World War One veterans of Great Britain purchasing phonograph records of the sounds of artillery bombardments on the Western Front.

And, of course, as veterans we’re not really so unique in this regard, either.

There is a reason these images are at our fingertips. If America is honest with itself, we are all fascinated with war and violence on some level. It permeates our culture whether we served in war or not. Those who haven’t experienced it can be drawn to it by curiosity, and the less those who truly understand talk about it – the more it’s a dirty little secret – the greater the pull of this curiosity. David Grossman has taken it a step further in pointing out that the prevalence of fictionalized violence in video games, television, and film is widespread, so much so that it has warped our society’s fundamental understanding and beliefs about violence. Indeed, he went as far to say that the more dishonest we are about the true nature of violence, the more we associate it with positive feelings and thus perpetuate it. For most, those spectacles are just that – exciting images and sounds.

Of course, combat veterans know better. We know what a grotesque reality it is to kill and be killed. It’s the harshest reality we’ve had to face. So why would those of us ‘in the know’ seek to face this reality again by seeking out this imagery? Are we subjecting ourselves to some kind of punishment? Not really.

Down there in the rabbit hole, we fumble around in the dark for reasons why we’re there. We look in every corner of our current reality to make sense of the emotions. But for the myriad of possibilities, there is one single reason why they really occur – it’s a memory. Immersing ourselves in the images and sounds of war allow us to establish a concrete, logical connection between the way we feel now and the way we felt then. It’s a reminder that we are not insane. Our bodies and minds just hold distinct, vivid memories, and those memories have powerful emotional content. We can make sense of it, and that understanding is somewhat of a comfort even if the mechanisms we use to comprehend it make us feel strange.

Were Americans frank about their fascination with war and thorough in its desire to understand, we wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable about remembering. But we live in a conflicted society, one that alternates between peacemongering during war and warmongering in peace. Perhaps if the imagery of war and violence were packed with the horrible punch that we feel that fascination would dissipate. At the least, it would be understood for what it is.

So we write and attempt to tell stories to explain, to give a gateway into the emotional context that surrounds the phenomenon of war. We do so in the hopes that everyone can understand that it’s not really something we miss as much as it is something we can’t forget.

And we try to let others know that when they go chasing rabbits down those holes, they’re not alone.      

The Price We Pay

by Travis Switalski, Sr.

The places where we fought are more than names on a paper map. They are more than colored areas between black lines on a globe. They are real places where we struggled and poured sweat in the blazing heat. They are places that we loved to hate but fought for anyway. Day in and day out we went out on foot in these places, surrounded by danger and far from the comforts of home. We were told that we were doing it for freedom, for the people, for America – to avenge her honor. Despite the rhetoric of our noble cause, people in these places on a map fought us to the death. We were doing the most important thing that we would ever do in our lives. But after a while, it went unnoticed by many, save for the ticker across the bottom of the screen and thirty second sound bites. The wars lasted longer than the American attention span.

September 11th, 2001 was the day that America bought stock in the Global War on Terrorism. Flags were unfurled, speeches were delivered, and promises of justice were made. Hundreds of thousands of Americans lined up to join the military. We were all in. We were united as a country, out for blood and revenge. When the President said that we would go after terrorists and those who harbor them, everyone cheered him on. We were in this together, as a nation.

We invaded Afghanistan, then Iraq. The American public and media were still very much a part of the “we” who invaded those far-away lands. We watched the bombing of Tora Bora and the tunnel searches of “Operation Anaconda.” America held its breath waiting for Osama Bin Laden to be killed or captured. The war had top billing on every news channel all of the time. Then waited while Sadaam Hussein let the clock run out and “Shock and Awe” began. Vast columns of tanks and trucks crossed the desert and wiped out Iraq’s Republican Guard. America “liberated” Iraq. We had accomplished the mission. Soon after, the glamorous spectacles were over. The wars were not.

An insurgency began in Iraq. They were faceless, borne of a complicated political situation. People without uniforms, generals, or regard for their fellow Iraqis attacked us. Roadside bombs caused horrific wounds. Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen came home in flag draped metal coffins in a relentless, steady march. It got uncomfortable.PriceWePay1

America had been told that the mission had been accomplished, that it had won. An insurgency is not what they’d bargained for. Gradually, flags were put back in closets and bright yellow car magnets that said “Support Our Troops” faded to white. Rather than try to understand, many who had the option tuned out like it was a television show that had lost its luster. They had the luxury of choice.

But the military kept paying its dues. We were subjected to multiple tours of duty in combat. Back-to-back without breaks we flew to the desert to fight. America thanked us for our service but let us and our families carry the burden of war alone. Top billing went to celebrity dance shows and singing contests as our fights and our losses went unnoticed. The nation that had come together had become indifferent. America was war weary. America was tired.

America has lost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The political and social steam that launched the wars ran out quickly. The Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen who fought the wars won the battles, but ultimately the sacrifice and the fighting was for not. America’s unwillingness to finish what it started, to make payments on its investment, has given rise to new threats. They are the spectacles on the news today. They are born from the threats we didn’t have the stomach to fight yesterday.

The enemies we engaged have occupied the places on the map where we fought and died. The people there suffer still. They, the veterans who fought there, and the families they came home to (or didn’t) can’t change the channel. They can’t cash out so easily. They’re still paying. The burden of that investment has, until recently, rested solely upon them. The chaos of the Middle East won’t go away because we tune it out. Eventually, everyone will pay. Maybe it will be in the form of another, nastier war, fought in those same real places.

Soldiers will always fight when asked. Likely, they’ll fight another enemy that’s little understood, in a place most can’t point to on those colored maps.

History repeats itself. And these wars, like others, have an impact that’s felt long after the beat of the war drums fades away. The dividends of war are terrible. Far from an abstract idea, far from a segment of the news that grows wearisome over time, wars are fought in real places. Real people suffer. If we want to learn from history, this is the time. The real evil that’s been unleashed in those real places represents the steep price we pay for not having paid attention to history.