One of the most difficult aspects of military service came not with physical training or precise adherence to rules and regulations. Not with the time away from our families, not even with the hypervigilance which seem to follow long after we returned home. No, it was in just how incredibly difficult it could be to articulate the depth in which those experiences were engrained into the very fiber of our being – and the internalized fear of allowing others to see any sign of what could be considered imperfections.
They say that one needs to be broken before they can be remade stronger, better than before. We were often times pushed to our limits – then pushed a little further. The supervisors, NCOs or Officers who were worth their salt were there to guide and mentor us. We could trust them with our lives because we knew that no matter what, they had our backs and we had theirs. Not every assignment or duty station came with that safety net but when it was there, you knew you were with family. There was a brotherhood or sisterhood in arms where we were shaped and molded into capable, confident, intelligent warriors. We could be proud of what we accomplished and often lived by two unofficial mottos: Semper Gumby (aka always flexible) and to Embrace the Suck (aka it sucks, we all know it sucks so let’s just acknowledge it and move past it so we can get the mission accomplished). So, we did what needed to be done.
Yet, often times at the end of our service obligations we were left questioning our place in the world. We had led by example. We prioritized the mission and our people, often times over our own interests. When we completed our service obligations, submitted our final out papers and woke up the morning after, our internalized responses were still shaped by our experiences, sometimes with dire results. We were so used to the cycles of rules and regulations and mission first, we found it easier to continue to compartmentalize.
When someone has been in the darkness, found almost a sense of calm in the chaos and isolation, it can be extremely hard to figure out how to break that cycle and rejoin “the world of the living”. Showing weakness or the appearance of depending on others often feels more terrifying than dealing with the demons, so we stay silent. But that silence is a killer. We have lost friends to suicide because of this. Lost people who we loved deeply and whose absence is felt on a daily basis. Reflecting back now, perhaps the sharp sting of those losses along with the other struggles reflected upon which are the very reasons we sought out ways to give back to this field of work.
The barriers we had constructed in our minds which kept us safe and sane in the organized chaos were our new comfort zone, a place which was familiar – even as it was unhealthy. We would often stay there, in our own personal prisons, until something triggers a need for change. The catalyst may have been big or small but the result was a need to redefine our purpose and find our own mission. As we pealed back the layers, we rediscovered an ability to embrace empathy, compassion and an understanding that it was ok to not be ok. We rediscovered our passions. Not the same ones we had had before but new ones which allowed us to use both our strengths and our vulnerabilities.
We found our calling crisis intervention, in outreach events and in advocacy. We found our voices where silence and shame had once taken hold. We found a sense of family in our fellow volunteers. We learned to trust, learned to share our pain, our fears, our insecurities. And we began to heal. We still stumble at times but we have found our mission and our purpose in IMAlive. We will be forever grateful for both our time in the service and our time with IMAlive. If you are a veteran and are struggling, please don’t hesitate to reach out. IMAlive is there to listen, honored to hear your stories and stand with you and share your burden.