2010 Remembrance Day I found myself unable to join my unit, and attended our local Cenotaph in uniform to lay the Freehold Wreath and watch my daughters march in the Parade. As often happens at such functions, the crowd sort of self -filtered until I was surrounded by men whose dress and bearing marked them as all former soldiers, and some of them quite recent.
We chatted and made small talk about where we had done what with whom, found the usual points of commonality that all service men and women seem to share and generally were able to relax as a group in friendly company. During the Padre’s heavy Christian service, I noticed one of our vets beginning to lose it. His hands and teeth were clenched, his eyes teared and he was snarling with poorly suppressed rage at hearing his dead comrades compared to lambs and having their lives and deaths reduced to some knock-off of Christ’s (unwilling) sacrifice.
To defuse what looked to be an impending explosion I began to softly speak of the Old Gods wisdom and the words of the Hamaval. As I spoke, he began to listen, and to relax. To hear the words
Cattle die, kinsmen die,
you too will die
One thing alone will not die,
the fame of a good mans deeds
affected not only him, but the other gathered veterans as well. On some level all soldiers know that their immortality, like their honour is born from the men and women around them, on the shared trials, hardships, occasional silliness, and too often horror that mark service to the folk. As in this time and place, the old wounds were open, I took the opportunity to minister to him, and to the other listening veterans as I spoke the terrible truths, the things that our ancestors understood and accepted, but Christianity with its plaster saint model of soldiers have deliberately concealed.
What are the terrible truths?
1). I'm glad it was him, not me.
Yes we all feel lucky when the man beside you dies, and not you, and then we feel deeply ashamed to have felt that way, as if we have betrayed our comrades, or shown cowardice.
More blest are the living than the lifeless,
'for a dead man gathers no cows;
I saw the hearth-fire burn in the rich man's hall
and himself lying dead at the door.
You are supposed to want to live, your desire to live is part of what keeps you fighting, and that love of life is essential if you are going to be fit to return home again. There is no shame in not wanting to die.
2). I'm angry they deserted me.
How unfair! How human; to rail against the dead for deserting us, for leaving us to face life without them. Funerals have always been for the living, the dead need nothing from us anymore. It is natural for us to look at that hole inside where a loved one, comrade, family, or lover used to be, and curse the one who made that wound; even if it was by dying. We then feel shame for resenting the dead.
3). Real men don't cry, (but sometimes I do).
Pain and tears are an offering to the dead, at the funeral or at the Rememberance, the spirits of the dead gather at the call of the living. In this time, in this place, your tears, your pain, is a sacrifice to honour those that you lost. If they were worthy in life of your love and respect, then your tears should burn proudly on your face, for they are owed the dead, and you will not betray them by pretending you care not.
4). I think they were the lucky ones.
The dead fall in glory, the living have to pay the price of the things we do for the folk. On some level, the image of ascending to Valhalla, Heaven, the Summerlands, in a blaze of glory is so much more seductive than dealing with money problems, anger issues, problems sleeping, getting old/wrinkled/crippled. Of course you gloss over the fact that the dead never tasted another beer, or kiss, never held their children again, never got the ten thousand moments of little pleasure we tend to forget about. We fight to survive, but it is a fight that has no end but the grave. If death is a feather and duty a mountain, it is not insane to sometimes look at the feather and think it the lesser burden. As long as you keep lugging your mountain, thats perfectly OK.
5). I hated it, but I miss it......
Fear sucks, stress gets old, and while you can get used to anything, sometimes getting used to chewing dust in your food, having things living in your clothes, sleeping with your rifle, and being stared at by flat hostile eyes or false smiles gets to you after a while. On the other hand, knowing you are at your very best, knowing the people beside you will literally risk their lives for you, knowing that you are working with people who are every bit as driven, dedicated, and professional as you, knowing that the job will demand everything you have to give; that does get addictive. There is a terrible purity to absolutes. Absolute necessity; I will do whatever it takes to complete this mission. Absolute loyalty; trust without limits or hesitation. These two things once experienced change you, and you do not encounter these in the 'real world', nor is there any reason to. No employer gives such loyalty, nor is deserving of it. No job is worth sacrificing your life, rather you have a responsibility to guarentee your safety, as a breadwinner, for your family.
6). I don't understand people anymore.
Abuse victims, survivors of disasters, soldiers, ER trauma teams, and even police in high crime areas will understand that passage through the fire changes you. Like losing your virginity, there is no going back to innocence. Once you have lived with and through certain things, you can never look at the world the same again. A gap opens up between who you are now, and who you were before. You find that you no longer understand family and friends, but you can talk easily with near strangers who simply share that one, seemingly minor, event from your life.
We all use the same words, but some experiences forever change our dictionaries. In a way even parenthood is one of these changes. There is no point in trying (and failing) to be who you were. We are the sum of our choices and experiences, what we have been through changes and strengthens us. You can learn to relate to people from your old life again, but you will have to reach new understandings; you may find that while you can never have the relationship you remember, what you can have now may well become something stronger and deeper.
PTSD in popular myth springs from those few moments of terror we all return to. Honestly probably some does, or at least the triggers come from there. PTSD in practice more commonly comes from long periods of stress and fear. Under those long periods of inhuman stress, people either break, or twist. In a way, PTSD is born of the mental coping mechanisms that got you through the day. Those mechanisms begin as safety valves, but when locked away, growing in pressure without relief, become as land mines. We put the land mines in crates, and shipped them home, just so we could keep it together. Now those mines wait to be either found and disarmed, found, mapped, and carefully avoided, or stumbled across in moments alone and unprepared where the casualty is simply delayed, not avoided. We are not the people that marched away. We need to find a way to draw strength from what we were then, and strength from what we have become after our return, and through those two strengths learn to make new ways through the mine field so we are able to truly embrace life again, rather than withdrawing, less we stumble across the wrong trigger, and have one more terrible memory to live with. Our ancestors lived in hard times, and learned these terrible truths. They left us tools to learn to live with duty done, and hardships survived. The hardest among them left us ways to love and laugh again.
This is not meant to be a guide to how to minister to everyone, nor even for how you should minister to soldiers. What this is, is one map of how our lore and traditions give us the capacity to deal with those things that our societies hypocrisy has ill prepared people for. Inside you are the tools your faith and your life experience have given you; inside the hurting people are memories of doing what it took to survive, and a lifetime of programming telling them they should hate themselves for doing it. Find within yourself the secret shameful truths they are tormenting themselves with and dare to speak them without shame. The gods do not want us crippled. The gods do not give us tools they do not want us to use, and sometimes there really aren't any good options available. Learn from what you have survived, but never allow yourself to feel ashamed for being alive to apply the lesson afterwards.
John T Mainer