Introduction: After You Break

by David Chrisinger

What happens after you break? The world breaks everyone, Hemingway famously wrote in A Farewell to Arms. It shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, war is undeniably hellish, and many veterans throughout American history have struggled to move past their traumatic experiences once they return to civilian life.

In 1989, for example, two researchers published the results of a study in which they assessed war’s influence on the emotional health of World War II and Korean War veterans. Among the negative outcomes of their wartime service, the veterans cited the experience of a “disrupted life,” the pain of “separation from loved ones,” and a “delayed career” (between 40 and 50 percent of the 149 veterans surveyed).

“Bad memories” and “combat anxiety” emerged as the strongest negative effects for many of the veterans. One veteran from Oakland, California told the researchers that his memories of loss persisted, even four decades after the war ended: “Today I have nightmares. Something will remind me of the men I killed and this will bring me to the point of tears.”

Similarly, another veteran admitted that “the military service totally screwed up my life. I had a nervous breakdown that took me 20 years to get over—I became withdrawn, distrustful of others and a recluse. It wrecked me emotionally.”

At the same time, however, the trauma and suffering that oftentimes breaks our military veterans can lead to undeniably positive forms of growth. Between 60 and 70 percent of the World War II and Korean War veterans who were surveyed in 1989 selected “learned to cope with adversity,” “self-discipline,” “greater independence,” and a “broader perspective” as the most positive benefits of their war-time service.

A veteran of the intense shelling that took place during the Battle of the Bulge told the researchers that, “In the down times of my life, the rough moments, of which I’ve had a few, that bottom line, I’ve always come up with this: ‘Christ, this isn’t so bad. You could be back under a tree burst.”

Similarly, a veteran of four landings in the South Pacific said that combat taught him the confidence to overcome adversity, to persevere: “All one needs is the will to survive and the skill to cooperate with others, to be dependable and self-disciplined.”

The veterans who fought in heavy combat also were more likely to value human life than others not exposed to war’s destructiveness. “I developed a new sense of empathy,” reported one veteran, “after seeing the suffering of so many throughout the Pacific area.”

Such a nuanced understanding of trauma and its aftereffects can be hard to find in today’s media coverage of veterans. Depending on where you get your news, this latest generation of veterans has been neatly divided into one of two primary groups, each with its own narrative. The first—the “hero narrative”—portrays veterans as stoic and resolute Medal of Honor recipients with extraordinary courage, lone survivors of overwhelming odds largely unaffected by their trauma, or disabled warriors undaunted by their newfound limitations.

The other dominant narrative surrounding veterans is that of the “victim”: debilitated sufferers of post-traumatic stress, wounded warriors falling through the cracks at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and pitiful cases needing handouts. Drinking and divorce. Depression and destitution. Their fathers—those who fought in Vietnam—were oftentimes portrayed in even less flattering light.

To be fair, both narratives—like all generalizations—have some basis in reality. The problem with such polarizing and totalizing narratives, however, is that they emphasize two equally useless messages that have been used to represent all veterans: (1) that veterans belong on a pedestal or (2) that they are troubled and in need of pity.

“How many times,” asks former Marine infantry officer David J. Morris, “have you heard a television reporter talk about the joy of being alive with an Iraq veteran? Instead, they (and we) all slip back into a cultural habit that has its origins in the Vietnam War: we turn to pity and pathos. The veteran is a broken person, exploited by the state. A creature deserving of pity and a medical diagnosis that will grant them a special status in society.”

Many of the veterans I know—including those who contributed their stories to this collection—advocate for a third narrative: Even though war and other traumatic experiences change all who engage in them, veterans can still, by virtue of their experiences and struggles, be great and productive members of society back at home.

Indeed, some veterans will eventually achieve a degree of satisfaction, happiness, and emotional growth that may not have been possible had they not gone to war. A post-9/11 veteran named Camilo Ernesto Mejia, who was featured in the documentary Soldiers of Conscience, put it this way: “As horrible as the experience of war was, and as painful as the memory of it continues to be, I am now a much better person than I ever was. My eyes are open and I no longer view the suffering of others as alien to my own experience.”

Unfortunately, we as a society do not always recognize the ways in which surviving trauma can actually be beneficial. What we fail to recognize, more specifically, is the prevalence of “post-traumatic growth” among our combat veterans.

What exactly is post-traumatic growth?

The idea that a survivor of trauma could actually grow from their experience stems from the work of Professor Richard Tedeschi, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. In the early 1990s, Tedeschi began interviewing people who had suffered from severe physical injuries, including a number of people who had been paralyzed in car accidents. He also began interviewing senior citizens who had lost their long-time spouses. What Tedeschi found, time and time again, was that even though the people he interviewed regretted the loss of their mobility or their spouse, above all else the experience had altered them for the better and had given them a fresh perspective on life. Current studies have shown that 30 to 90 percent of people report some positive changes following trauma.

For many combat veterans, such a fresh perspective on life has a number of positive benefits. For example, at least one study of combat veterans has shown that combat can increase their desire to help others. Moreover, according to Dr. Aphrodite Matsakis, who has worked with veterans and their families for decades, there are a number of other positive outcomes they may experience following their service, including an increased:

  • desire to live each day to the fullest, including a reevaluation of one’s life and a reordering of priorities;
  • ability to tolerate and manage uncertainty;
  • ability to handle crises and remain self-aware;
  • sense of confidence and level of self-reliance;
  • awareness of the brevity and fragility of life;
  • ability to process and manage powerful emotions;
  • sense of belonging; and
  • faith in people and compassion for others.

Others may find that they have a greater determination to achieve goals, a greater appreciation for close relationships, and a greater sense of loyalty and commitment, as well as tolerance of others.

This process, whereby trauma leads to positive growth, doesn’t mean, however, that a trauma survivor will necessarily “get back to normal.” Some of those veterans featured in this collection will tell you explicitly that they are not the people they once were. They still have tough days, and there are times when all seems lost.

What I find so powerfully moving about these stories, though, is the ways in which these veterans have used their trauma as a springboard that propels them to a level of functioning higher than that they held before their trauma.

Take Jonathan Silk as an example. After being hit in the chest with a rocket-propelled grenade that fortunately didn’t detonate, he needed to have major heart surgery that probably should have ended his military career. After a short period of emotional turmoil, however, he made a conscious effort not to let his new reality keep him down. He stayed in the military, deploying twice more, and is now an instructor at West Point. “Having the courage to be imperfect,” he writes, “enabled me to resume being an endurance athlete and a soldier. I was able to reframe my injury and the ‘new normal’ as an opportunity to grow and develop.

Then there’s Joseph Miller. After surviving multiple IED attacks in Iraq, he came home with severe PTSD that made daily life almost intolerable. He was in a dank, nasty stairwell when one of these attacks occurred, and when he got home, such places became triggers for him, snapping him back to that fateful day. Instead of avoiding anything that reminded him of his trauma, he embraced them. He now works out routinely inside a dank, nasty stairwell at the university he attends. “I add PTSD stressors like I add mileage,” he writes, “by consistently building up in little intervals. It is so meaningful to me to do my best therapy in a building named to honor University of Maine Veterans and the fallen from the First World War.”

We cannot choose to live a life without suffering—such does not exist. While it is true that, “The world breaks everyone,” it is also true, as Hemingway says, that “some become strong at the broken places.”

In the end, healing from a traumatic experience can be a painfully slow process, but as the veterans who were brave enough to tell their stories in this collection can attest, there is comfort in the fact that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. Keep going. Be patient. Don’t stop.