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.

Untitled

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.

Building Hope From Tragedy: The Naslund Story

“Yet we few pay such a heavy price in hopes that our
Efforts might keep children, now yet just little boys,
From having to decide their innocence and lust for life
may best be sacrificed”

-excerpt from “Once Again to Be a Little Boy” by Dillion Naslund

I read this poem over and over. Its twenty-three lines contain a message that’s chilling yet bright, sad but hopeful. It articulates the internal conflict between the pain of post-traumatic stress and the deeply felt honor of military service, speaking volumes about how we attempt to reconcile the weight of all that. But the story behind this poem and its author, infantry Sergeant Dillion Naslund, is one that’s haunting – and hopeful – as the poem itself.

It was written six months before he ended his own life.

Naslund1Dillion Naslund was a normal kid, says his mother, Lisa. He was an avid outdoorsman, gregarious, and action oriented. Being such a hard charger, it was little surprise to their family that when he decided to enlist in the military he chose the Army infantry. Dillion joined during high school and became a member of the Iowa National Guard’s 34th Infantry Division, The Red Bulls. The surprises came later. After deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan, “we expected him to be different,” his mother said. “But there was no way to prepare for what would come.”

Naslund2Dillion changed after his second deployment. He was plagued by nightmares and flashbacks and was prone to bouts of depression and anxiety. He coped with alcohol. Although close with his family, he rarely talked about his experiences in combat. War had altered him dramatically. “So much was the opposite of what he was before.” In August 2012, alarm bells rang for the family when they learned that he was contemplating harming himself. They took him to the emergency room, and he was sent to a VA hospital for a time. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and began treatment. But the “beast” that was PTSD, and the magnitude of the battle he and his family had to face, was “too much, too big,” and came on “too fast.” The battle ended in his suicide in December 2012.

The Naslunds did their best to recover, grieving deeply and privately. But they were shocked and overwhelmed all over again when they learned that 22 veterans committed suicide every day. That’s when Lisa and her husband, Jeff, decided that they “had to do something to make a difference.” And they have in many ways.

dilliontitlecardBy sharing their experience, it was their hope to prevent the type of tragedy they knew all too well. Family friend and film-maker Tom Zwemke offered to help by creating a documentary film featuring Dillion’s story. Then they began reaching out to other families, like Howard and Jean Somers of California, who also lost their son to suicide. A letter of condolence from one mother to another led to collaboration on Operation Engage America, an organization that holds events devoted to raising awareness about the issues facing American veterans and providing education about the means to address them. The Naslunds launched a website that helps families and veterans alike navigate the bevy of resources available for help with PTSD.

It was the beginning of filming for the documentary that led to another surprise, that of a poem that surfaced written by their son: “Once Again to Be a Little Boy.”

Lisa says Dillion had “zero interest” in writing. So they were skeptical when his fellow soldier, Shannon, brought them a worn piece of paper containing the poem. Shannon told the family that Dillion had written it over the course of a long, problematic night spent at his house. They were amazed at the depth of the message it contained and came to learn much about their son’s frame of mind and the shape of the beast with which he was grappling. The more they read and thought about it, they came to believe something else:

“That poem, and him writing it, gave us more time with him.”

The Naslunds have made it their mission to give others time – and hope – any way they can. Their son’s death served as a way for his fellow soldiers to open up about their problems, knowing they weren’t alone. All across the country, people have contacted the family directly for help. They’ve made an impact in a broader sense as well. The Naslunds have saved many, many more through their significant contribution to raising awareness about PTSD and the veteran suicide epidemic.

The overall message they wish to convey is to reach out, communicate, and remain hopeful. “PTSD is not a death sentence…there is hope. If one thing doesn’t work, try another.” Getting help “starts with a conversation,” one that the Naslunds are fostering among families across the country.

The family’s latest surprise? Although “never a writer,” their son will be a published poet in As You Were: The Military Review, Vol. 2 in May 2015.

 

(contributed by David P. Ervin)