Perhaps the single most devastating emotional pain we suffer is abandonment. Many children know this experience as their primary relationship to their parents, and the effects are wide-ranging and long-lasting. Abandonment is rarely about the person being left; it is most always a reflection of what is broken in the person doing the leaving. Yet the abandoned person rarely perceives this; instead, the message of unworthiness and the belief of being fundamentally unlovable is planted deep inside of us. Almost like a dormant genetic trait in the human genome, most of us seem to carry the potential for this erroneous belief. Tragically, most of us also have plenty of opportunities that trigger it.
Abandonment is usually not the product of malicious intent. Often, it results from competing demands, not enough resources, inability to conceive of consequences and fatigue. We are not as a species deliberately unloving; we are more often preoccupied with our own pain and not up to the profoundly hard work to love responsibly. This is as true in individual family stories as it is on a national level. The world of diminishing, or at least limited, resources is catching up to all of us. Promises and guarantees that were made in brighter economic times are no longer sustainable on many levels. Worldwide, the question of how we care for each other, how a society sustains itself, is being examined. But nowhere is this abandonment being more acutely felt than among returning veterans and their families.
Here is a fact that I cannot get out of my mind. For every young soldier that has been killed on the battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan, 25 soldiers commit suicide upon returning home. This suicidal drain on our returning soldiers and their families goes unrecorded and unaided. These deaths happen in the killing fields of our own communities, in the bedrooms of what were once the young, strong boys who initially left home with a sense of mission and invincibility. Their intentions of protecting their country in wars for which they were ill-prepared left them so damaged and empty of themselves that drug and alcohol addiction was the only means of self-medicating their trauma.
My sons are young men, just barely out of their boyhood. They are trying to figure out what it means to be male and working to chart their course in life, not unlike the young men who joined the armed forces. It is hard for me to imagine who they would become and what would be lost of them under the same stress. The truth is that the human psyche is not built for war, and its effects are profoundly damaging to the soul of growing boys. This is not news. Collectively, we have witnessed the loss of tens of thousands of lives to the post-traumatic stress disorder, cases that are still being treated from the Vietnam conflict. The army has only just begun to recognize the frighteningly-high rates of brain injury that the most recent conflicts have left in their wake.
The cost of war for those who bravely commit to fighting in them endures for many throughout their lives. For as strong as we make our forces, equipping them with billions of dollars of protection and weaponry, we must acknowledge that we are not wired as killing machines. Our nervous systems are not designed for 24-hour combat for months on end. The loose ends of our self-esteem and self-worth unravel quickly under the strain of constant threat. The emotional healing and forgiveness that is required for a soldier to come home from a tour of service will last at least as long as the tour and, for many people, 10 times that long.
If we are going to continue to promote war as a solution to our collective insecurity, then we must be prepared to commit to the rehabilitation of the young boys who come home alive, yet broken and emotionally damaged. Our military budget should without question be committed to the healing at least as much as the killing. Otherwise, we become our own enemy. The worst abandonment we can perpetuate is on the young men we sent to battle. We are responsible for the healing of the troops we send to kill.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
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