As a Special Operations combat veteran having served the last twenty of his twenty-five year career in the elite Special Operations Unit, Delta Force, Tom used to live every moment facing the challenge of coming home from war and facing a “new normal”.
How does a man become a warrior, experience combat, train until failure is not an option, do and see unspeakable things to stay alive or save the one next to him, and then come home and try to build a life as a mere mortal?
Failure to address this question costs us the lives of 22 veterans every day.
PTS and TBI show themselves in ways as complex and varied as each warrior. There are no cookie cutter symptoms or solutions, but one of the most common is the inexplicable rage they carry. The fury that was necessary to keep them alive, protect their brothers, and protect the part of them that is sacred in all of us becomes a destructive acid that corrodes their souls, prevents peace, damages their relationships with those they love most and finally renders them unable to see their own value.
They sacrifice themselves by leaving the world they gave everything to save. “How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.”~ Marcus Aurelius
Tom did his best to hide the monster that brought him, at one point, moments away from taking his own life. A text from Jen, the woman he would later marry, compelled him to put the gun back under his seat in that parking garage and hang on for one more day… then another and another.
Thus began their journey together on a volatile and at times frightening path to deconstruct, sort and refocus his well-trained belief system into something life-affirming, purposeful and of service to others fighting the same inner battle with anger, addiction and hopelessness. Coming from a world where a grain or two of sand in a poorly cleaned weapon, or critical supplies not in their proper place can be the difference between life and death, a glass left in the sink becomes the new trigger. When the survival of the whole depends on immediate and unquestioning action to every command, hesitation and expressed doubt or disagreement at home is a trigger. Cars abandoned on the side of the road, large crowds, a forgotten backpack or the sound of the garage door opening can be a trigger.
How do you live with yourself when the rage slices out at those you love most?
“Sometimes I think there is a beast that lives inside me, in the cavern that’s where my heart should be, and every now and then it fills every last inch of my skin, so that I can’t help but do something inappropriate. It’s breath is full of lies; it smells of spite.”~ Jodi Picoult
Tom and Jen have walked this minefield from their beginning. There have been times he feared that the best thing for her was for him to leave her, when every mark he left on her heart added to the scars he carried on his own, but she would not accept that as a solution. She talked to therapists, read everything she could get her hands on and kept loving him with a fierceness that rivaled any on a battlefield.
Now he was not only dealing with the guilt and shame of combat, lost friends, broken marriages and damaged relationships, he was perpetuating his misery by his own behavior.
He didn’t know how to diffuse the bomb he carried within, but he had to try.
Being the leader he is, using a cognitive thinking practice, he called the beast out and addressed it. He called It out and placed It in a chair across from him. He looked at himself, enraged, bitter and in pain. He told It he didn’t need It any more.
It laughed at him.
It had saved his life, the lives of his brothers on occasion, enabled him to live with the ugliness of combat, to continue fighting while spattered with the blood of fallen friends. It knew It was the reason he was still alive. “You need me,” It said.
Now It was killing him and the life he needed to thrive in this new world.
In his case, It came to him in his twenties during combat, when the soul of any decent human being will call on whatever is necessary to survive intact. When the only option is to be ruthless and without emotion, or die where you stand.
“I have served you well,” It said.
It did not lie, but Tom now understood that the part of him he called on in combat was still running the show, and there is no room for love in active combat. There is no room for peace, or joy, or hope, or generosity of spirit in active combat. Since he desperately needed all of these things to thrive in this new life he was building, he did the only thing he could do.
He thanked It for keeping him alive long enough to choose love.
“Thank you,” he said to It, “but you can stand down. I know there may be times that I will need to call on you, but the pain that comes from loving and caring and giving is not a threat that I will allow you to protect me from. The best of me has been sleeping safely, thanks to You. It’s time to step aside while I bring the best of me out into the light of genuine living. You have served me well, but it’s time for You to rest until I call You. You kept me alive and I thank You, but I decide what to do with the moments I have left. I choose love and service. I have no need to seek and destroy. Rest easy now, You have earned it.” He now lives with a new awareness and acceptance of all sides of him and the roles they play. Using the same techniques that he learned in Special Operations to maximize all enablers he has at his fingertips, he is empowered to catch It when It starts to rise up in him, that anger that saved him, and pause long enough to put It back to rest until needed. To let that part of him know that love is here, hope is here and service is necessary. All parts of us are critical for our survival and the happiness in doing so. Sometimes it is a choice between life and death…
Sometimes the only choice is Life.
Tom chooses life, his wife Jen, family both new and reacquainting with his Son, and service through All Secure Foundation to those who also carry rage, fear and hopelessness…
He chooses you.
“I would not look on anger as something foreign to me that I have to fight…I have to deal with my anger with care, with love, with tenderness…”~Thich Nhat Hanh