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Exploring Their Private Wars

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In December 2006 Lori Holyfield heard a soldier being interviewed on National Public Radio. He'd been shamed by his commanding officer and his unit after self-disclosing he was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

She listened as other soldiers talked about being discharged for "personality disorders" or "patterns of misconduct" -- instead of being treated for the obvious symptoms of their war trauma. She was stunned as she realized the depth of emotional pain and humiliation these soldiers must have felt.

"I feared for those young men, worried they would be condemned to a private war of emotional pain. How might it affect their families?"

The daughter of a Korean War veteran, Holyfield is familiar with that kind of 'private war.' "We all knew that my father had a wounded heart, and like so many families of veterans, we lived with the demons that accompanied him home from a war that had no name."

Not long after that radio interview, Holyfield -- an associate professor of sociology at the University of Arkansas -- partnered with the Library of Congress, and the Veterans Oral History project was born, which in turn propelled her to write Veterans' Journey Home.

Her book highlights the challenges that combat and military service create for men and women returning to civilian life and describes a program where, during a year of ethnographic study, she came to believe that veterans with "scars formed over their hearts" could find a sense of peace, forgiveness and acceptance.

For anyone who knows a combat veteran or has served in a warzone or feels a need to better understand what it means to be a modern soldier, Veterans' Journey Home is a timely and valuable resource.

Holyfield teaches her students to see "the big picture" and their place in it. She does the same with Veterans' Journey Home, as she reveals that no war can be viewed without an understanding of the social and political context in which it occurs.

I've heard family members speak of how they dropped a scruffy kid off at boot camp and were shocked to see, just a few months later, that kid standing tall and proud -- practically unrecognizable in fact -- at their boot camp graduation.

Holyfield does a superb job of explaining how this transformation occurs and stresses what a powerful role the military's use of rituals, symbols and initiation rites play. "The moral ambiguity of war is eliminated or at least held in check during basic training as individuals shed their civilian skins for military uniforms.'"

Sergeant Reinold, of the Army National Guard, explains:

The good thing about basic training is they teach you to be a soldier and a soldier doesn't show emotions. They teach you to shut it off, completely shut it off. It's called the soldier's switch. That's why a guy can keep fighting even though his best friend just got his head blown off...

The visceral and graphic accounts of the soldiers keep what could be a research-heavy book alive and immediate. They also convey what Holyfield calls the "moral emotional trauma" of the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and explain that while the rules of engagement may be clear on paper, they are anything but clear in reality.

Take 1st Sergeant Mayfield's phrase: "shoot, smile, shoot."

You go from -- you would be defending yourself and then be glad handing with the little kiddies and politicians and the locals and the next thing you know, you would be shooting at the same people!

Soldiers who are simply following the rules of command experience moral anguish as they vacillate between protector and aggressor. "Hyper-vigilance is a necessity. Mistakes are made. Chaos is real and the ultimate goal is to stay alive" writes Holyfield.

The pride that comes with serving one's country, the masculine military culture, the closer-than-family bonds, the stigma surrounding emotional trauma, undiagnosed brain injury, the rising rates of substance abuse and suicide: what makes this book so valuable is Holyfield's ability to make a cohesive whole of a multitude of fragments and shards.

She cautions against labels, pointing out that "war is pathological -- not the soldier who experiences it," and says that we're too quick to see soldiers as "either self-reliant heroes/anti-heroes or traumatized victims."

She questions the role of "well-meaning mental health officials who are constrained by medical models that don't get to the moral symbolism that trauma holds for its victims."

And she explores the complex issue of shame -- an emotion that some psychologists describe as being the most difficult to manage. "For soldiers who are physically wounded and removed from their units guilt and shame are inevitable, but for those removed for psychological wounds, the shame is often unbearable."

Then there is the shame that society unknowingly inflicts on combat veterans. Holyfield writes: "They also are shamed when society is apathetic... when we lose the understanding of what constitutes war trauma and the result is cultural ambivalence or possibly even cultural amnesia..."

Veterans' Journey Home shows that for women, the impacts of serving in a war zone can be even more complicated and layered. Holyfield explores what it means to be a female in today's military and focuses on the unique challenges that female soldiers face. Not surprisingly, she writes, female soldiers are more likely to experience PTSD due to harassment or sexual assault than from combat.

Reading the soldiers' narratives, it becomes clear that even if a soldier isn't involved in direct combat, they are susceptible to the trauma of being in a war zone -- witnessing the sights, smells, carnage, the innumerable close calls, and a sense of helplessness.

By the time we reach the "Vets Journey Home" program in chapter six, we are ready. We are ready for the skill and compassion of co-founder Patricia Clason, for the full-circle attention to rituals and symbols that honor veterans, and for the profound relief experienced by Holyfield after years of bearing witness to so much despair.

In a particularly poignant part, she introduces a female veteran who experienced ongoing sexual trauma while serving in the military in the '70s and '80s:

As the day comes to a close, Whoopie is the last to share her story. Any objectivity I might have had as a researcher leaves me as I witness a ritual transpire that is both sacred and speaks to the depth of bonds between veterans. It unfolds as if it were planned months in advance. After she has finished, veterans in the room stand up and begin to form a single-file procession before her as if they had practiced for this ceremony many times...

Each of the men approach her tearfully, voices cracking as they try to maintain a formal military posture in front of her. They apologize, one after the other, 'on behalf of the U.S. military,' some adding 'I would be proud to serve beside you,' saluting her again. By the end of the procession, Whoopie is rocking back and forth in her chair, crying and clapping her hands together quietly. She smiles wide and says, 'I feel like I'm home.'

"Veterans' Journeys Home: Life After Afghanistan and Iraq" by Lori Holyfield, Paradigm Publishers is available October 30, 2011.

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