I believe veterans are some of our most educated and experienced global citizens, and they have the capacity to be society’s greatest teachers when given substantial support in regards to transforming and integrating their combat experiences. In general, we as a nation and a military community are falling short in offering support of this kind. We are only beginning to recognize the dramatic effects war can have on the soul, as evidenced by the news of a U.S. soldier murdering 16 Afghan civilians this past week.
We now know the accused soldier is Staff Sergeant Robert Bales. In his 11 year career, he has been deployed 4 times to the Middle East during which he obtained combat injuries to his head and also a foot, which he had to have partially amputated. As part of his forth deployment, this infantry soldier was assigned to support a Special Forces unit in a remote base in Afghanistan.
I am a former soldier, a military spouse, and have been a part of the military community for over 15 years. I am in the process of training to assist soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and severe combat injuries. Therefore, this bit of national news was of particular interest to me.
In pondering the news, my mind kept flashing to all the victims of this tragedy. What I quickly realized is that EVERYONE involved is a victim.
As a mother, my mind first flashed to the horror of Afghan children being killed, innocently caught in the chaos of war then randomly murdered. Then my mind flashed to SSG Bale’s children. In the same moment those Afghan children lost their lives, the Bale’s children lost their father and their own lives as previously known.
As an Army wife, my heart broke for the SSG Bale’s spouse. I can only imagine the shock, horror, disbelief, anger, sadness, love, and madness she must have felt in hearing the news. I envisioned it as a piercing scream that penetrated her very essence, shattering her soul in a million pieces. Somewhere after the initial wave of emotion, I imagined a huge wave of fear followed, sending her scrambling to protect herself and her family from the media, judging citizens, and vengeful people.
For a brief moment, I imagined being a child and knowing that my father had committed such crimes. In one moment my father went from being my greatest hero to a man that was hated by an entire country and judged by another. Could I stand to bear the questions and judgement in school and perhaps my entire life? Would I ever even see my father again much less play ball with him in the back yard?
As a former soldier, I tried to put myself in SSG Bale’s boots. I imagined what it must have felt like to have been driven to the point where one’s soul seemed to depart and madness became the master of the physical body. I tried to imagine walking back into the compound and telling my fellow soldiers about the atrocities I’d just committed, and for a brief moment, waking to the fact that I had killed not only 16 strangers, but in essence, my own family as well.
Then my thoughts turned to all the soldiers currently stationed in Afghanistan, and particularly to the remote base to which SSG Bales had been assigned to support. In a base such as this, U.S. and Afghan soldiers live day in and day out in close quarters. Within a small compound are two “tribes” of vastly different cultures who come together for one purpose – to fight a seemingly endless war on terrorism. While it can be intensely gratifying work for our courageous soldiers, in the best of circumstances, it is extremely stressful. In “The Global War on Terrorism,” there is no clear indicator of who is enemy and who is not. Special Forces soldiers, in particular, rely on intelligence, intuition, and a leap of faith when determining which local villagers to allow into a compound whether for training or as contractors. Small unit leaders bear the giant responsibility to safely and effectively accomplish the mission when forward deployed. I could not help but to imagine the intensely magnified responsibility of some young officer in charge of that remote compound in Afghanistan. This leader and his courageous team of soldiers instantly became the world’s largest and most hated military target.
For a moment, I stepped into the boots of troops in Afghanistan who are left behind to deal with the aftermath of one soldier’s actions. I imagine the soldiers at that remote operating base won’t sleep for the rest of their deployment. This team of U.S. forces is subject to vengeful retaliation and will be on high alert both inside and outside of the compound indefinitely. Because of this, I am sure there are immeasurable amounts of anger, frustration, and fear among the unit. I know, without question, the families of these troops feel similar emotions as they anxiously await an end to this deployment and for their loved ones to return home safely.
Being part of the military community, I can tell you that, in general, it is not uncommon for military families to experience anger, frustration, and fear when dealing with multiple combat deployments as we attempt to counter terrorism in places where it seems hopeless, if not pointless, to do so. Situations like this recent tragedy only exacerbate the pervading sentiment.
As a citizen of this country, I could easily stand in the place of anger, frustration, and fear as well. I can see myself in fellow citizens who are angry at the wars we wage and the lives that have been lost. I see those who are angry at a culture and religion they will never attempt to understand. I see people and even our politicians feeling frustrated at the lack of solutions and progress. Ultimately, I see fear that we are heading in the wrong direction entirely…fear that war will never end and more lives will continue to be lost.
I certainly have no real answers nor can I say that we will ever see the end of war. All I can do is to seek my own answers and work towards cultivating peace in my own life. In doing this, I hope that I can be of service to others. What I know to be true for myself is that anger, frustration, and fear can be overcome by compassion, hope, and courage. I can cultivate compassion by putting myself in another person’s shoes and imagining their life, if only for a few breaths. I can cultivate hope by envisioning a brighter future for myself, my community, and my world at large. I can cultivate courage by remembering that I always have choice. In each moment, I can choose to dwell in the abyss of fear, or I can choose love by embracing my true Self whole heartedly, knowing however the future unfolds, I did my best to love all aspects of myself and others without reservation or judgement.
I am a person committed to helping others, particularly those in our military community, to heal and to awaken to a deeper sense of purpose. As such, I am seeking to understand how and why, as author Ed Tick states, “war often devastates not only our physical being but our very soul.” In his book War and the Soul, Tick writes how in war, “chaos overwhelms compassion” and often “the soul – the true self – flees.” This week’s tragic news powerfully illustrates this truth, one that perhaps only the warrior can ever fully comprehend. Most of us will never completely understand the intensely personal effects of war. However, as a society, we can begin to recognize our warriors, not only for their bravery on the battlefield, but their courage in facing what is perhaps one of life’s most transcendent experiences – war itself. Our warriors have the potential to be some of our greatest teachers. As Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “Veterans are the light at the tip of the candle, illuminating the way for the whole nation. If veterans can achieve awareness, transformation, understanding and peace, they can share with the rest of society the realities of war. And they can teach us how to make peace with ourselves and each other, so we never have to use violence to resolve conflicts again.”
I believe that war can be transformative as well as a powerful path to awakening and empowerment when our veterans are given substantial support in the long journey “home.” By “home” I refer to their physical home, and more importantly, to a place “within” where mind, body, and spirit can re-establish harmonious residence. As a nation, we must start to recognize and honor our military service members as some of our most educated and experienced global citizens. They have much to contribute beyond their military knowledge and skills. However, we cannot expect our warriors to be the same people they were before they came face to face with combat. We can no longer ignore the invisible wounds of war. We can no longer expect veterans to simply numb the effects of combat stress by prescribing them drugs or turning a blind eye when our veterans self medicate with alcohol and other addictive substances.
Far removed from the battlefields scattered across the world, most people would chose to think that war has little to no impact on their daily lives. In truth, war effects us all on some level, both individually and as a collective consciousness. As a democratic country, none of us can deny our collective ownership for the wars we wage – regardless of our individual political views. Likewise, we must assume greater responsibility for the warriors we are employing to carry out our nation’s agenda. Assuming responsibility for our warriors, even those who’s actions we deplore, does not mean we condone war and it’s atrocities. If each of us can assume some degree of ownership for our wars and responsibility for our warriors, we can begin to move from casual observers to problem solvers and ultimately raise the consciousness of a nation.
Here are three simple ways anyone can move from a casual civilian observer to making a difference in a veteran and/or military family’s life:
1. Listen to a veteran’s story (and/or their family’s story). Everyone talks about thanking veterans. While this is important, it is more impactful is to listen to their stories with the intention of learning. By giving a veteran your undivided and non-judgmental attention, you may find yourself thanking them for teaching you about something you never knew or considered.
2. Give a veteran your time and talents. Everyone has the capacity to give in this way. Bake a veteran some cookies. Make dinner for a military family. Babysit for a military parent when a spouse is on a deployment. Take a veteran fishing for the day. Offer a free or discounted service to military personnel.
3. Consider donating to private organizations that recognize, honor, and treat the wounds of war. Even when soldiers and families have the courage to step up and ask for help with PTSD, TBI and stress in general, actually getting assistance can sometimes be difficult. Here are some outstanding non-profit organizations that are making a difference for veterans in terms of the mind, body, and spirit.
My deep love and heartfelt prayers go out to all those involved the recent tragedy- the Afghans, our soldiers in Afghanistan and all their families, the family of the accused soldier, the community and command at JBLM who are struggling with managing the demands and consequences of our nation’s agenda, and SSG Robert Bales himself. My prayer for our nation and our global community is that, if only for a moment, we recognize at the very depths of our soul, we are all connected. (E piko kakou). If for a single breath, we could walk in another soul’s boots, we might be able to choose love over fear despite all our history, differences, and judgements about any person, place, or thing.
Mahalo for taking time to read this and to walk in my shoes.
Susan Wilson Alden
If you have comments, you are seeking help, or you want to offer assistance to military service members and their families, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to my website at www.olalokahi.org.