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Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D. Headshot

On Being Human

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Now that our government is -- for the time being -- functioning once again, we can turn our attention back to some of the important issues that confront our nation. For example, the war in Afghanistan is winding down. Most Americans assume that as the war ends and our service members return home, all is well and we can close the book on this chapter of American history. Those of us who work with veterans and military families know, however, that the impact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will continue to be felt for many years to come. We could have learned this lesson from the Vietnam War, but it seems that we have not. Although we are welcoming our warriors home with balloons and applause -- and we do shake their hands and thank them for their service -- we continue to struggle to ensure that returning troops and their families receive the opportunities they need and the support they deserve beyond the homecoming. At the very least we must offer them understanding and acceptance; so far, we are falling short.

Earlier this month, the Daily Beast held its second annual Hero Summit on a rainy Thursday here in Washington, D.C. This all-day, invitation-only program showcased several panels that featured conversations with a collection of newsmakers, thought leaders, and journalists. While not all of the conversations focused on the impact of our nation's participation in the Global War on Terrorism, many discussions did explore our military's involvement in several hot spots around the world and the response here at home as the war in Afghanistan draws to a close.

We each listen to presentations and conversations through filters influenced by the issues and concerns that drive us. So it is not surprising that as I listened to the various speakers and panelists participating in the summit, I focused on what was said -- and not said -- about the mental health consequences for service members and their families of a decade of war. And while there were no panels specifically devoted to the invisible injuries of war, there certainly were references to post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury throughout the day.

For example, one panel featured a discussion of the film Black Hawk Down and reflections on the 20th anniversary of the Battle of Mogadishu, which inspired the film. The panel included the producer of the film, Jerry Bruckheimer, and two of the men who were involved in the rescue operation to recover the crews of the Black Hawk helicopters that had been shot down. The horrific battle that was fought two decades ago in war-torn Somalia lasted all night and resulted in 19 deaths and 80 wounded.

The panel discussed the making of the film as well as the real life events that unfolded on October 3, 1993. Ret Sgt Matt Eversmann and Ret Brigadier General Craig Nixon spoke about the incredible bravery they witnessed and the lessons they learned from the battle. Toward the end of the discussion, the moderator of the panel asked General Nixon to explain what happens to men who are paralyzed by fear during combat, men who "take themselves out of the battle." General Nixon differentiated between "danger" and "fear" and noted that whereas danger is real, fear is a concern and an expectation of what might or might not happen. He noted that the key for those in the military is to recognize the difference between the two and act accordingly. He also spoke about the commitment that Rangers make to never leave a Ranger behind to fall into the hands of the enemy. He closed his comments by saying, "everyone has to make a choice."

I have absolutely no doubt that General Nixon is an honorable and courageous man who feels tremendous loyalty toward and respect for the men he served with during his distinguished career. But he seems to hold a belief that continues, unfortunately, to be shared by many. He seems to believe that we have choice over whether or not we are affected by the traumatic or life-threatening events that happen to us. And because he is such an articulate and well-respected leader, people will listen to his words and adopt his perspective.

Humans are complex psychological beings. The factors that determine our ability to overcome fear and behave heroically in the face of real or perceived threat are complicated and multidetermined. Sometimes we can override our fear and behave courageously, and sometimes our instinctive reactions appear heroic in hindsight. But there are many who make the commitment to serve, those who are ready to give their lives in defense of our country, who are unable to live up to the expectations they have for themselves. They intend to be brave, but they are overwhelmed by the situation and they freeze. There are also many who behave in a manner that we would all label "heroic" only to fall apart days or weeks or months later.

The majority of the men and women who suffer emotional paralysis during combat typically have -- until the moment panic strikes -- worn the uniform proudly. They follow orders, and they love their country. But as much as they would like it to be otherwise, in that moment they are unable to control their reactions or their emotions. And typically they suffer unbearable shame as a result. Some of those who feel that they have let themselves and others down are unable to heal and, as a result, lead broken lives. Sadly, some who experience the unrelenting pain of their perceived failure choose to end their lives.

It is hard to know how many of our returning service members suffer from feelings of inadequacy, disappointment, and guilt. It is hard to know how many suffer in silence. But it is clear that too many are falling through the cracks that exist because we are uncomfortable with the demons they have to face. We have thus far failed to educate them and ourselves about how being brave or courageous may not always be an option or a choice. And compartmentalizing the horror and brutality that one confronts during war so that it does not bleed into life back home is difficult for anyone -- hero or otherwise -- to accomplish.

It is important for us to honor and recognize those who behave bravely -- those who risk their lives to serve our country and those who save the lives of others. We should recognize and honor them whether their actions are intentional or reactive. And we must also ensure that these men and women have the support and care they need after the battle ends, after they come home and while they struggle to sort through the full impact of their experience.

And of course we must continue to train those who serve -- those who must fight -- so that they are as well prepared as possible both physically and psychologically for the danger and the challenge they will surely face.

But we must not convey to those who fall short of the ideal that they are lesser beings, that they are failures who have disgraced their service and our country. As much as we might like to believe that we have choice, that we have control, most of us really can't know how we will act when the moment of truth arrives. And just because someone is unable to behave heroically doesn't mean that he or she is without value, skills, or capabilities. It means that on that day, in that moment, that service member was unable to overcome being human. If we truly want to welcome our service members home, if we truly want to ensure that they continue to lead the lives they deserve, then we must endeavor to understand and accept the burdens they bring home.