Vietnam War.
Men of Troop B, 1st Battalion, 10th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, and their M-48 Patton tank move through the jungle in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, June 1969. Photo: Vietnam Photos Miscellaneous Collection.

Three Questions for the Young Soldier Within You

By Mary Tendall

Three questions recently surfaced as good questions to ask war veterans who are in counseling. I knew that there would be a stark contrast to the answers if the questions had been asked during the time they were in a war zone as opposed to current day. But I also wondered how much the war-time experience may continue to have influence years later, resulting in unnecessary stress. It must be noted that war time taught each veteran some aspects of living that have been beneficial.

I invite you to think about your own answers to these questions, and if you are living with a partner, ask that person these three same questions. Comparing answers can provide each of you with insights into your relationship.

1: What really matters?

To the soldier, the answer would surely deal with survival issues regardless of the soldier’s MOS (military occupational specialty). Some answers to the questions included: Adhering to a given set of rules, adapting to hardship, stuffing anger from superior ranks, keeping one’s self and buddies safe at all costs, and closing down emotional loss in order to stay vigilant and move forward. The list goes on and on. These are questions the soldiers didn’t have to think about at the time, since it was what was necessary to survive. The soldiers knew how to focus on what mattered, and live by it.

One veteran checked the locks on his doors several times a night, and had four spotlights illuminating his ‘perimeter.’

Answering this question in current times may be more difficult. Without the old military structure, and having lived many years after the war-time experience, you might be surprised to find that many answers continue to be focused on survival, more than should be necessary. For example, until recently, a veteran named Danny checked the locks on his doors several times a night, and had four spotlights illuminating his “perimeter.” Joe, another veteran, doesn’t take pleasure in shooting or hunting, but was obsessed with creating a small armory in order to fend off potential intruders.

Counseling session.
Asking these three questions of soldiers while in Vietnam would result in a list of answers that reflected what was happening in the moment. Asking the same questions to the soldiers decades later would result in very different answers.

Check your own answers to discover if any of the answers should be modified to your current living situation. A veteran will often act automatically, as if still in a combat zone, regarding issues of safety and survival. Danny continues to have safety awareness, but has reached the point where he now checks the locks only once before going to bed.

After thinking about this first question, many veterans found that, later in life, it is now possible to let go of some of the old issues, and prioritize what is now most important, such as family connections, improving diet, exercise, and managing to spend more time focused on activities that bring pleasure.

2: What brings joy and happiness?

Many veterans reported that, during the war, joy meant staying alive another day, a decent meal, a letter or a box from home, camaraderie and dark humor shared with fellow soldiers, “female companionship,” and fulfilling a combat mission successfully. And of course, getting a fruit cocktail in the C rations.

If there is one thing a soldier is good at it is the ability to live in the moment.

Looking at the same question in present day would have different answers. One veteran said, “Nothing brings me joy or happiness,” only to discover that he loved eating Italian food, enjoyed watching football and the History Channel, and loved his new connections with buddies from his unit through the Internet and Skype. Others shared their love of their pets and visiting family, especially grandchildren. Many enjoyed hobbies such as woodworking or fishing, and one even reported that he recently began acting in a local theater group.

3: How is it to live your life day to day?

This question provoked many memories about day-to-day life as a soldier. If there is one thing that a soldier is good at it is the ability to live in the moment. Many reported that the day-to-day living during the war was a big blur, with little sequencing, but more of a sense of overall dread. It was difficult to come up with descriptions that could answer that question, but all stated that they didn’t look too far ahead of what was happening at the moment. Many remember their soggy feet and the never-ending rain.

To take what was necessary to survive, and apply the concept of living in the moment (minus the fear) to the present would offer an old skill put to good use. After the war experience, many veterans had little sense of a future – and for many veterans that feeling never left. For those veterans, now may be the time to begin to refine and simplify daily living so thoughts of the future will not be a burden, and every day can be a decent day.

Now may be the time to begin to refine and simplify daily living so thoughts of the future will not be a burden.

One veteran and his wife got rid of everything they no longer needed or wanted. Grown children were given a day to claim what they wanted, then friends were invited to take more, and the rest went into a yard sale before a trip to the local landfill. “We lifted such an external and internal load, and our kids now can enjoy some of the things they cherished growing up. We don’t argue about space in the house, upkeep is way down, and we have a bit of extra cash from our yard sale for travel.”

They also report that their relationship has improved, and each day feels fresh. Another veteran, Bob, worried about his health, and delayed his physical checkups. Once he finally had a physical, and began to do what was necessary to improve his health, he could let go of the daily fears about what could be wrong with him. “I don’t even think about it anymore. I was so used to living with a sense of dread that I thought it was natural until it lifted,” he said.

What you can do

How can you, as individuals or as couples, improve your day-to-day living? It may mean getting rid of stuff or obligations, or it may mean downsizing your living space. Henry doesn’t have family, and he is living in a small space – but he always wanted a dog, which was not allowed in his rented home. He decided to find a different place for the same price where they allow dogs. “Now I am greeted by my best friend every morning. He goes everywhere with me,” he says. We can all find ways to eliminate unnecessary burdens, whether external or internal.

The young soldier within you

That young soldier who still sustains an active awareness within you, never believed you would live long enough to become your current age. Look in the mirror and allow him to see you. Give him the freedom to release his anger, resentment, or fear – and when your emotions begin to open and threaten his safety, offer him your image as proof that you survived. Let him know that his continued hypervigilance is no longer necessary. Tell him you have his back, and that he can rest now – leaving you to move more freely with each new day.

 


You are invited to contact Mary Tendall with comments and/or questions regarding PTSD. Her e-mail address is maryten@jps.net.

*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.