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Blue Nostalgia, Vol. 3 Released

MEA is proud to present a new edition of Blue Nostalgia: A Journal of Post-Traumatic Growth, our third 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 3 contains works from Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan veterans, each with a unique voice and perspective. They have in common the bravery to share their deeply personal  stories in order to educate the public and let their fellow veterans know that they are not alone.

Read Blue Nostalgia: A Journal of Post-Traumatic Growth, Vol. 3 by clicking on the titles in this post or by navigating drop down menu under “Publications.”

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Spotlight: Seth Kastle

by Joseph Stanfill

When news of Why Is Dad So Mad? by Seth Kastle first broke on social media and NBC news I was immediately enamored by the premise. A father of two little girls who is also a combat veteran had written a children’s book.  This is no ordinary children’s book, mind you, this is a book which attempts to explain Seth’s post-traumatic stress disorder to his daughters. I turned to my wife after watching the news report on Seth and said, “This is what we need.” In researching the topic of PTSD for the past five years, I had not come across such a basic yet intriguing concept. How could one possibly take something so complex and heartfelt and translate it for an innocent child? How could a combat veteran, a former drill sergeant, and a company first sergeant put things into perspective for children?  Dr. Seuss had explained numerous ideas to children through his stories, and Mr. Rodgers educated three generations of Americans on kindness, courtesy, and respect via his television show. Never has an author taken on the task of expressing such an intricate issue as PTSD to children. Until now.

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The book expresses the often hard to grasp ins and outs of PTSD, yet delivers it in a way that children can understand. My copy came in the mail just two days after watching the NBC feature. My wife and I read through it, and read it to my three year old son that same night before bed. He had that look of understanding on his face that kids get when they see something clearly for the first time. I knew he didn’t have a full grasp of what was going on with me, but by reading the book with him started a very difficult dialogue to have with a child.  Thanks to the book, that dialogue became easier to start

When asked about his inspiration for the book Seth doesn’t mince words.

“Well, personally it’s something that I’m not proud of. It’s the thing I hate about most about myself. So I wanted to be able to explain this to my kids. So there’s this cathartic process of getting this out there and paying things forward. You’ve talked about some of the darker days that you had, you know you had help from people, and I did also. I wish I could say that I’m a self-made man and I did this on my own, but that would be a complete lie. There’s a lot that goes along with this. If I could help others have these conversations, that’s what I would like.  Maybe that’s a driving factor. Things like initiating social change is obviously an issue. If you look at the way this book has taken off, I think it speaks to the tremendous need out there. There are so many people, so many families that are impacted by PTSD. Having the ability to make that impact, hopefully helping families have these conversations and helping people understand, is a pretty big driving force for me also. My process for this was, I had had a really bad day at work, and this had been in my head a long time. I came home and sat down at my kitchen table and I wrote this in about twenty minutes. It sat there for a long time. I have a good friend who lit a fire under me to make this happen.”

Writing can be therapeutic for anyone who has suffered a trauma. While not directly dealing with Seth’s diagnosis, the writing and success has been therapeutic for him.

“If anything, I would say the therapeutic part has been the feedback I’ve received from people. It’s been extremely humbling. People are saying things like, ‘This has helped me reconnect with my kids, or ‘It’s made such a difference in my life.’ That piece has been more therapeutic than anything.”

After separating from the military, many veterans still have the drive to serve others in some capacity. As Seth says:

“I know it isn’t going to last forever. I’m trying to do as much as I can right now with the spotlight I seem to have. I was gifted 1,000 copies of the book from Amazon, and I am going to try to send them directly to the OIF/OEF counselors at every major metropolitan VA hospital. This book is geared toward our generation.”

final-book-just-cover365x361Seth is planning a follow-up book for female veterans. When asked about the inspiration for that project he said:

“Well, I suppose it’s because my wife is a combat veteran also. She has her baggage too. When I had the idea for the first one, I knew I could do a second, that there would be a large need for it. She’s going to coauthor the book with me, and it took a long time to get her to do that. You’ve got to think about how much you are putting yourself out there when you are doing something like this. That was tough. Without question the hardest part of all of this, it’s just like, man I’m putting all of this out there you know.  –Seth has PTSD, I mean – that’s hard. My wife isn’t as comfortable with stuff like that, and I finally got her to come around.  I related to her that this would mean more to women if it came from a woman. Looking back on my research, there are books out there, but everything is geared toward men. So I realized we have had a decade of war that has been fought in an asymmetrical fashion…There are these blurred lines of women in combat, and there is nothing out there for them.”

Is there any message you want to send to our readers?

“Yeah, I would encourage people to go get help. My health is better because I swallowed my pride and got help. I don’t know where I would be today if I didn’t. Taking the steps to keep my family together was the best decision I ever made. If this is something you might need, get help. I would also encourage veterans to do their homework on burn pit exposure, chemical weapons exposure, and mefloquine toxicity. These are all huge things that are going to have adverse effects on our generation of veterans.”

Not everyone who puts their story down on paper will be able to publish a book. Not everyone who relates their feelings through prose will gain an audience or impact people the way that Seth’s book has done and will continue to do. What you could gain from beginning to express yourself through writing or art is a better understanding of you, and you just might offer a glimpse of the military experience to those who haven’t lived it. That is the beginnings of changing the narrative, and engaging in personal growth from trauma.

Why Is Dad So Mad? can be ordered through Amazon.

 

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.

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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.