Surrender: A New Perspective for War Veterans

When things get rough, the last thing most veterans think of would be surrender. No one wants to surrender. It means giving up control. And even worse. But as veterans age, sometimes surrender isn’t such a bad idea.

Giving into PTSD

By Mary Tendall

At what time in a combat veteran’s life does the word “surrender” become a gateway to a sense of power, peace, and well being? I asked that question to several Vietnam veterans recently, with mixed replies.

Cord* said that it meant, “Giving up on myself!” He stressed that he had worked hard all his life to confront “the idiots who tried to get in my way.” After numerous failed marriages, he felt that he had had to fight for everything he wanted. After a brief silence he added, “And I didn’t seem to ever get what I wanted.” When I asked him what that was, tears came to his eyes, and he said, “I just wanted to be OK to my family, but especially to me.”

Is it possible that he allowed that internal combat soldier inside to finally be laid to rest?

Cord waited a bit, and then started smiling, as he said that now since he’s too old to keep fighting and confronting, he can actually sit back and relax most of the time. He has a cabin, his workshop, a good dog, his computer, and a few good friends. Cord has been sober for nearly 20 years, and realized that his life was not too bad.

Perhaps when Cord became what he would call “too old to fight anymore,” he surrendered his need to confront, in exchange for another lifestyle. Is it possible that he allowed that internal combat soldier inside to finally be laid to rest? When I asked that of Cord, he responded, “Yeah, that poor S.O.B. needed some R&R. It’s time I gave it to him.”

Cord is an example of many retirement-age Vietnam veterans who have begun to identify themselves as seniors, grandfathers, geezers, or wise elders. That older identification likely contributes to a decrease in symptomatic reactivity for some.

I have observed many veterans warmly sharing photos of grandchildren, with sweet stories of their experiences. Several have encouraged the new generation of combat veterans to seek services due to them, and advise and support them through the claim process if they are experiencing disabilities.

Some vets find their war buddies, and renew old friendships, which helps them remember the good times and the dark humor shared only among their small group. Alex told me that when he first saw his overweight, balding crew chief, he realized his own aging process. “We’re not the same anymore, and boy did that hit home when I saw him!”

Some vets find their war buddies, and renew old friendships, which helps them remember the good times and the dark humor shared only among their small group.

Cord and Alex are examples of Vietnam veterans who suffered from chronic PTSD, and with outside support and specialized treatment, have successfully moved in a positive direction. (It is important to point out that not all combat veterans experience chronic PTSD.)

Since the word surrender seemed to hit a significant chord in the veterans I talked to, I decided to look at some of the definitions in order to clarify what seems to be happening to those whose symptoms are decreasing as they grow older.

Definition: Yield possession of power over to another

That made me think of the many who were, and are, literally possessed with a lock-and-load existence, and who are unable to yield to its power over their everyday lives. For many that would mean giving up and losing the fight.

To others, I wonder if they somehow were able to train the combat soldier inside for a new mission, by yielding to a promising civilian life and new relationships.

Definition: Complete withdrawal from an old regime of control

Andy, another veteran, realized that when he was much younger, his business was going well, but he was unable to get his children to obey properly. He was soon estranged from his wife and children, and it has only been in the past 10 years, after the children had grown, that he has been able to reconnect, and establish healthy and loving relationships with his children.

“And I have the bonus of being a granddad!” After spending time with his grandchildren, he said that he realized that his expectations following his deployment were highly influenced by his military training, and though he has regrets about the past, he is grateful for his current family connections.

Definition: Relinquish something in favor of another

Cord always wanted to pursue his talent in woodworking. His jobs always exhausted him, and he said that he was unable to find the time or energy to set up his workshop. Since he has been retired, his workshop is going strong, and he can’t keep up with the requests he receives for making wooden toys.

It may be time to look at the concept of surrender in a new way. It can be a time to let go of things that never worked well, in favor of new ones that will help to create a future of inner strength, joy, and a renewed sense of purpose.

He especially loves custom jobs, and adds as many unique elements to each item as he can think of. He said it’s the first time he remembers letting his creativity flow, and he gets to see the happy faces of his customers.

As one veteran put it, “This is a time of life when the stakes change. I have regrets, sure – but I have to take what I have now, and go with it. I can finally take a deep breath, and know that I am not on that merry-go-round anymore.”

It may be time to look at the concept of surrender in a new way. It can be a time to let go of things that never worked well, in favor of new ones that will help to create a future of inner strength, joy, and a renewed sense of purpose.

*Names and some situations in this article have been changed. Some photos may include models who have no real-life relationship to the story or any PTSD issues.

 

Mary TendallMary Tendall, MA LMFT, has worked for over 20 years with combat veterans and their families, as a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in combat-related PTSD. She has consulted for the Gulf War Resource Center, National Public Radio, and Newsweek. She continues to work with combat veterans and their families, and is affiliated with several national non-profits whose goal is to help veterans, such as VietNow, Soldier’s Heart, Train Down, and America’s Heroes First. She can be reached by e-mail at maryten@jps.net.