Monday, May 14, 2012

You weren't there Doc. You can never know

Damn, I wish there was a magic bullet. I really, really wish that. The times where that wish becomes most enduring is at about 2 am when I know I have a class to teach six hours later.

That's now my life, and the 2 am sweat ensoaked wake up is pretty much normal for me now. I'm intelligent enough to know that those wake ups are training induced - not the result of combat. The fearful feeling is the combat part.

I was terrified by combat. I was not Sgt. Rock. I was, however, a leader and it meant I had to do one thing above all else - suppress the obvious terror.

I had been through selection, and passed. I had been through leadership training and passed. I had been through endless exercises and received accolades for my tactical sense. None of that prepared me for real bullets coming downrange nor the need to put myself and my troops at risk to achieve the objective set out in an operation order.

The truth is the training, constant and consistent, kicked in and while I always had to adapt to any situation, I could go back to "wrote" for the basics. I did that a lot, and I suspect my superiors felt very good about that. They could read my manoeuvres, watch the actions of my formation and accept any losses based on some obscure formula to which I was never privy.

Except that I didn't have any losses. Wounded? Yes. Unable to fight? You must be fucking kidding. (That doesn't diminish the fact that those wounded men should have been medevaced out of the action).

I can share a lot with my fellow combatants. We connect. We can visualize what each other might have seen and felt at any given moment. We can accept the horror and the fear. We can feel the overwhelming urge to end everything by behaving stupidly (heroism to a politician). But I can never be exactly where my brothers-in-arms have been.

It may come as a surprise to many but each combat situation for every individual is personal. You can never be there for one simple and enduring reason. You weren't there.

That doesn't make you bad. It just means you can never understand.

So, why try? Why not just accept that, in a combat, killing situation, the whole event becomes something with a deep personal attachment?

It never goes away. It doesn't even fade.

I killed kids who should have been preparing for their first year of university or taking on an apprenticeship in a trade. At the time, it is what I had to do to stay alive. That will never give me a feeling that I contributed to the world. I denied the world of an otherwise good human being.

I'm OK with that to a limit. He was going to kill me, I thought then, and it was him or me. I was much better trained and, if I have to say this, I was a professional warrior.

I did it without really thinking about it.

The thinking came well after the fact. It haunts me to this day and not a day goes by where I don't think about it. As much as I was comfortable killing kids ten years younger than me in the desperate circumstances of combat, nothing can make me feel good about it now. I feel, for some perverse reason, that the world simply has to accept the personal struggle of knowing that I will never accept that the act of  killing of my fellow man had any value.

I watched a missile move over the horizon and blow the living hell out of a ship that was our saviour throughout the night. They had saved us and they paid a huge price. I have had the counselling over that incident and not one of those professionals gets it. When it happened it took a few seconds; when I relive it, it happens in slow motion. They never, ever, get that.

Can I say that it pisses me off?

The shrinks were supposed to be our saviours. Nothing against the shrinks but, jebus H. christ, Doc, if you weren't there, you simply do not fucking know!

I feel a brotherhood with US Viet Nam veterans which the shrinks don't seem to get. It's not about the war, or the environment or, as we Brits at the time had to suffer, the politics. It's about regaining our humanity.

So few of us going to war were killers, yet we became that. So few of us actually intended to give our lives for a political dispute, but so many did.

Every single death in Afghanistan chewed a horrible hole in my consciousness. But in the darkness of my mind, I worried, and still worry, about the people who have had to do things which they will come to realize revolt them and will eventually attack them. That fear for them won't go away. Their feelings will grow.

PTSD is not about the physical wounds. Godammit, it's about making us do things we would never have done under normal circumstances. Seeing things we couldn never have believed possible. Watching others get maimed or killed.

It's not about me. It's about where we were and what happened all around us. It's about a corporal with a bleeding wound telling me he agrees with calling fire on our own position. It's about watching a dead comrade being hoisted out of the battlefield, feet first, and then carry on with the patrol. It's about watching an Exocet missile slam into a ship and knowing you have no time to warn them.

You cannot make that into a cartoon.

But, hell, you guys have done such a shitty job of it so far, give it a try. If it fails, you're 0 for ten and you've got nothing to lose.

And, I am not your fucking experiment.


Rev.Paperboy said...

oh Skipper, you are worrying me, and I know you don't want anyone worrying about you, as self-contained as you are. But we need you around.

900ft Jesus said...

This incredible post needs to be circulated and read as widely as possible. Maybe it will encourage others to speak out, maybe it will make more civilians aware of the needs Dave writes about.
Dave...I can think of nothing to say that won’t sound trite, but thank you, and thanks to all like you. We civilians need to fight for veterans. It’s our turn, and such a small thing to do by comparison.

sassy said...

I second 900ft.

Dana said...

Dave, can you get on the boat and get the fuck away from all the shite for a week or two? No news, no internet, no radio - just you and Cheryl? If you can make it happen that is my Rx.

Tomcat said...

Add my vote to 900ftJesus' comment. This is an important essay and should be read widely.

Boris said...

To 900ft, I'd only add to your comment that we continue to build a world that does not create more veterans and does not demand human beings do unspeakable things to each other.

Dave, thank you for this privilege. I cannot know your experiences, but I can say, as with any stranger or friend carrying such burden, there's always a place at my fire.

ronditlesauvage said...

Dave, I am sorry that we psychologists don't get it. And I am sorry for your pain. Your problem is not necessarily pathology, not every remembrance of traumatic events is PTSD. You have done terrible things, seen terrible things, and, because you are not a terrible person, you are in pain. This is the price of being an intelligent, thoughtful and sensitive person who has to cope with being immersed in madness.
I hope this is not too intrusive and unwelcome. You do not know me, though I have come to know you a bit - an odd, assymetric situation. I greatly appreciate what you have done and are doing with your blog, you have been of great help to me in many ways. If I can be of help to you in any way, please do let me know.

Linda said...

Dave? I'm with you.

Noni Mausa said...

People are warned about the risks of working in military and police forces, but they are seldom told (I think - perhaps I am wrong) about the risk of being inserted into a situation where some atrocity is a necessity, and quite a lot more can become normative.

Our behaviour as individuals is a hell of a lot more situational than we like to think. Keeping soldiers out of harm's way ought to include keeping them out of these soul-trashing situations.

And no, I don't know. But I know I don't know.


Anonymous said...

Tho, I respect what Dana sez ..
ie .. step back from the trenches .. and recover


Like any damn unpredictable Canadian would ..
You'll surely and suddenly bolt forward with an unearthly scream
& banshee bagpipes a blowing with you... (or just in your head ...)
and go after an honorable n necessary objective
that just must be done ... n Amen

We do have a record of fostering exemplars
in this kind of activity .. n behavior
n'est ce pas ?

Not sure why there is an impression
of the Beav being wounded or limited in any way ..
Dude .. you sure do shine ... I'm humbled.. n that's no disgrace

Wuz a heartfelt, warm and deep/rich n human essay you wrote...
and since you have 'standing' as a vet ..
the been there & done it.. & survived
Can I or anyone dispute ?? Or even think we can stand beside you ...?
Or those you served with ?? Or the bravest of Canadians that fell .... .....

I honor your service and sacrifice ..... humbly
your essay was ... a revelation ... Awesome .. Thanks ..

Linda said...

Don't count on them to care.

Linda said...

It's the way they roll.

Beijing York said...

I can't add much because I don't know what it's like to walk in your shoes and in those of others who have seen battle. I do know that you are a courageous and honourable man, Dave. Your post was so honest and a much needed wake-up call for those of us who don't know. Thank you and take good care.

Terry said...

What an incredibly powerful statement this is. It should be printed in every newspaper in the country.

Scotian said...

Very well said and written Dave, and this is something that truly deserves as wide a readership as possible because of how well you explain what is by its very nature unexplainable to those that have not experienced such reality. I know I haven't, but as Noni Mausa said I know that I don't know. I did grow up around WWII combat survivors though and saw much of what you are talking about, I was spared military service solely because I was rendered medically unfit during my 19th year, and I have always retained a strong interest in things military, so I when I read something like what you write here I truly feel the deep ringing of truth and wisdom painfully gained.

Thank you again for your service, especially given the price you have paid and continue to pay from it. Thank you even more though for being willing to pay the price of coming out with such an important and powerful expression of that price you and those like you paid and pay yet for the rest of us unable to truly understand this reality. I know I am a couple of days late with this but still I wanted you to have it, even though I know I am no longer a regular member of the blogging community anymore.

This is if not the best thing one of the absolute best things I have ever read on any blog in my life, and this is not hyperbole but truly how I feel about it, and even though I know you didn't do it for praise still... well done!!!

LuLu said...


I don't know what you're feeling. I would never be so presumptuous to say that I did. But I do know what it's like to love and sleep next to a man who knows something very damn close to what you're feeling.

A man who saw too much in Bosnia and has now seen much, much, MUCH too much in Afghanistan. A brilliant, intelligent man who can't and, more importantly, won't always articulate what he's seen and what he's done and what he's feeling because he doesn't want to "scare" me.

Hardest of all, I know what it's like to watch that same man come back a little darker, a little colder and so very much harder. So I don't know what you're feeling.... but I know how it feels to watch and be a part of that struggle.

Be well Cap'n....