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Sunday, January 25, 2009

That Feeling of 'Aliveness' Combat Veterans Miss Most: Can it Be Recaptured in Ho-Hum Civilian Life?

A powerful post by Scott Lee, a Gulf War veteran who blogs over at PTSD, A Soldier's Perspective, arrived on Friday. We Cannot Make it Through the Confines of Our Minds Without the Help of Others is so full and rich and speaks entirely to my current research that I hope he doesn't mind my reprinting it here to share with you:

I am a Gulf War I vet, I felt the same as you when I returned home from combat. For me it was the total sense of feeling alive and being a part of my squad that I missed, although I did not figure this out until after 15 years of insanity.

In the mix, blood pounds through the veins and I received a powerful sense of completeness that I still chase today. The intensiveness of combat will never be matched in the civilian world, all the mundane things we did before seem totally a way to piss us off today. When faced with survival we let all the silly shit slough off of us and become one with the universe.

Our field of vision opens completely to encompass all within our sight, the tiny reflection in the corner of the eye becomes a sharp focus without having to direct attention its way. Time becomes suspended and we know and feel what omnipresence really means. How can anything else ever compare to this experiential endeavor?

I finally received help after 15 years, I could not drink enough alcohol, smoke enough weed, or seek out enough violence to get past the feelings of emptiness. I felt such an utterly and complete loss of self and sense of identity. We were trained to feel invincible, and it may even have seemed that way at times, but we did not get through combat without the help from the soldier next to us. We cannot make it through the confines of our minds without the help of others. We could not do it alone in combat, what makes you think that you can make it alone today?

He goes on to invite his readers to take a look at his process of returning to the fold of civilian life, learning how to deal with the changes that brings into a former combat veteran's life. Check out the rest of his postings.

I've included my response to Scott in extended.


Editors Note: This is the second in an evolving series of posts weaving together data and developing research for my NIU Honors Capstone paper, Combat Veterans, Mass Media and the Advancement of Social Consciousness: An Historical and Contemporary Review, the draft of which is due in April 2008.

Relevant comments, info-sharing and direction are highly appreciated, as the paper is fluid and in formation. I'm hoping to both present the research at this year's 17th Annual Clement S. Stacy Undergraduate Research Conference hosted by Purdue University, as well as submit it for publication in a peer-reviewed journal when everything is complete. That will be a first for me, and I'm excited at the prospects.

Thanks in advance for your help and patience with me as the semester unfolds and updates to PTSD Combat become hit-or-miss once more. -- Ilona Meagher

My response (I welcome any comments/corrections):

Scott, this is a remarkable piece.

You're on the leading edge of something magnificent, using new media to add your insightful observations to the mix. To me, that is the power of the era we are living in today. The immediacy of the exchange of these thoughts and observations is going far to change the way we view these grand issues we all grapple with, veterans and civilians alike.

So, I do believe that your work here (and at facebook) to help raise awareness and advance a higher consciousness forged out of your experiences is a great gift to the rest of society -- and humanity as well. It is one of the positive aspects of the dichotomy of war, that its participants often struggle yet often rise out of those struggles to become even better leaders and providers of truth and knowledge. Thank you for your continued service to us.

Wanted to let you know that I'm going to include some of your words and insights here in my Honors Capstone paper. ... They are directly on target for what I'm researching and will help to move my thesis forward.

Thank you for what you're doing!

---

P.S. I have talked about this facet of feeling so 'alive' during combat that you point to [in your post]. I have a certain theory on this, culled from a lot of reading and researching the issue of consciousness and presence, etc. over the past years.

One of the reasons why I believe you feel so alive at those moments is not merely because you're faced with your own mortality. But rather, imho, it's because your situation demands that your mind be fully present in the moment. Your mind knows that the only way it can survive is if your physical body survives, and so it shuts itself down for a change and becomes clear and present in the moment.

The mind tamps down all of its usual destructive 'mind chatter' (that most people usually have going on in their heads all the time) in those times of danger. It pushes out the usual stuff that takes us away from being in the moment every moment: those endless loops of thoughts on resentments or hang-ups over past situations (like how your parents or friend or girlfriend did this or that to you last week or last year or last decade and you can't forgive them or you are damaged because of them, etc.).

And your mind in those 'alive' moments also for a change gives up its power and control over your peace of mind, allowing streams of anxiety or worry over the future dissipate.

In those moments, where your mind melts away and you become alert and present to where you are at that very moment, you have clarity and an awesome and powerful feeling and knowledge of your aliveness because you're present in the moment liked you've never been before. When I mentioned this recently to an Iraq veteran who I am friendly with, he looked at me with a kind of 'ah-ah' look on his face and said that definitely makes a lot of sense.

Now, the reason why I think this is important to consider if you're a former combat veteran grieving a bit over the 'loss' of that feeling of aliveness, is that knowing why you felt alive actually opens up a pathway to returning to that state -- but without having to have fear or having to be in mortal danger be the fuel for it.

There are a lot of ways to presence.

While today's moments may not 'live up' to the exciting moments of your days in combat, they are the only moments you really have. The past is gone (and it's not coming back), and the future is never guaranteed. All we as humans should focus on is bringing our full attention and energy into experiencing the present moments that we live in.

Our minds play funny tricks on us, have you noticed?

Our mind devalues the present. It actively places a higher value on the past (that's why memories are usually more rose-colored than not), and it also places a higher value on the future (life will be better when I get to x,y,z...).

But 'aliveness' is not experienced in the past or the future -- no matter how much the mind would like you to think that it does. The present is the only vehicle to feeling alive, because it's the only time we really are. I know this is long and maybe a bit difficult to get a handle on (I'm still working on understanding it all as well), but your incredible post here drove me to wish to share these musings with you.

Again, keep up the great work, (((((Scott))))).

You are an important element in the progress we see today in our treatment and understanding of the issues that surround war and the search for meaning and peace with ourselves and the environment that envelops us.

Any other thoughts on these issues?


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