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.

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.      

Words Make You More: Bibliotherapy and the Healing Power of Literature

by David Chrisinger

The commander’s words relieve their stricken hearts:
‘My comrades, hardly strangers to pain before now,
we all have weathered worse. Some god will grant us
an end to this as well [. . .] Call up your courage again. Dismiss your grief and fear.
A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this. [. . .]’
Brave words.
Sick with mounting cares he assumes a look of hope
and keeps his anguish buried in his heart.

The first book veteran Liam Corley read when he returned from Afghanistan was Virgil’s The Aeneid. 

“Truly a character worthy of contemplation by an American veteran,” Corley writes, “pious Aeneas embodies the nobility and brutality that became Rome. Virgil’s mournful epic of empire depicts Aeneas as a man whose gods were not worthy of him.”


Reading The Aeneid satisfied Corley’s thirst for understanding the changes he went through while in Afghanistan and served as a compass to the changes he experienced upon his return.

“Virgil’s art sustained hope that what was transpiring inside could one day be expressed,” Corley continued.

When one reads Virgil’s words closely, it’s not surprising that they resonated so clearly with Corley.

The lines quoted above come from Aeneas’s speech to his men after they had survived a horrible storm. He delivered the speech once he and his men had collapsed “into grief and trembling weakness.”


The speech struck Corley as a “particularly cogent expression” of the gap between “brave words” that must be said and unspeakable grief concealed beneath the surface.

Ultimately, according to Corley, “By composing himself before his comrades, Aeneas portrays the power of words to make us more than what we are, a gift that may console us — in part — for what we have become.”

“Since 2006,” writes Iraq War veteran Travis Martin, “I have undergone regular sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy and psychiatric treatment at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA provides me with techniques and medications that help take the edge off of my PTSD symptoms; their speech and pathology clinics have helped me deal with cognitive problems; and the compensation checks and educational stipends certainly make life less stressful.”

Still, Martin says, “my path to assimilation and healing did not begin until I began studying literature from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and wrote about what I experienced in war.”

This is how Martin came to learn about the restorative power of bibliotherapy, an expressive therapy that uses an individual’s relationship to the content of literature and other written works as a way heal from trauma.

Bibliotherapy has not only been shown to be effective in the treatment of depression, but the results have been shown to be long-lasting.

“As advocates of bibliotherapy point out,” writes Deborah Dysart-Gale, “the restorative and healing value of literature was known to Plato, the Romans and Benjamin Rush; spiritually and emotionally edifying literature has long provided readers with comfort and guidance.”

“Bibliotherapy has been identified,” she continues, “as an important area of medical research for several practical reasons as well: it is a form of alternative or traditional medicine; it has the potential to help patients who might not otherwise receive therapy.”

“I know firsthand,” writes Martin, “what it is like to have lingering, military-related illnesses surface after entering the classroom. However, I continue to gain strength through exploring these problems in literature and through writing about what I experienced.”

More specifically: “I have learned skills and methods for making sense of my wartime experience through narration. More importantly, I have learned ways to share my growth with the veterans around me. In this way, my journey has come full circle.”

Many veterans have difficulty understanding the emotions they feel after coming home from war. They may also have trouble interpreting their experiences. This trouble can be exacerbated by our society’s tendency to place value upon ignoring, repressing, and even lying about our emotions.

On top of all of that, pathological processes and psychological responses to trauma may impede veterans’ ability to remember.

By studying history and reading literature, however, veterans can learn to put their experiences into context, which greatly increases their chances for success — and growth — in life after war.



Second Class Trauma by Elisha D. Morrow

Coast Guard Sailor Elisha D. Morrow is a staunch advocate for Service Members who are victims of Military Sexual Trauma. She is also a survivor dealing with PTSD. This is a struggle in itself. As the author states, “There is no Service Medal for being a survivor of MST. Nothing to give your grandchildren. There is no feeling that what you went through was for a greater good of the country you served… It’s just hollow and empty.” We believe that her story will educate and inspire readers.

Prior to joining the Coast Guard I had never heard of the term Military Sexual Trauma (MST). I certainly would have never dreamed that by the end of my boot camp experience I would become a survivor of MST and the beginning of a horrible story in which myself and three of my fellow shipmates would be victimized. Ours is a story that our military has allowed to be repeated too often. I was the first. Hand chosen by our Lead Company Commander to be the “house mouse” (meaning I was to clean his office), I was often alone with him at night when all of my fellow recruits had retired for the evening. It didn’t take long before the abuse began, with him constantly making sexual comments, watching every move I made, and having me take my hair down. To make matters worse, he soon turned his attention to my fellow recruit, juggling time between being alone with me in one office one night and having her clean a separate unoccupied office the next. I felt horrible, as though by not entertaining his advances I had caused him to victimize someone else. I waited, realizing he was a predator and knowing that a sexual assault was inevitable. As it turned out, it was, as his next victim would find out.

Somehow, with the support of our other shipmates, we survived Cape May and tried to move on with our careers, thinking that silence was the only option. We went out into the fleet and another company moved in. A chance for another victim. A chance for another woman to be victimized. Her abuse started not unlike mine and the other members had, but it didn’t stop where it had with us. I believe emboldened by the fact that he hadn’t been caught for the crimes he had committed with us, he felt he was unstoppable and that no one would ever speak out. He would ask her if she masturbated, telling her that he just had and asking her sexual preferences, wanted to know if she ever considered being with girls. He began exposing himself to her, insisting that she watch. Eventually, he asked her if she used birth control. Shaken, she asked him why he wanted to know. The following night, she found out the intent behind his question. Telling her his wife would no longer sleep with him, he gave her a direct order to remove her clothing and then he proceeded to engage in sexual intercourse with her. She, like us, was terrified into silence and the cycle of graduating and a new company/victim coming in continued. His last victim, for whatever reason, received the same treatment as I and the first victim had, but was never physically attacked. Although the reason why was never said, it is something for which I am truly grateful to God. She too felt that there was no option and rather than causing one of her fellow shipmates to endure the same abuse that she was experiencing, she thought it better to suffer in silence.

Eventually, we found our voice. In the late fall of 2010, I made a call to Coast Guard Investigative Services and around the same time two of the other survivors (the woman that went through boot camp with me and the woman from his last company) went into their local CGIS office to tell our stories. An investigation ensued and in the fall of this year we attended the court martial of our former company commander. Sitting side by side, the four of us, who looked more like sisters (all blonde, all petite 5’3″) than shipmates in the Coast Guard listened as the judge issued a bad conduct discharge and 12 months confinement for the crimes that he had committed. While the judge issued the maximum punishment, we were devastated knowing that he would not be tried for sexual assault based on the current guidelines of Article 120 of the UCMJ (please see our petition for change of this law by going to < ).

I had thoroughly expected to be able to move on after the trial and pretend it had never happened. What I didn’t realize was that the more than three years that I had suppressed what had happened was about to come boiling back to the surface. Since the court martial, I have struggled with anxiety attacks, insomnia, nightmares, and depression. Worst of all has been the guilt. There is not an hour of any given day I don’t relive what happened and think that maybe if I had done something different that I could have saved the other victims that came after me. While I have not been formally diagnosed with anything at this time (I am awaiting my first visit with the VA), I do expect to eventually be diagnosed with something anxiety related, though I would not venture to assume what it might end up being. My husband, family, friends, and faith have all had a hand in keeping me grounded. I thank God for them.

I think one of the most difficult aspects of MST for me has been that I feel that my trauma is second class. It is a struggle to feel that you are worthy to stand beside someone who has been through “so much more” than you have. There is no Service Medal for being a survivor of MST. Nothing to give your grandchildren. There is no feeling that what you went through was for a greater good of the country you served… It’s just hollow and empty. I believe my fellow survivor summed it up best when she said, “PTSD is watching your best friend die in the sandbox, not this.” While I know this is not true at all, it is a common theme that I have seen over and over again in speaking with fellow MST survivors… The feeling that you don’t deserve a diagnosis PTSD, depression, or anxiety. That you aren’t worthy to be branded with a disorder that “war heroes” have.

In spite of the toll that this experience has taken, I will say that the valuable lesson that I learned was the realization that adversity gives birth to fighters. This experience has moved me to take the up the torch of this cause and work to change the way that not only the law is written, but the way the military handles these cases in general. There is no way I can cover the enormity military’s mishandlings of our case in one blog post. There are so many changes that need to be made, sometimes it is difficult to know what task to set about next. If I ever have a daughter, I hope that someday the military will be a place where members don’t have to fear those that serve alongside them. Until I see it happen, I will continue to fight for change. Unlike some, when I said honor, respect, and devotion to duty, I meant it with all my heart and I will continue to live those values as best I can in my civilian life.