Sometimes we cannot pick up the trace of our former self after combat. Repeated entry into the horror takes too great a toll on the heart and soul, and a man can come to the end of himself. -pw
Jacob George Memoriam by Peter Winnen
I knew Jacob George. Not personally. I knew his heart.
I recognized his heart as he spoke during an interview posted two years ago on the Minnesota Men’s Conference website. I was impressed by his bravery, his ability to articulate the shape and substance of his own wounding and our collective wound. I was proud of him for doing the difficult work of healing from combat’s trauma.
A multiple tour Afghan War veteran, he calmly told about the strong medicine he felt among men attending the conference, the safety they provided to foster a sanctuary, and the healing he experienced through shared vulnerability.
He emphasized, with appreciation and wisdom, the necessity for civilians to hear veterans’ stories and help carry their burden of war. I was so pleased as I listened to his interview describing how he had been led to the MMC at so young an age.
I learned later that he was a self-described Arkansas farmer, a writer, singer, and peace activist. I had looked forward to meeting him down the road, following his example on my own journey of discovering and revealing my self—and healing. When Miguel Rivera announced at the close of the 2014 conference that Jacob had taken his life, I felt a violent shaking of our web of connecting threads because Jacob’s thread had just broken. The personal high I’d reached during the conference crashed into numbness. My own safety seemed threatened. I would never meet the young man I’d admired from afar.
Jacob was not listed on war’s Killed In Action roster, but war killed him as surely as the mujahideen’s bullets. He was Killed After Action, KAA. He joined the brotherhood of delayed death by combat that, according to the Veteran’s Administration, recruits eighteen to twenty-two veterans a day who commit suicide in our country.
KIA kills the body first. KAA kills the body last. The former is abrupt, the latter is a delay-fused, smoldering soul wound. One takes place far away in the kill zone of a foreign country. The other explodes among the combatant’s “own ones”, in the midst of family and friends. But first, they likely witness a difference in the one who came home as they share the agony of the inexorable toll on their loved one.
1,892 small American flags
We grieve both endings to a soldier’s life, but decorate one and abhor the other, though both grow from the same robust root—belief in the defense of their people and willingness to be expendable in that defense. On some level in this era of volunteer military service, all soldiers and their families share this belief in warrior service to the community. KIA death and KAA suicide are both service connected sacrificial events with only geographical separation. I doubt that the families of their dead soldiers see much difference between giving their lives to the firepower of combat, and succumbing to the power of combat’s residual anguish.
Soldiers are the fragile components of mission-ready weapon systems, sentient launchers of bullets and drones and bombs wielded around the world. Soldiering requires basic conditioning to prepare humans for entry into combat, to shakeout the “civil” part of civilian, and tease out a latent “Spirit of the Bayonet.” Basic conditioning is intended by the military apparatus to suspend normal moral compassion and initiate the heart into acceptance of the alternate universe of warfare.
In Brian Delate’s play, “Memorial Day,” the character, Drill Sergeant Lemmon is clear and adamant about his duty to prepare recruits for entry into combat.
…my job is to harness fear and to transform that fear into fire – fire … the berserk – the berserk is a soldier’s absolute best friend…
Basic conditioning includes learning to suppress empathy, losing the “ability to shudder”, a critical component for human compassion that Robert Bly discusses in “Iron John”.
Gaining the ability to shudder means feeling how frail human beings are, and how awful it is to be a Titan. When one is shuddering, the shudder helps to take away the numbness…When a man possesses empathy…when he learns to shudder…he is developing a part of the masculine emotional body… (Pg. 85)
And Bly reminds us,
…[Titans] were in the world before gods. It was a Titan—Cronos—who castrated his father, Uranus, and later ate each of his own children as they were born, except Zeus.”
War wants Titan-like barbarity. That’s the kind of vicious, voracious capacity frequently required in the berserk habitat of combat.
Newly minted soldiers who acquiesce to the transformation are more deadly after basic training’s conditioning. The potential for soul wounding has begun. Suppressing the ability to shudder and cultivating friendship with the berserker can fulminate in combat. Both work so well. In the kill zone when the berserker is called upon and revealed, the soul wounding is completed.
We’d like to think that after soldiering, we humans could always be rescued and returned. But sometimes we cannot pick up the trace of our former self, after combat. Repeated entry into the horror takes too great a toll on the heart and soul, and a man can come to the end of himself. He is walking around in his homeland with a warzone inside him. Coming home in the heart is impeded by the deeply resonant, inexpressible personal cost endured. The other world remains, a little or a lot. How much remains depends on the individual, the intensity, and proximity to the horror.
Columnist David Brooks recently distinguished between these civil and uncivil dimensions when he wrote
We don’t think about it much, but in civilian life we live enmeshed in a fabric of moral practices and evaluations. We try to practice kindness and to cause no pain. People who have been to war have left this universe behind. That’s because war—no matter how justified or unjustified, noble or ignoble—is always a crime. It involves accidental killings, capricious death for one but not another, tainted situations where every choice is murderously wrong… Soldiers who’ve endured the depraved world of combat experience their own symptoms. Trauma is an expulsive cataclysm of the soul.
Sometimes there is no language to express the trauma that remains so it crouches, mostly hidden, in private. Coming home from my tour of duty in Vietnam was arriving from another dimension where knowledge of the other could not be spoken of, nor understood. I remember knowing there was no way I could explain to anyone “back in the world” where I’d been and what I’d done. There was a mutual vow of silence. Most civilians didn’t want to hear about it and I couldn’t speak of it.
I was as nervous about returning from Vietnam as I had been about entry into it. I had entered an alternate off-planet universe. Intermittent immersion into terror, and the terrible tension of combat boredom had become familiar, known and navigable “off world” terrain. Crossing off days on my short-timer calendar was a ritual of both relief and foreboding, an acknowledgement of the blind luck to live another day, and punishing doubt about going “back to the world” and having to explain the inexplicable.
I felt marked as one who had fully descended into fear, anger, and hate. I was a good guy, but knew how bad the good guy had become. I felt marked for having enjoyed berserker exhilaration. I felt I had sinned and that some kind of cosmic retribution was needed to rebalance my bad karma. I had thought I would die at Khe Sanh for my sins at Gio Linh. It was almost redeeming to think that my death would be fair and sensible even, if there was any higher order keeping score in all the insanity. My life could be exchanged for the damage I’d caused. I was ready to be sacrificed. Why not my death, and not the other guy? That could balance things out.
I do not know if Jacob shared these kinds of thoughts or what internal cataclysm brought him to his end. The burning in a soldier’s heart is very personal, unique to each man. Jacob and his KAA brothers could no longer keep up the balancing act between two opposite worlds of war and peace, carnage then calm. They chose “the cruel relief of suicide” as James Wright, author of “Those Who Have Born The Battle” has called it.
It’s the relief KAA brother Sgt. First Class Michael B. Lube sought, who as reported in the New York Times, “…just days after his 36th birthday…put on his Green Beret uniform and scribbled a note, saying, ‘I’m so goddamn tired of holding it together.’ Then he placed a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.”
Edward Tick, PhD, co-founder of “Soldier’s Heart: Restoring Our Warriors and Communities” recently expressed the unavoidable truth that,
Individual servicemen and women who enact the nation’s policies may collapse because they are made to carry the collective wound as though it were their individual pathological condition to…endure.
Healing from the impact of war on hearts and souls ought to be a collective condition to endure. A collective healing that celebrates a tradition of revealing, sharing, offering our deepest selves to each other in a safe space made sacred by our intention. And being listened to.
I have heard Ed Tick and John Schluep describe the wise Native American tradition of elders surrounding returned warriors in a protective circle and listening to their stories from battle before warriors were permitted to go home. The intent was to initiate warriors back into community, ensure they’d have time to discharge combat energy, and reduce the potential for war-mind damage to themselves and family members. John Schluep is the founder of Warrior’s Journey Home, where the stated mission is: “To listen. To speak. To heal. To come home.” Most important in this effort is active participation of non-veteran community members sitting in circles with veterans, and welcoming their stories with open hearts.
Regarding an American post-combat state of mind, and bringing veterans home in their hearts, James Hillman writes in “A Terrible Love Of War” that,
War is never over…It is an in an indelible condition in the soul, given with the cosmos. The behavior of veterans—their domestic fury, suicides, silences, and despairs—years after a war is “over”…confirms war’s archetypal presence. Peace for veterans is not an “absence of war” but its living ghost in the bedroom, at the lunch counter, on the highway. The trauma is not “post” but acutely present…PTSD carriers of the remnants of war in their souls infect the peaceable kingdom. They are like initiates among innocents…an initiation interruptus still asking for the wise instruction that is imparted by initiations…How can what I now know in my bones about treachery and hypocrisy, about loving compassion and courage, and killing, reenter society and serve my people? (Pg. 32)
In his own way, Jacob George was trying to initiate himself back into the peaceable kingdom. He knew, carried, and shared a soldier’s heart. He offered his deepest self, was listened to, and had reentered community in service to his people. That’s part of what’s so tragic about his death. He seemed to be available for so much that can be mustered for grieving and healing together. He practiced a listen-speak-sing-heal mantra. He was in touch with his truth, his story.
May his story stand as an offering on behalf of the roster of all the men and women who couldn’t get home in their hearts. May their delayed acts of sacrifice interrupt us, cause us to shudder.
May we combine our abhorrence with a recompense of honor, humility and gratitude. The soldier’s heart blesses us all.
Robert Bly, “Iron John”: https://books.google.com/books?id=ELWA2YlAeUEC&pg=PA85&lpg=PA85&dq=robert+bly+learning+to+shudder&source=bl&ots=7piecMQfiI&sig=maHyQPp_B2CZnUwATz0iEWaD1U&hl=en&sa=X&ei=g37oVKj6NcXAggTitoOYDQ&ved=0CAQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=robert%20bly%20learning%20to%20shudder&f=false
Brian Delate: Memorial Day Project
Sgt. First Class Michael B. Lube:
“Warrior’s Return, Restoring The Soul After War”, pg. 125
John Schluep: Listen. Speak. Heal. Warrior’s Journey Home:
James Wright, “Those Who Have Borne the Battle: A History of America’s Wars and Those Who Fought Them”:
James Hillman — A Terrible Love Of War, Pg. 32
The Peaceable Kingdom http://www.worcesterart.org/collection/American/1934.65.html
Consider your “own ones” with Van Morrison’s “Irish Heartbeat”: