Finding Your Way Into the Inner Circle
Looking back over the past 4 years, it is hard to imagine how far we have come. It is hard to see and remember the initial struggles, we had our share and then some. There were days, weeks and months and months that I didn’t know if we would make it. We did. It was not without sacrifices and lots of mistakes. We no longer use the word failure, it is feedback. People ask me everyday how we did it. There are lots of things that we did, but the most important thing was finding my way into his inner circle.
Veterans live and die by trust or lack thereof. Trust is one of the single most important things to a Veteran. In the hundreds of veterans that I have talked to well over 90% say that trust is more important in a relationship than love. That is hard for many people to understand. We often think that love is the most important thing in our relationships. The reality is that you cannot have love without trust. No one ever tells us that. We just think that we can get by on love alone.
I can remember early on my veteran describing the relationship that he had with his battle buddy. He didn’t share a lot of details, just that they would take a bullet for each other. I used to say that until I really thought about what that would mean. I wasn’t sure I could do that. I had even told my veteran that I could do that to protect myself or him and he has told me numerous times that he didn’t believe that I could when the time came. It infuriated me. He said that I didn’t truly understand the ramifications as to what that would mean. Thinking back on those moments he was probably right. I loved him, I just wasn’t sure I could pay the ultimate price for him or that love. To be in that inner circle we had to have that kind of trust in each other. At the time we didn’t.
I didn’t realize that my actions and responses were a huge part of us not developing that level of trust. Just telling him I loved him wasn’t enough. Trying to make things easier for him wasn’t enough. Keeping things from him so I didn’t trigger him wasn’t enough. Walking away to avoid a conflict wasn’t enough. Giving him suggestions on ways he could get help and fix himself wasn’t enough. Not communicating with him, so I didn’t set him off wasn’t enough. In fact, all these actions were just reinforcing his lack of trust.
How did I unlock the secret to becoming part of his inner circle? It wasn’t easy. It took a lot of time and a lot of trial and error. It took a lot of me learning that I had to own my feelings and not take everything personally. I had to step back and learn how his mind processed things. Everything is black and white to a Veteran. They don’t do gray well. I had to stop attaching emotions to everything. When people, not just my Veteran, did things that were wrong I had to stop makeing excuses and say things like “maybe they are having a bad day”. I had to learn to see things the way they really were. I still struggle with that. When I look at things from my emotions it usually comes back to bite me, and I get to hear I told you so.
There are a lot of techniques that we can learn and use to communicate with our Veteran. In the beginning the techniques are not as important as just communicating. Stop walking on those eggshells. Here are some of the basics. You will find a way to refine them as you grow together and find what works best for you and your Veteran.
Communication needs to be clear and concise. Don’t sugar coat things and don’t bring your emotions into it. It’s not that they don’t care about your feelings; they just don’t know how to process them, and feelings make them feel uncomfortable.
Don’t keep things from them. Even something as small as a past due notice that you will take care of is worth sharing. You should be prepared that they may not react in the manner that we want them to. Remember it’s not personal. Keeping things from them breaks trust.
Don’t assume that they cannot handle something. We often find ourselves deciding what they can and cannot handle. We have no idea what they can handle and taking that choice away from them is not only demeaning it will destroy trust. We wouldn’t want someone making all our decisions for us.
When communicating it is important that we address the actions and not the person. When a child does something wrong, we don’t tell them that they are bad, we tell them that their actions are bad. We need to practice this when talking to adults too. In the words of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, “People put you down enough, you start to believe it….the bad stuff is easier to believe.”
I also took a lot from an article that I read that was written from a combat veteran. This was valuable.
1. He is addicted to war, although he loves you. War is horrible, but there is nothing like a life‐and‐death fight to make you feel truly alive. The adrenaline rush is tremendous, and can never be replaced. Succeeding in combat defines a warrior, places him in a brotherhood where he is always welcome and understood. The civilian world has its adrenaline junkies as well; just ask any retired firefighter, police officer, or emergency room staff if they miss it.
2. Living for you is harder. It would be easy for him to die for you because he loves you. Living for you, which is what you actually want, is harder for him. It is even harder for him if you are smart and do not need him to rescue you, since rescuing is something he does really well. If you are very competent at many things, he may at times question if you need him at all. He may not see that you stay with him as a conscious choice.
3. “The training kicks in” means something very different to him. It is direct battle doctrine that when ambushed by a superior force, the correct response is “Apply maximum firepower and break contact.” A warrior has to be able to respond to threat with minimal time pondering choices. While this is life‐saving in combat, it is not helpful in the much slower‐paced civilian world. A better rule in the civilian world would be to give a reaction proportionate to the provocation. Small provocation, small response (but this could get you killed on the battlefield). When the training becomes second nature, a warrior might take any adrenaline rush as a cue to “apply maximum firepower.” This can become particularly unfortunate if someone starts to cry. Tears are unbearable to him; they create explosive emotions in him that can be difficult for him to control. Unfortunately, that can lead to a warrior responding to strong waves of guilt by applying more “maximum firepower” on friends, family, or unfortunate strangers.
4. He is afraid to get attached to anyone because he has learned that the people you love get killed, and he cannot face that pain again. He may make an exception for his children (because they cannot divorce him), but that will be instinctual and he will probably not be able to explain his actions.
5. He knows the military exists for a reason. The sad fact is that a military exists ultimately to kill people and break things. This was true of our beloved “Greatest Generation” warriors of WWII, and it remains true to this day. Technically, your warrior may well be a killer, as are his friends. He may have a hard time seeing that this does not make him a murderer. Although they may look similar at first glance, he is a sheepdog protecting the herd, not a wolf trying to destroy it. The emotional side of killing in combat is complex. He may not know how to feel about what he’s seen or done, and he may not expect his feelings to change over time. Warriors can experience moments of profound guilt, shame, and self‐hatred. He may have experienced a momentary elation at “scoring one for the good guys,” then been horrified that he celebrated killing a human being. He may view himself as a monster for having those emotions, or for having gotten used to killing because it happened often. One of my Marines recommended On Killing by Dave Grossman, and I would pass that recommendation on.
6. He’s had to cultivate explosive anger in order to survive in combat. He may have grown up with explosive anger (violent alcoholic father?) as well.
7. He may have been only nineteen when he first had to make a life and death decision for someone else. What kind of skills does a nineteen‐year‐old have to deal with that kind of responsibility? One of my veterans put it this way: “You want to know what frightening is? It’s a nineteen‐year‐old boy who’s had a sip of that power over life and death that war gives you. It’s a boy who, despite all the things he’s been taught, knows that he likes it. It’s a nineteen‐year‐old who’s just lost a friend, and is angry and scared, and determined that some *%#& is gonna pay. To this day, the thought of that boy can wake me from a sound sleep and leave me staring at the ceiling.”
8. He may believe that he’s the only one who feels this way; eventually he may realize that at least other combat vets understand. On some level, he doesn’t want you to understand, because that would mean you had shared his most horrible experience, and he wants someone to remain innocent.
9. He doesn’t understand that you have a mama bear inside of you, that probably any of us could kill in defense of someone if we needed to. Imagine your reaction if someone pointed a weapon at your child. Would it change your reaction if a child pointed a weapon at your child?
10. When you don’t understand, he needs you to give him the benefit of the doubt. He needs you also to realize that his issues really aren’t about you, although you may step in them sometimes. Truly, the last thing he wants is for you to become a casualty of his war.
These are just a few thing that will help you unlock that inner circle. It is important to note that your inner circle with your Veteran, will never be the inner circle that he has with those he served with or even other Veterans. Don’t try to become part of that inner circle. Create your own.
*The article mentioned was written by – Regina Bahten, DO. Regina is also a combat Veteran.