Everybody knows a Veteran
Whenever I give a public speech, we begin by asking if there are any Veterans in the room.
We ask them to stand, so we can honor them.
Then I ask if there are any spouses of veterans present, and they stand up as well.
Then I ask for Parents or children of veterans, and they stand up.
Next the parents of veterans stand up.
Then Siblings, nieces or nephews of someone who has served.
By this time, about 80% of the room are standing.
People are looking around in awe. They didn’t expect that so many of them are impacted by military service, and unavoidably, military trauma.
By the time I ask who has a close friend or co-worker who has been in the military, the whole room is standing.
I feel it is safe to say that with very few exceptions, most people have been personally impacted by the military and the aftermath of war.
Military trauma is a part of our culture and everybody’s life.
War happens everywhere, any time.
It is, wether we like it or not, a part of human nature.
Knowing who we as civilians, as the “tribe” have to be for a soldier to feel safe around us, what we have to know and respect and what to never ask is crucial to for the troops.
They will never talk to us if they don’t trust that we are safe to talk to.
Learning this is our responsibility, not theirs.
My father’s story
When my father returned from WWII, the war had been over for almost 3 years. My father, a German Radio operator, had been captured by the Russians only three weeks before the war ended, and barely survived the time in a work camp as a POW.
When he came back home, his mother had passed, not knowing if her oldest son was still alive or not.
We grew up knowing that we must never ask dad about Russia.
This was a non-negotiable rule. Don’t EVER ask!
I tried to break this family law when I was 14, and deeply regretted it:
He got so angry with me for asking if he wanted to talk, that he almost flew across the room and into my face.
I wish I had known then what I know now about EFT and it’s use for military trauma.
Because I was unprepared and clueless, I could only apologize and retreat from the room as quickly as possible.
I had broken the rule: Never ask dad about Russia.
My mother told me later…
that she had found some letters in a box in the basement – letters from some of his buddies who also made to out of the camp alive.
“You have to forget and move on.” they said. “Make sure you forget and never think about it.”
Growing up during the Cold War
Back in the sixties in Germany, we still found shrapnel in our sandboxes, the ruins of bombarded houses were in between newly erected buildings and they would frequently give a warning that they found yet another “Blindgaenger”, a bomb that didn’t go off , as they were excavating new ground.
Later, we were in the midst of the cold war, with dangerous weapons pointing at us from any given direction. We were aware of the danger, we learned about it in school, and we somewhat prepared for it. But ultimately we knew: If one of the parties looses it and begins to shoot, we, the civilians in the big cities, will all be screwed.
Knowing that safety was never guaranteed
So I never had that feeling of safety, that innocence that nothing could ever happen to us. I know that wars exist, and what they do to people. We talked politics at just about it every dinner, and needless to say, that my parents had a very different opinion than their teenage daughters.
The aftermath of war was at the dinner table in the form of fighting and inability to really trust each other.
Instinctively I knew that this was not my parent’s fault. They both had been traumatized by war.
They did the best to raise us with what they were given.
I just wish I had had a way to really talk with them.
They were survivors at heart, resilient people who had learned to protect themselves and make it through hard times.
Today, I am sure that my father would get a diagnosis after his experiences as a POW.
Back then, nobody diagnosed PTSD or other issues.
Everybody was traumatized. What’s there to diagnose?
“You were in war, so you are suffering fro that!”
Everybody knew this, everybody understood.
The one word “POW” was enough, and people understood. They had experienced war themselves. They didn’t ask. Instead, they were glad to meet another person who survived.
Raised without pride and with awareness
One way that Germany dealt with the guilt of the war was, to bring up it’s children without any sense of patriotism.
There was nothing to be proud of after WWII.
Instead, we made our field trips at school to concentration camps and war memorials.
We were taught to never forget what people are capable of when scared and misguided and feeling superior over others, and to always, always take a stand for what is right.
We learned that we must never let something like this happen again!
I remember one specifically horrifying trip where we saw pictures of masses of bodies, jewish men and women who had died from starvation. I stared at the pictures, tears running down my face. My teacher was watching me.
Then she came over and gently pulled on my arm.
“Come.” she said. “I think it is enough.”
The war in Bosnia and Croatia
Needless to say that when the war in the Balkans happened, we were desperate to take action.
I found access to the Croatian Mission and began to bring trucks with humanitarian aid into the war zones.
Later I became the Director of the non Government Organization we created, and eventually did multiple trips that were geared towards politicians and clergy who had the power to make a difference in the bombarded villages on a much greater level.
It was a humbling experience to feel my own fear during a bombardment, and seeing how the locals were dealing with it: Kids were still playing, families would open the windows, so that the glass couldn’t break due to the pressure of explosions, and gather in the middle of the room, until it was over.
Whole villages lived in refugee hotels. They had lost everything, and their houses were burned to the ground.
How did they make it?
I often asked them how they made it through.
How do you survive something like this?
How do you cope? Who helps you live and heal?
The horrors and the stories of what happened during that war were hard to deal with, even for me, who had a safe place in a neighboring country to call home.
“It’s not easy.” the villagers replied. “And if it wasn’t for our families, we don’t even know what we would do today.
Learning about the importance of community
This is when I learned about the importance of having a community who is able to witness your suffering without trying to “fix” you.
These men, women and children all had horrible stories to tell.
There was no comparing between them. Nobody tried to find out who had it worse.
Everybody was honored for who they were and what they had been through, and as soon as they said a word, a sentence about what happened to them, the whole community nodded in agreement an support.
Wherever we went as we brought our trucks into the villages, we found that people were gathering at each others houses. Everybody was welcome. Everybody got a mocha and something to eat. Someone was always grinding coffee or serving food. Everybody’s doors were open, and even those who lived in the hotels always had a place to go where they could feel welcome and safe with their feelings and trauma.
Learning how to witness
Since I didn’t speak the language, I was dependent on using my senses, sign language and an interpreter for communication.
I didn’t always have access to someone who could translate, but people were talking to me wether I understood every word, or not.
So I learned to listen with my senses. I had to understand the significance of what happened to the villagers, even if I didn’t know the details of their story.
I had to learn to honor what happened to them, to nod in the right way, to shake my head or raise my hands in a way they understood, even if I didn’t know what they were really telling me.
We spent evenings talking, even though we didn’t share the gift of words.
We were listening and talking from our hearts.
And I learned to give honor, respect and deep compassion without ever sharing a word.
It was life changing for me.
And very, very humbling
The power of witnessing and story telling
One thing that I learned back then was, that most people didn’t even have to tell their own story.
There was usually someone else in the community, who told the story for him.
I remember an old man in a worn our jacket, who always seemed to know where our small group was hosted at the time, and showed up to drink his mocha.
He never spoke a word. He hardly even looked up from his cup. Whenever he entered the room, people would move to the side to make space for him. They pulled up a chair and ordered him a drink.
But they never forced him to talk or were uncomfortable with his obvious suffering.
Instead, they told us his story.
It was a powerful moment when I realized that these villagers all knew each other’s stories.
They gave honor to each other by telling them to us, instead of the person having to tell it herself.
Everybody was in agreement about the horror that had happened, and by taking on the responsibility to tell each others stories, they began to create a legacy that felt right and appropriate.
It feels good to have another person listen to you when you speak.
It feels good to be valued for your story, even if you yourself can’t tell it.
It feels good to feel safe in a group of people who understands, and is comfortable around you, even if your mood is not the best.
It feels good to have a tribe that witnesses and takes responsibility for your story to never been forgotten.
My lessons for life
These villagers in Bosnia and Croatia taught me what a tribe is.
They taught me what a community needs to do to help a warrior heal.
They taught me that a good family and caring friends are invaluable and necessary to help a society move forward, and an individual heal after a horrific event.
And they taught me that acknowledgment of what happened, and the courage to witness without having the need to fix and change a person immediately, is crucial to move a community out of trauma and back into life.
I learned what it feels like to live in a community that heals.
9/11: Shocked, but not traumatized
When 9/11 happened, I was as shocked and full of grief just like everybody else.
I watched the twin towers go down, and my upbringing from the cold war area told me immediately, that danger was out there, and we had to stay put and be alert.
What it didn’t do, however, was traumatize me.
I was concerned, but not traumatized. Because I grew up during the Cold War I didn’t loose the “innocence” of believing that I was ever safe. I didn’t loose my world view that nothing could ever happen to me.
I had no sense of entitlement to be the protected from harm. I knew that things could happen, and they could happen to me or my family.
So my husband and I were alert and fiscally cautious, t protect our family, but remained calm.
Terror in Europe
People in London and Madrid, who also suffered horrific Terror Attacks, not the size of he 9/11 attacks, but still very intense, reacted in a similar way I did. They were horrified, they grieved, they protected themselves, and they moved about their life anyways.
They, just like my family, had been through this before. They didn’t loose their innocence. They had never felt safe to begin with.
Watching New York
Now by no means do I want to diminish the unspeakable horrors and tragedy of 9/11. By no means do I want to not honor every family, every victim, every fire fighter who gave his or her life or health.
I feel deeply and my heart goes out to everybody who was so gravely impacted by this terror attack, and I have done whatever I could to help them in the years to come.
But I was wondering if modern communities are set up to help each other on the level that I had experienced in the Balkans. Could they be witness for each other and honor each other’s grief without the immediate wish to fix them? Gratefully, I think that after Hurricane Sandy we can say that there is a lot of resilience and caring to see. I was so touched to see this. People are good people, and they do want to do the right thing for each other. I believe that a problem can be that sometimes, they just don’t know what this could be.
Witnessing by watching TV. Really???
The press today takes over a significant part of the community building. They interview people and let them tell their story. They create times and spaces for the talks that, in other cultures, would happen around the kitchen tables or by the fire side.
They show interest and offer compassion and support. For a short time. And then they leave.
The way we deal with trauma like this today, by witnessing the same stories over and over on TV, is not designed to support a community in it’s self healing process, the way I observed in Bosnia.
The witnessing on TV is more sensationalist, and should, god forbid, something even more horrific happen at the same time, the focus and interest on the victims gets diverted to the newest breaking news report.
The media can violate a community’s right to grief and heal in their own way.
It can be intrusive, uncomfortable, voyeuristic and inappropriate.
Well meaning people can give the wrong remarks, the wrong support to victims, or screw up the organization of the helping teams who are trying to bring long term care into the communities. People feel connected, but they aren’t connected. They are just watching, not witnessing what happened.
They are not the connected community that cares and tells each other’s stories. They are bystanders and watchers. not witnesses who know how to bring healing.
Unless the traumatized victims have a real community to fall back on, they will probably isolate from well meaning people who don’t realy know what to say or how to behave.
The stigma of trauma
Building resilient communities, that have the courage and wisdom to carry and protect trauma victims is necessary for all of us to live a strong, connected and meaningful life.
And as a part of this, we must be willing to release our fear of unhappiness.
Once and for all.
We must not be afraid of being unhappy, unfulfilled or scared.
This is the foundation of a healthy society.
Mental Health for Veterans
As this is so dear to my heart, I’d like to bring the attention back to our Veterans, the Veterans of all wars, at any time in history.
Those men and women that any society sends out to fight for their rights, their protection, their fears, their beliefs or their needs.
I have heard so many times that returning veterans are sent home after a very short and irrelevant screening process, and then checked back on weeks or months later, “to see how they are doing.”
How exactly do we expect a veterans to do after coming home from deployment?
What exactly are we waiting to see, before we get the bigger picture?
How can we even expect a resilient man or woman to come back unchanged after being deployed to a war zone for months or even years?
Why do we even believe that it is possible to not suffer from the experiences and memories?
Nobody comes back unchanged.
It is a maddening sense of ignorance to expect that any person is “fine” after deployment.
Do you remember 9/11? Do you remember how threatening it was to even watch TV during those times, knowing that the location of the terror attacks was, at least for most people in this country, miles, maybe even thousands of miles away?
Veterans live these kinds of scenarios every day.
They live under threat, protecting each other, knowing that they may have to do things they would never do if they weren’t in war, and that they may have to sacrifice their own life for the mission they were on and the people they were trying to protect.
Why do we believe that it is possible to come back the same person, without trauma, memories, grief, rage and hatred?
Why do we believe that it is possible to fit right back into a society that, to a large degree, has a deeply routed sense of entitlement to happiness?
Why do we not just assume that everybody who deploys to a war zone will change forever, and learn who WE, as a community need to be to welcome these men and women home?
Why do we wait to see how they are doing, instead of releasing and judgment or stigma around being haunted by memories?
I believe that it is important for any Veteran, of any war, in any country, to feel honored, respected and protected by his or her tribe.
And not to be judged for the suffering they have to endure.
If we were able to be resilient enough to hold strong when we witness a soldier’s story in a coffee shop, to listen when he or she finds the courage to really talk, we might make more of a difference in that person’s life than any mental health treatment ever will.
When we learn to release any judgment, and opinion, any preconceived notion about the deployment he or she was in, and just listen to the troop’s story, understanding that he or she was sent and ordered to deploy, for a purpose that was declared greater than the safety of the individual, we can become the tribe member that they went out to fight for and protect, wether we personally agree with the mission or war, or not.
We have to learn to become a community who cares with resilience, in order for the Veterans to feel safe to come home.
And I honor and respect my many dear friends and their families in the military who have taught me so much more than I ever think I could learn. Thank you for your trust and commitment.