Release of BLUE NOSTALGIA, Vol. 4

MEA is proud to present a new edition of Blue Nostalgia: A Journal of Post-Traumatic Growth, our fourth installment of the title. Blue Nostalgia is a unique publication in that it contains stories of veterans’ and family members’ stories of how they face the challenges of post-traumatic stress as well has how they grow in spite it – or even because of it.

Volume 4 contains works from the perspective of family members of WWII veterans as well as from Vietnam and  Cold War veterans. They have in common the bravery to share their deeply personal  stories in order to educate the public and let other veterans and families know that they are not alone.

Read Blue Nostalgia: A Journal of Post-Traumatic Growth, Vol. 4 by clicking on the titles in this post or by navigating drop down menu under “Publications.”

Cover image: “Where to Go From Here,” woodcut print by Brandie Dziegiel

Living With Killing: Lifting the Weight of Moral Injury

by David P. Ervin

In “What’s It Like to Kill Someone?” Travis Switalski delved into the depths of an important question. He answered it adeptly, employing the kind of candidness that makes that conversation enlightening and worthwhile. It’s a dialogue that we are afraid to have with ourselves, much less with the vast majority of the society in which we live. It is a necessary one. And, of course, like any provocative piece of writing, he also raised another important question.

What’s it like to live with killing in war?

We live with it by going through a crucible of sorts, navigating our way through some dark psychological terrain. As Switalski wrote, calculated indoctrination and reflexes enable us to cross the threshold initially. Then the abstract justifies it for a time. For in doing this deed we have followed the rules of war. We have preserved the safety of our fellow soldiers. We’ve fulfilled our duty. Overall, we’ve participated in an act of violence that’s morally sanctioned by the state, something done to advance an endeavor intended to liberate others and protect our country. For a while, those metrics apply – long enough, at least, drive on and finish the mission.

But after a while those aren’t the means by which we measure ourselves and our conduct. We don’t look to them in the middle of the night to comfort ourselves.

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In order to kill we tapped into something in ourselves that is frightening and grotesque. When the context of training, duty, and politics is stripped away, we feel we’ve perpetrated something that is terribly wrong. We deprived people of something far more precious than any number of abstract ideals. We deprived them of their life. We know that despite the goal of providing people with freedom we showered them with violence, misery, and bloodshed. It’s enough to shatter our beliefs about the world and our place in it, and it does. Killing can create a phenomenon known as ‘moral injury.’ It’s defined as the psychological impact of transgressing core human values and beliefs.

That is the part we don’t live with. Dealing with a moral injury fosters a plethora of damaging behaviors and beliefs. Overall, we consciously stop believing we deserve life, especially any semblance of a good one. It can be a major catalyst of suicide. Even if not taken to that extreme, it impacts us in more subtle ways. We sabotage relationships and isolate ourselves from the world because we feel our souls are somehow poisoned. We have a peculiar tendency to believe that anything good that happens in our life is a mistake that requires correction. We think any good fortune is an anomaly because the world is an inherently malevolent place. You could say that it darkens our horizons.

But it doesn’t have to.

Someone once told me that, “You should be the best man you can be because that is the most real way that you can provide justice in an unjust world.” Those words have resonated deeply, and I think of them often. There is more truth in that statement than there is in the belief that we don’t deserve to see the brighter side of life. And there is, in fact, a way to cement that more positive mindset.

The real atonement for perpetrating and witnessing such horrors is to transcend them. They can – and probably should – define us for the rest of our lives, but how we shape that definition is up to us. We can regain our belief in the goodness in ourselves and in others by being a good person and serving selflessly. There is a multitude of ways to do so. We can be helpful to our neighbors, generous with our time, and magnanimous in our daily conduct. We can volunteer in the community or simply be a comfort to someone going through rough times. By engaging in the type of altruism that makes the world a better place we can see that it is not all so dark. We can carve out a small place in it that we know is good.

By guiding others to a brighter place we’ve helped create, maybe one day we’ll find ourselves in it. Of course, even if we don’t, we’ll know that in our time we’ve given the world something more than misery and bloodshed. Above all, we’ll know that there’s something good in ourselves to give.

The Kill Switch

Somehow it’s a dirty little secret that the entire purpose of war is to kill human beings. That vastly important fact is becoming more well-known thanks to the work of authors and journalists like Phil Zabriskie, a former foreign correspondent for Time who has also written for National Geographic, The Washington Post Magazine, and other notable outlets. He’s more than a war correspondent, though. He’s made a study of the subject of combat. He fine tuned that study with an in-depth exploration on killing in war in his latest book, a Kindle Single called The Kill Switch.

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Zabriskie delves into the phenomenon of killing with considerable skill. He expands our understanding of the concept into the societal and institutional context and contracts it into the personal. It’s perhaps the latter that gives the book its stark, chilling nature. The author chronicles the lives of several participants of the Iraq and Afghan Wars to illustrate the powerful psychological forces at work in the act of killing and the impact of the moral injury that killing causes. His coverage of these men over roughly a decade paints a clear picture of the entire process of learning to kill, applying those lessons, and attempting to find peace with that act. For instance, we learn about a Marine, Ben Nelson, who struggles with the times he killed and the times he didn’t. We learn of a Marine officer who bears the emotional burden of ordering men to kill as well as taking lives himself, and how the strict enforcement of the rules of engagement protected civilian lives as well as the combatants’ humanity. We see them in war. Then we see them in their living rooms. We see their pain with a clarity that speaks highly of Zabriskie’s expertise in recording the grim truth of war.

To his credit, Zabriskie lets the subject and those who lived it speak for themselves. But he’s packaged those voices in a concise and fast-flowing narrative, one that is buttressed by interviews with psychologists and research into relevant scholarship. It’s an engaging, educating read.

Although the book is short, it is long on authenticity and insight. Zabriskie has created a work that offers real-world examples of some of the ideas first explored by Dave Grossman. He has made a clear argument for the fact that killing is one of the most traumatic experiences of combat, and it is the very essence of war. How we treat that haunting truth – that we collectively flip a kill switch when we go to war – is up to us as a society, but Phil Zabriskie has done a remarkable job of defining it for his readers.

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(Review contributed by David P. Ervin)

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.