By Mary Tendall
What happens to the heart of a war veteran? That’s a question families often ask, and so do veterans themselves. Often, following the death of a loved one, a numbness sets in, and a veteran seems to be the perfect person to take care of the details, and not be distracted with grieving. Family members often think veterans have little emotion or feelings. And veterans themselves are just as mystified as to why their feelings stay locked away – whether they be love, joy, or sadness.
Julie* reported that the only time she really sees her husband’s emotions is when he’s angry at her or when he’s watching football. “Then I can see the whole gamut, from joy, to seeing him royally pissed off.”
In a previous article I wrote about the ancient path of a warrior in traditional cultures. The warrior was part of a culture that prepared its young boys for the possibility of war, and began training them with the importance of protection and being prepared morally and physically. As a young man he would learn combat skills, and would often go through an initiation to earn his place with other warriors.
Clearly modern culture cannot and does not offer the early important cultural support and values instilled as in ancient times. In earlier cultures, following the battles, each individual knew that he would emerge from the experience a changed man. Our current-day veterans had to find that out the hard way.
Traditionally, a community would tend to the returning warrior, and offer the time and support he needed, through ceremonies and rituals until he was able to get out of battle mode, and heal from his physical and emotional wounds. He could then, once again, find the ability for his heart to open. Although survival in a war zone requires that the heart stay closed much of the time, it is upon coming home that the closure of the heart is most painful. Reactions to family expectations, along with a combat-ready nervous system, can cause major problems for many years unless the veteran gets specialized treatment.
Janice* said that she and her husband were tired of arguing and staying away from each other to avoid fights. They decided to call a truce. What that meant to them is that they just put a stop to the same old arguments that they never could resolve. “We now often have dinner without the TV, and I get him to do something with me at least once a week.
I’ve noticed that we both have begun to enjoy each other’s company. “Her husband, Delbert,* said that he realizes that they plan to stay together, so why not just let each other be. “I’m beginning to experience my feelings for her now. I always knew I loved her, but I could just never feel it!”
Maybe it’s time to shed some of the unnecessary armor, and allow the heart to be safely felt in the good and the difficult times. Being of service to others is another gateway to allowing the heart to be a powerful part of your well being. Ironically, in civilian life, an open heart creates a more accurate awareness than when the veteran continues holding on to unnecessary vigilance, grief, and anger.
You are invited to contact Mary Tendall with comments and/or questions regarding PTSD. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
*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 Tendall, MA LMFT, has worked for over twenty 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 email@example.com.