Inspire! Veteran's Issues

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The first thing we have to do is separate war from the people who fight in them. Of course, we don’t want war. War is painful and bloody and terrifying. No one knows that better than our military veterans. And those are the people, who serve our country in times of war and in times of peace, who deserve a special place in our heart and our undying gratitude.

I would be surprised if we didn’t all want to see the end of war. I continue to believe peace is possible – because if I don’t at least believe it can happen then it certainly never can.

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War is caused by the primal fear of not surviving and it usually arises out of a sense of competition for territory, food, resources, and other items needed for survival. We easily exaggerate threats because if we underestimate a threat that means that our lifestyles will be radically changed, if everyone isn’t wiped out first. But to overestimate a threat leaves people dead and injured. Not just any people – particularly our military personnel.

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And most often our military personnel are still men – a demographic that Warren Farrell has called the disposable gender.  In his book The Myth of Male Power, he points out that only 18-year-old boys have to register for the draft and he offers these insights:

Adults take longer to pick up boy infants when they cry.

Boys more often participate in violent sports while girls cheer them on.

Adult men and peers taunt boys by poking at their perceived weaknesses and challenging them to “take it like a man.” 

In TV and movies, 200 men are killed for every 1 women killed.

Through war stories, we unconsciously teach young boys that they will get positive attention by putting their lives at risk.

On the other hand, those same war stories also serve a critical role in helping veterans recover and heal. War stories become a safe way for men to process feelings, reframe horror, and experience self-therapy (and group therapy).

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And it isn’t only our men who are struggling as veterans. Today, hundreds of thousands of service men and women are recent military veterans who have in one way or another experienced combat. Many have been shot at, seen their friends killed, or witnessed death up close and far too personal. These are types of events that can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - PTSD.

Mike Baauw from the Muskegon County Department of Veterans Affairs was instrumental in planning this Inspire! event and he generously shared his slides with me and his definition of PTSD.

 The brain is one of the most complex systems to understand. You have the Thinking Brain, which is the cortex, the top layer of the brain. This part of the brain is where critical thinking takes place. The Thinking Brain is where the ability to stay organized, stay on task, analyze, and think things through is happening. This part of the brain has the ability to inhibit or control our impulses.  Underneath the Thinking Brain is the limbic system or the Emotional Brain. The limbic system controls many of the complex emotional behaviors we think of as instinct. Limbic system structures are involved in many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those that are related to survival. Different areas of the limbic system have a strong control over emotions such as pleasure, pain, anger, fear, sadness, sexual feelings, and affection.

The brain is one of the most complex systems to understand. You have the Thinking Brain, which is the cortex, the top layer of the brain. This part of the brain is where critical thinking takes place. The Thinking Brain is where the ability to stay organized, stay on task, analyze, and think things through is happening. This part of the brain has the ability to inhibit or control our impulses.

Underneath the Thinking Brain is the limbic system or the Emotional Brain. The limbic system controls many of the complex emotional behaviors we think of as instinct. Limbic system structures are involved in many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those that are related to survival. Different areas of the limbic system have a strong control over emotions such as pleasure, pain, anger, fear, sadness, sexual feelings, and affection.

 Two structures of the Emotional Brain that play an important role in PTSD are the amygdala and the hippocampus. The hippocampus is involved in memory forming, organizing, connecting emotions and senses–such as smell and sound–to memories, and storing this information away in long term memory for later use.  The amygdala activates the body’s alarm system (the fight or flight response). The amygdala has the unique ability to scan all signals–sights, sounds, smells, etc. It performs threat assessment and say’s either “there’s danger” or “it’s safe. The amygdala is a hair trigger that makes rapid judgments about a situation.

Two structures of the Emotional Brain that play an important role in PTSD are the amygdala and the hippocampus. The hippocampus is involved in memory forming, organizing, connecting emotions and senses–such as smell and sound–to memories, and storing this information away in long term memory for later use.

The amygdala activates the body’s alarm system (the fight or flight response). The amygdala has the unique ability to scan all signals–sights, sounds, smells, etc. It performs threat assessment and say’s either “there’s danger” or “it’s safe. The amygdala is a hair trigger that makes rapid judgments about a situation.

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Under normal circumstances, the amygdala and hippocampus communicate with one another and the brain functions smoothly. However, traumatic stress disrupts the communication between these different areas. The Thinking Brain cannot get the message through to the amygdala that the danger is over and it’s okay to relax. The hippocampus cannot take the emotional information and store it away as a long term memory. So your memories of trauma stay with you all the time, and you continue to feel as if you are in constant danger.

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This explains why a veteran who experienced traumatic events in combat may suffer a surge of anxiety years later when a helicopter flies over head. That helicopter was associated with a traumatic experience. So when your brain hears it, it sends warning signals that danger may be near. The biggest problem is this part of the brain cannot tell the difference between a real threat and an imagined threat. So now you have the brain in a state where everything is an emergency, and it runs in crises mode all the time.

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Symptoms of PTSD fall into four categories. Specific symptoms can vary in severity.

1.  Intrusive thoughts such as repeated, involuntary memories; distressing dreams; or flashbacks of the traumatic event. Flashbacks may be so vivid that people feel they are re-living the traumatic experience or seeing it before their eyes.

2.  Avoiding reminders of the traumatic event may include avoiding people, places, activities, objects and situations that bring on distressing memories.

3.  Negative thoughts and feelings may include ongoing and distorted beliefs about oneself or others such as, “I am bad,” “No one can be trusted); ongoing fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame; much less interest in activities previously enjoyed; or feeling detached or estranged from others.

4.  Arousal and reactive symptoms may include being irritable and having angry outbursts; behaving recklessly or in a self-destructive way; being easily startled; or having problems concentrating or sleeping.

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The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that PTSD afflicts:

Almost 31 percent of Vietnam veterans

10 percent of Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans

11 percent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan

20 percent of Iraqi war veterans

 But PTSD isn’t the only problem. A Pew Research Center survey found that 44 percent of veterans in the post 9/11 period struggle with adjusting to civilian life.

But PTSD isn’t the only problem. A Pew Research Center survey found that 44 percent of veterans in the post 9/11 period struggle with adjusting to civilian life.

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And a startling 22 veterans take their own lives through suicide every single day in our country.

Re-entry can be a shock after training and experiences that have made our service members anything but civilians.

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For starters, the military takes care of soldiers’ basic needs so they can focus on more pressing matters, such as winning wars. The military supplies food, housing, dental and medical care, and a guaranteed paycheck every month. Returning to all those responsibilities in the civilian world can present a bit of culture shock.

Furthermore,  once troops leave their regimented environment and enter one with seemingly endless options and possibilities, the mental fatigue starts to set in. And with it comes stress. But there are steps that can be taken to control that stress.

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Most importantly, our vets need to focus on self-care. Veterans don’t normally share their stories of difficulty adjusting to civilian life because they’ve been trained not to. In the military, talking about feelings is taboo, and displaying openness and vulnerability is viewed as a sign of weakness.

It’s important to recognize that the emotional journey back to civilian life will take longer than the physical journey. Though plenty of rest and good nutrition are key, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being are just as important.

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Another important step is for vets to find a community of other vets. The important thing isn’t necessarily talking about war and trauma, but having access to someone else who knows what it’s like to be a vet, someone who can shore things up when times get tough.

Finally, veterans should be able to wear their service with pride, knowing that regardless of their experiences in the military, they are deeply respected. All of the veterans here today need to know that we are proud of your service and you should be, too.

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In fact, we owe a special debt of gratitude to you. And as a veteran, you can help us by educating us and telling us how we can help. You can remind us to be patient and allow you the time, space and relationships you need.

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And in the greater scheme of things, we can all work to alleviate the fear and suffering that leads to war. We have to stop glamorizing war and violence while supporting our veterans and veteran re-entry programs.

Ultimately, it is up to us to examine the causes of war, ask what is the part we play, stop exaggerating threats, and find alternatives to war. Because no one, no man, no woman, no soldier, no one is ever disposable.

Namaste