Like so many, I was horrified by the tragic massacre in Afghanistan. Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was serving his fourth deployment when he allegedly walked off a military base and killed 16 civilians, many of whom were women and children. The horrific event cast a bright spotlight on the pressures of our military after over 10 years of war across two different war zones.
According to the Wall Street Journal, there are currently 107,075 soldiers in the Army who have done three or more combat tours, approximately 20 percent of the active duty force. Including all military service members, 160,980 have done four or more tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Combat stress and the corrosive effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on a soldier's psyche are now at the forefront of the national debate. Studies show combatant's PTSD usually metastisizes to broader issues of depression, anxiety, disassociation and even psychotic disorders, like borderline personality disorder in complex PTSD cases. Although it is too soon to judge what drove Bales to such violence, recent reports suggest PTSD could be at play.
There are thousands of soldiers struggling with PTSD who aren't driven to murder and PTSD shouldn't be used as some sort of justification in the Bales case. However, its existence should spur a focus on the psychological impacts that 10 years of war brings, and we should explore ways we can help returning soldiers and their families readjust to society.
Many in the military have a hard time transferring their attention within to ask for help. Additionally, they are too self-reliant to hold our government accountable to provide the assistance they deserve.
Beyond the psychological impacts, there are often veterans returning physically disabled, and some who don't make it home at all. Such a loss is undeniably devastating and alters the familial unit permanently, leaving loved ones to pick up the pieces.
The repercussions of war and trauma on the battlefield continue at home and affect soldier's entire families. Even if a family survives a deployment, their new existence can be a skeleton of their former life. Many individuals in these circumstances are rendered broken down because they are unable to relate to their "new normal."
Thinking of military service and the need to recover and heal after trauma, I couldn't help but think of Taryn Davis' story, which was a DoGooder Spotlight. She lost her husband, Corporal Michael Davis, while he was serving in Iraq. While on a mission, Michael and his men were killed by multiple roadside bombs. At the age of 21, Taryn became a military widow.
She remembers the days, weeks and months following Michael's death as very dark and isolating. Military officers handed her a binder titled "In the Days Ahead" that detailed how to plan his funeral, write his eulogy and obituary. It felt very procedural to Davis. In Michael's obituary, she shared the now shattered dream they'd envisioned for their lives. Davis wrote: "He and his wife had plans of traveling the world together, swimming with sharks and starting a gorgeous family."
Davis grieved deeply and struggled as those around her found it easier to move on with their lives. Feeling deserted, Davis realized she had to continue living so her husband's story would be remembered. She set out to create a support system that she wished she had after Michael's death: other 20-something widows to talk to her and understand exactly how she was feeling.
Davis started a documentary to highlight on tape how other war widows survived after such a loss. Although the interviews were painful, she found the film gave the widows an opportunity to recount their love for their spouses and restore a "glimmer in their eyes" as they talked about their fallen loved ones.
Davis started the nonprofit, The American Widow Project, and jokes it was out of pure selfishness to help her heal. The nonprofit provides a space where widows can connect through email chains and a 24-hour hotline. It also organizes events so widows can have something to look forward to and reconnect with others. The organization currently serves 915 widows and has hosted 17 events around the country.
Davis' story teaches the real life lesson: When you're left feeling broken, restore yourself by building a connection to others in the outside world. It is easy for someone returning from war or dealing with the loss of a loved one to shut down and shut the world away. This isolation can be devastating and perpetuate a loneliness that prevents healing. Although difficult at the time, Davis walked through her grief by making the documentary and fostering connections with other military widows.
Davis built an organization to give her life meaning and resurrect comfort out of her devastating loss to help others. Without this newfound passion, Davis could have emotionally died with Michael. This same lesson applies to returning soldiers struggling with PTSD. Although they return home alive, they can feel dead inside from what they have seen. It is not an easy road and it's obviously one that requires professional psychological help, but connecting with others to develop a renewed perspective can be a catalyst towards the healing process to eventually create a new normal.