This past weekend I had a rare opportunity. My wife was out of town for the weekend. So I took advantage of the time I had alone to rent a couple of guy movies; one of which was “Brothers” (2009 - Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman).
The movie follows two brothers, one of which is serving in Afghanistan (Maguire). The other is fresh out of prison (Gyllenhaal), and back at home trying to support his brother’s wife (Portman) and kids in his absence. When Maguire is reported killed in action, the bond between Gyllenhaal and Portman becomes very close and, in their grief, teeters on romantic. This creates a fair amount of drama when it is discovered that Maguire is still alive, and he returns home.
In the midst of the tension between Maguire and Portman over her relationship with Gyllenhaal, however, is a much more common and all too real drama -- the tension created between spouses when one returns home from serving in a combat zone having experienced things that they cannot share with the spouse who remained home.
There is a very powerful scene in the movie in which Maguire is meeting with his commanding officer to request a return to Afghanistan. His commander asks, “How are things with the family?” Maguire responds, “They just don’t understand. No one does. I just want to get back to my men.”
I’ve had the opportunity to speak with a few Veterans who’ve served in combat zones; some in more than one combat zone. I’ve been very honored by their willingness to discuss their experiences with me. Although some of their stories are not pleasant to hear, and I have often found myself at a complete loss as to what to say in response, or how to support them, at the same time I know that it is important for them to be able to talk about it when and if they can. They know that I can’t truly understand their experience, because I have never experienced anything like what they have. I have no frame of reference that even comes close. And I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to tell someone what you’ve witnessed, or perhaps even participated in, for fear of judgment. It is this feeling of “they won’t get it” or “they won’t understand” that creates huge disconnects between the people who have experienced war, and those who have not.
I’m no expert on Post Traumatic Stress. I have no formal training in psychology or counseling. But if I could offer some advice based on what I’ve learned in my own experience, it would be this:
Listen. Show an interest in and a willingness to listen. Create a safe space for them to let what they're holding inside out. Ask questions. But do not judge. Acknowledge, to them and to yourself, that you will never completely understand what they have to tell you. Listen anyway. It is important for them to be able to talk about their experience with someone who can offer compassion and empathy.
Recognize that war is insane. It is an exercise in placing sane people into an insane situation, and we cannot expect people to behave sanely in an insane situation. Many of our Service Personnel have to become different versions of themselves just to survive the experience of war. They may never get back to the person they were before this experience. It’s probably not fair and reasonable of us to expect them to. If this person is someone that you love, love the new version of them. Be patient. Be kind. Be understanding. Be respectful. And understand that that might come in the form of respecting their choice not to tell you about their experience. You might encourage them to talk to someone who would understand. There are many options available through the VA. Sometimes just giving them the opportunity to talk is enough of a gesture to make it ok for them to open up to someone else.
We asked them to serve. The least that we can do in return is to hold a space for them to process their experience of serving with dignity, love, respect, and understanding.