You Could Change Their Lives – Heroes and PTSD

We live in an era where this term has become an everyday headline and yet so few in our culture understand why it exists. How do we live in a culture where violence, death and killing are on every TV show, movie and video game we play and yet this is still a problem? Many of the violent acts in our culture can be traced to the idea that by seeing fake death constantly you become indifferent to it, it desensitizes you. This is what video games were originally designed to do, train the military to act without hesitation, to kill without considering death first.

I have raised all of my children, boys and girls, with guns from a very young age. It is always around hunting and it always requires them to face death. They need to understand it is permanent, there is no reset or rewind button to make it go away. By doing this I can say with certainty they would never look to violence to solve their problems, there is always another way. Too few ever get this balance and then they don’t respect life or death for what it really is.

It’s my belief that this is not a new ‘disorder’ or ‘disease’ it’s more of a new term to describe the oldest challenge we as people face; death is real. I have spent countless hours speaking with Veterans that try to come back and return to ‘normal’ and these are the resulting opinions I have come to realize.

We use terms like combat, armed forces and military to describe something in a very stand-offish way. At the core, it’s a fight to the death. And somebody dies. It is a permanent and irreversible conclusion that changes your life forever. We associate PTSD with the military but by doing so we create a nice term to describe a horrible experience.

The reason so many of our Veterans, law enforcement and first responders deal with this is they work hand in hand with the grim reaper on a daily basis. There is something that happens when you grow up watching it on TV, movies or practice it in video games for hours. You come to assume it is a temporary condition. You know the actors don’t really die. I remember watching the last Fast and Furious movie with my youngest son not long after the lead actor died in real life. At the end of the movie they did a special sendoff that connected the characters death to the real death of the actor. In that moment, when my son realized it was real, he wept. He realized it was permanent, someone he had related to in the movie, someone he had rooted for, someone he had liked was now gone. He had never met this person but death became real for him. I did not shy away from that I took the time to explain it because this is part of a balanced life. At that moment he needed me to take the time to help him grasp it.

It is so much more when you are in combat, or you face a criminal that is trying to take your life or you fight to save someone’s life in a car wreck. You feel the inevitable truth that our lives are but a whisper and, in that moment, you are faced with the one truth you can never escape, death and life are out of our control. For some they point to God and faith that there is something beyond and for some that don’t have faith they begin a journey into the darkness of ‘none of this matters and I am helpless to change it’. For our heroes it can be even worse, many feel the burden to stop death, to save lives and feel it is their failure when they can’t.

I have found that in speaking to people struggling with this my advice is often to say, this is part of life; to realize that death is inevitable. It doesn’t have to be something that paralyzes you, for many it can motivate you to live life fully. The truth is, most of the people I talk to get so focused on the past and the struggle of wishing they could change something that was out of their control, they waste precious minutes they could be using to live the life they still have. It ultimately comes down to what you live for. What do you need in your life for it to have been worth it. Must you be rich, successful, married, skinny…what?

I have been face-to-face with death many times in my life and I have struggled like everyone else with finances, careers, purpose and my own standards for what my life should represent. Many times, in the midst of a major struggle my wife will come to me and say, it’s just money, we can move or we’ll make it…at least our children are alive and healthy, we are good. This is the simple perspective most people with PTSD need, it’s why they struggle, they are looking back rather than forward.

In our society it is big business for companies selling treatments for depression, anxiety, etc. But this is not a new problem, people have dealt with this since the beginning. We simply cannot control the outcome. The danger is that the counseling focuses on the past not the future. The drugs give you the impression something is wrong with you that you can’t fix. It’s amazing that many stop taking the drugs and become ‘better’ and yet the doctors have no explanation. The reason; we are capable of overcoming our fears if we try. You can either get busy dying or get busy living, it’s a choice. And no matter what choice you make it still doesn’t change the outcome, it’s still out of your control.

So, this holiday season, when many reflect on their lives and deal with the losses more than any other time, you CAN help. You don’t need to be a doctor, you simply need to care. Take the time to listen to their struggles, be brave enough to tell them this is not a healthy perspective. Remind them of what they have to live for. I recently told a Vet friend of mine the key to getting through a period of darkness is to look at his dog. The dog needs some attention, some love and some food…everything else in life is but a mirage, it simply doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

We fight for our careers, our stuff, our money, our reputation and our ‘mark’ on the world but all of these things are soon forgotten. People move on, a concept I learned in the military, we are all cannon fodder, our roll in life may be to take the cannon ball so the guy behind us lives. This is not really a depressing view on life, it can be a very liberating view. Because it will force you to set your priorities right. Your children don’t care if you are a VP they just want to be tickled before going to bed. Live every moment to the fullest, getting a task done at work is satisfying and it’s our duty since a company is paying us. However, it doesn’t define us. The company will hire your replacement within weeks of your departure. What matters is the relationships with the people you work with. How are you impacting each other’s lives?

The reason so many feel lonely is that so many others are selfish and self-centered. We all share this same fear and challenge to live our lives fully. Maybe your life won’t be remembered because of the next Power Point you create, but it could be remembered for a simple conversation you have in the breakroom.

We have lost the art of being people. I love the movie Cast Away and will admit sometimes I long for that to happen to me. But the challenge to you is to change the plot up a little; what if there were 2 or 3 people stranded together. Do you really think you would compete for who is in charge? Do you think you would care about any of the things you stress about daily? No, you would pull together, you would share fears, you would fight to live every second for the hope of something better in the future. You wouldn’t say I wish I could get rescued so I could finish that project, you would say I wish I could hug my little girl one more time.

Share this perspective with those you meet that are struggling with PTSD, you can be the cure for them. All you have to do is talk. Yes, they have seen and experienced things you may not want to know. We all like to avoid this topic at all costs, but sometimes when you spend time with those that have shaken the reaper’s hand, your life will change as well. By pausing to hear their story you will likely change your own.

I don’t think PTSD is a disease we need to treat or cure, instead I think there are people we need to meet and care about. Simply telling a Vet, a cop, a fireman or an EMT that you are thankful for your life. Tell them about your kids, your fears, let them see what they faced was for a purpose. Ask them about their struggles and their hopes, let them know they are not alone. Let them know that they are not different from you. Yes, they saw death up close, yes, they faced fears you haven’t. But you too are scared of death, you too are afraid and you too are not sure if your life matters. This lets them know they are not alone, they are not weird, they are not outcasts. This will save them and probably you too.

In closing I will share a story to put this in perspective. Last year I road 8000 miles across America on my Harley. I stopped to get gas at a little service station on some back road. On my helmet I have USAF TACP Vet stenciled. An older gentleman was getting gas in front of me and decided to come over and thank me for my service. In my everyday life I am not a chit chat type of guy, I would never start up a conversation with a stranger at a gas station. But here I was and I admit, after 20+ years as a Vet I still don’t know how to respond when someone thanks me for my service. So, in my awkwardness I tried to shift the conversation from me and asked him if he served. He then told me about adventures as a fighter pilot.

He likely had no one left from his time in service as he was probably in his 80s. But he at one point proudly pointed out one of the biggest flags I have ever seen flying high on a pole next to the gas station, high enough and big enough to be seen from the main road far away. He told me he had paid for it, he fought the local town to get the permits and talked the owner of the station into letting him put it up. I could see the pride in his eyes.

As I finished our conversation I went to the restroom to change my shirt, while in there I could hear him talking to the cashier and saying that is a good man right there. When I walked up to the counter he had paid for my gas. I shook his hand and I said Mr. Bob, I will never see you again, our paths will never cross in our lives ever again but I want you to know you will never be forgotten. What you have done today will live forever in my memory, I will tell this story for years to come. You changed my life today. I am very glad I needed gas. He looked at me and wept and said likewise. I don’t know his story, I don’t know his fears but his life did matter if for no other reason it all led up to the point where our paths crossed.

I am not sharing this because I am an amazing man, I realized as I drove for the next two hours how many conversations like that I had probably missed in my life. How many opportunities to intertwine my life with others. I didn’t feel proud, I felt ashamed. I had wasted so many minutes. Since then I do walk a little slower, I do take the time to meet people. The result is my life has been fuller since doing so, everyone I meet changes me. Every story I hear makes my perspective clearer. In reality, what I have come to realize is we are all stranded on this island together so we should be working together to survive.

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