Sunday before last, 9/11/2016, Betty and I attended a 9/11 ceremony at the Idaho Veterans Garden in Caldwell, Idaho.
The Garden is a space carved out for veterans to go and find some solace, an opportunity for introspection, the possibility of meeting other veterans and the chance to talk about shared kinds of experience. The Garden is seen, by its creators, as a place where a veteran can possibly get some non-clinical assistance while dealing with mental health issues related to PTSD, TBI, and other combat related symptoms.
Last week I wrote a piece about the 22 pushups for 22 days challenge to highlight veterans’ suicide and mental health concerns, and while at the Garden I asked for and received permission to create a video of me, Ken Rodgers, dropping to the deck and hitting 22 for the cause.
Events often seem to mesh in serendipitous ways and suddenly the memories of 9/11 and that date’s effects on me, my pushup experience, and some of the Garden’s aims all fit together.
I pondered that meshing as a woman wearing the black and white colors of a motorcycle group dedicated to honoring POW-MIAs gave me an encouraging shout. Then Betty and I wandered past late summer red and orange and yellow flowers and fecund tomato vines drooping with ripe fruit and found a seat beneath the awning were I began to ponder my memories of 9/11.
The devastation of 9/11 was a jolt to my person and roiled up a host of emotions: rage, paranoia, isolation, grief and a six-month onset of mild depression.
This garden moment was not the first time I’d pondered my reactions to the attacks of 9/11, but I recognized a connection between mental health issues created, and if not created, at least heightened by the combination of my service with the USMC during the Siege of Khe Sanh and the events of 9/11.
During the 1990s I pretty much got a handle on my war-related mental health issues listed above, but the sight of those big planes plowing into those buildings brought it all flooding back.
I know the intimate reactions one gets when attacked. And I can look at them in an intellectual way, like a scientist might, but I also understand them on a visceral level, where the basic instincts that govern our reactions to stimuli tell us we might die.
Following 9/11, fear (Of what? Death, dismemberment, incineration?) turned on the switch of my sensual response system and what followed was a spate of rage, a sense that around every corner someone waited to blow me up. I thought about buying some weapons and I wanted to move out to the sticks and get away from everybody I didn’t know. I’d find myself tearing up at the oddest moments, and for six months I steeped myself in a tea of depression that made the world look as if I was viewing it as a smoky, war-torn terrain through a set of cracked lenses.
And what took me thirty years to get under control was returned, riding my back like some sharp-toothed demon intent on sucking the life out of me. And the problem is, in some ways, those reactions to being attacked–the rage and the paranoia and the sense of isolation—have stayed strong. I wonder if that’s because since 9/11 we seem to be in a state of perpetual war and my amygdala senses that, and tells me I need to be on guard.
When I arrive at a waiting area before a plane flight, I assess the passengers reading computer screens or talking on their smart phones, and for each one of them I think about how I might take them out should the need arise if they have mal intent. I often do the same in restaurants and stores and while walking down a crowded street. This is known as hyper-vigilance.
And often the smallest events set me off. In 2004, I threatened to choke one of my employers. I clutched his Adam’s apple in my right hand. Lucky for me I didn’t follow through and he didn’t call the police. Fortunately, to this day, we are good friends.
In 2008, I verbally and almost physically attacked an acquaintance of mine in a restaurant after he said something innocuous, but which sprung such a surprise on me that I went on the attack with no forethought. This was forty years after the siege.
That’s when I decided I needed to find out what I could do to avoid these outbursts of rage. I went to the VA and spent time with a psychologist and though I still have strong eruptions of my symptoms, I haven’t attacked anyone since.
I say all this about my own experiences because this is what it is like for a lot of veterans when they come back from combat. The baboon is on their back and even though they throw it off, it tends to come back and haunt them at the most unexpected moments. It’s long-term.
Some people say, “Well, you just need to get over it.”
But it’s not that easy. It’s not something about which our rational conscious has a whole lot to say. It happens down in the animal part where survival instincts rule.
And the thing is, these symptoms of veterans’ mental health needs cost all of us…combatants and non-combatants alike. All kinds of relationships—work, family and otherwise—are affected and the cost is dear in economic and social terms. It’s pervasive and it eats at the foundations of our culture.
As these grim thoughts wormed around inside my head, a semi truck with a trailer full of grain sped by on the roadbed that watches over the Garden. The driver gave us two toots of his air horn and it brought me back to the moment. I was thankful for that as I stood among the folks around me and gazed at the flags flapping in the breeze.
There are a lot of resources available at the VA, and many communities also offer other sources that can help a veteran in crisis because of mental health needs. It’s worth checking out.
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