Although the vivid events of the evening are painted in explicit detail across the canvas of my mind, I do not recall the weather, the day of week or even the name of the play. I do know the year was 2006 and my entire family was attending a winter theatre production in Western Canada. As usual, my mom had orchestrated seats and the evening to our preferences–with Papa in the exit seat for restroom breaks and me in the next seat for tactical reasons. Since my return from Iraq, my mother had learned to quietly ensure I was able to sit facing the door or in whichever seat would appease my hyper-vigilance and allow me to relax somewhat. Outside, I was still scanning rooftops for snipers and choosing alleyways over sidewalks whenever alone. Tonight however, I was able to relax into the warmth of family and the magical world being created on stage.
Brilliant actors were in revolutionary-era uniforms indicative of British soldiers and scenes were set in a winter of Christmas past. With intricate lighting cues and excellent stage managing, the theater seemed to warm with the flicker of fake campfires and shudder with a distinct chill when an actor leaned into the howling of wind. The accents were charming and around the warmth of such a campfire, two characters removed their overcoats and warmed their hands.
As with many of my memories from combat, the instant in the play when conflict was initiated is recorded with the type of clarity and detail possible only with the traumatic distortion of time. Looking back, I can almost enjoy the reactions of the actors to the whistling of incoming artillery rounds accompanied by loud explosions and carefully sequenced strobe lights as entirely passable; except for those around me who witnessed the reaction of a combat veteran. My state of suspended reality imploded into a tornado of past experience, current hyper-vigilance and complete what-the-fuck-ness.
Adrenaline lifted me forward and up as I knew my skills as a medic would momentarily be needed in the struggle to save multiple lives, including potentially my family. No longer were the actors on stage in a play, nor were they enemy combatants or dead friends; they were simply more defenseless lives in this building which was under the type of attack I knew so well. Without digressing into the addictive flow of combat, the type of adrenaline that surges through a medic's veins while witnessing a mass-casualty event would be indescribable by even the Hulk himself, Dr. Bruce Banner. In an instant, my hometown had become a battleground and the bottom dropped out from under me as I realized I was without my squad, my weapon and my medic bag.
The military “OODA Loop” is comprised of observing, orienting, deciding and, only then, acting. Fortunately, my training proved as strong as my instinctive impulse to respond. In the first nano-seconds and final stages of orienting to the new combat scenario around me, I scanned quickly side to side to assess the safety of my family.
To my great relief, they were safe and intact. In fact, they were not concerned about the incoming artillery at all; nor were they enjoying the play any longer. My entire family was looking at me with incredible shock and concern, as though I were the one hit by the simulated explosions and indeed I was. Disoriented, I experienced a helplessness reminiscent of when I was wounded in combat.
With massive energy suddenly suspended like the crest of a gigantic wave, I observed and absorbed the gut-wrenching reactions from faces I had seen since birth. I had hurt them. How could I have brought the stench of combat into this ornate theater, a tactical mindset to a peaceful outing or my soiled self into this innocent family? Without understanding that what I was experiencing was normal, I judged myself and the energy I had built up instantly found an easy outlet in shame and guilt.
Crashing down into the seat, I collapsed with my head between my knees; sobbing and shaking. I remember my grandfather's strong hands, thumbs moving and fingers steady as he held my arm. I remember my mother's words, comforting me in tones so familiar from times past. I remember being entirely surrounded and supported by the love of my family. However, what remains the most vivid and haunting memory to this day is the look of pain on my father's always gentle and kind face.
I do not remember the rest of the play or if we even stayed; in fact, I do not remember anything from that trip before or after this event. For nearly a decade, my self-judgment remained intact as evidence of my disability and a barrier to pursuing healing. Tears flow even now as I reflect–despite the fact I have found and accepted forgiveness—indicating even additional layers of healing still now.
re-imagining as my father
Oh my heart. I felt terrible! It was a George Bernard Shaw play entitled, Saint Joan, and although I read the book it never occurred to me that the medieval context would align with the reality of combat in the middle east. This was also before Judy and I knew anything about PTSD or that our son was affected by his experience in combat. Although I served in the Air Force during the Korean War and my father occupied Japan during WWII, Matt was the first of our family in a five generations to see true combat and as a medic. I had no common point to begin conversation and was not sure that Matt would want to talk about it.
Up until Matt was affected, this evening had been another wonderful time with my family. My father was in town and Matt was safe home from Iraq. Truly nothing could have been better in my eyes than us all together, having fun and being grateful for each other. Then the simulated artillery began and I looked to my left to see my son's reaction. I cannot imagine what Matt felt and I am not sure that I would want to know the depths. Simply witnessing him experience what some might call a “flashback” was enough to bring my stomach into a large knot in my throat. How could I not have seen this coming? How could I not have protected my son from this seemingly incredible pain?
Possibly the worst part about the situation was that, in the moment, I was unable to help my son. As Matt sat with heaving shoulders and silent sobs, all any of us could do was attempt to comfort him. Logically, I could add his experience with the external stimuli and understand that he was triggered. We knew nothing further at the time except that Matt was hurt and we had caused it, inadvertent or not. All we could do was love and support him, with the intent of not making him feel judged.
Although Matt was within my reach, he may as well have been across the universe for a couple seemingly-endless moments. Slowly regaining control and breathing deeply in between seemingly involuntary sobs, Matt sat back in his chair and I felt a bit of relief. The worst of the experience seemed to be over and shortly we were heading back to the car. Although he was too shaken up to pretend otherwise, Matt returned to his usual task of caring for others and offering jokes to lighten the mood.
Knowing your child is affected so deeply by something you do not understand is a helpless and sickening feeling. I made the best decisions I could to raise and protect my children, after which Matt had gone to combat. Although that was a nerve-wracking period that included a devastatingly vague phone call regarding our son receiving a head injury, this new battle appeared to be more intimidating. I had heard about PTSD in the news regarding several extreme cases involving domestic abuse and violence. My son seemed as far from those as he was the Vietnam stereotypes we knew of.
Matt chose not to talk to me about the incident and that was okay with me. The father in me desperately wanted to help my son but I did not have much to go on. I held faith that Matt felt our love, support and non-judgment regarding the theatre experience, as well as, the love of our Almighty Father.
re-membering as a son
As a new father, I often find myself revisiting moments from my past with my newfound paternal perspective. The love I experience for my daughter has added layers of understanding to my own past, including several unresolved memories to which I clung with various forms of negative attachment. Although my tenure as a father is limited and the learning curve seems exponential to date, the first moment I saw Leona changed my entire outlook. Attempting to re-imagine events from my father’s perspective quickly exposed negative identity conclusions, that I had simply accepted as truth. When “conclusions are deprived of the truth status that has been assigned to them — these conclusions cease to carry the authority that they did” (White, 2001).
I did not speak with my family about the incident that day as I continued to buy into the dominant narrative of the soldier as a silent professional for another decade. I now know they would have been happy to hear me out and a conversation would have been mutually beneficial to a life changing extent. No matter my age or experience, I will remain the loved and protected son of my father. With the amount of love I know exists within my family and true friendships, sharing experiences may have led to research and the search for healing. Instead, I stayed stuck in my own dangerous perspective for a long time before finally realizing I needed to be receptive to the experiences of others to more comprehensively understand my own.
White, Michael. (2001). "Narrative Practice and the Unpacking of Identity Conclusions." Adelaide, Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications (p.1-24).