Success after war: Challenging the ‘broken vet’ myth (audio)

Less than 1% of Americans serve in the military. One result: War is often misunderstood. We focus on one overlooked element of the veteran experience: growth. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Correspondent Martin Kuz, on October 17, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts.

This Veterans Day, put the focus on growth

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Picture a veteran on this Veterans Day. Who do you see? 

Is it a valiant hero who’s at least outwardly unscathed by war? Is it a man or woman showing signs of having been broken by combat, and on only the earliest steps toward reintegrating into civilian life? Neither of those views is representative of the whole story. Each glosses over a huge part of the veteran experience.

“War is so much bigger than anything you could ever imagine,” says the Monitor’s Martin Kuz, who was embedded with U.S. forces in Afghanistan and who has spent much of his career covering veterans’ issues. He has witnessed some of the difficult transitions that are so widely covered. But he has also seen something more. 

“Some [veterans] have had problems with post-traumatic stress disorder,” he says. “Having that kind of longer relationship with them has allowed me to sort of see the effects of the after-war and how they try to cope. And the good news is that almost all of them find their way forward.” 

For Veterans Day, he spoke with the Monitor’s Samantha Laine Perfas about an underreported phenomenon: post-traumatic growth. 

Note: This audio story was designed to be heard. We strongly encourage you to experience it with your ears, but we understand that is not an option for everybody. You can find the audio player above. For those who are unable to listen, we have provided a transcript of the story below.

AUDIO TRANSCRIPT

MARTIN KUZ: We think of troops as being almost invincible and to a degree they think of themselves as invincible. They have to, for what they’re facing. You can’t acknowledge the fact that you’re at risk because it would paralyze you.

SAMANTHA LAINE PERFAS: When you think of an American veteran, what words come to mind? Heroic, selfless, troubled? Often when we hear about veteran issues, our minds immediately go to the picture of a valiant hero untouched by their time at war, or we think of post-traumatic stress disorder and the other ways that service members struggle to reintegrate into civilian life. But neither is representative of the whole story, and they gloss over a huge part of the veteran experience: post-traumatic growth.

I’m Samantha Laine Perfas, a reporter here at The Christian Science Monitor and for Veterans Day, I spoke with our West Coast correspondent, Martin Kuz, who you just heard. He covered the war in Afghanistan for Stars and Stripes and has long reported on veterans issues and their experiences coming home. I asked Martin what initially drew him to this issue.

KUZ: I went to cover the war in Afghanistan starting in 2011, and that gave me a chance to understand what was happening on the ground in a war zone. I hadn’t been a war correspondent before or even worked overseas. And as I started to understand the toll that war takes on service members, I wanted to better understand how that affects them when they come home. And so when I returned from Afghanistan at the end of 2013, I really dove into veterans issues, taking a look at combat trauma in particular, and how do veterans and their families cope with the after-war.

LAINE PERFAS: When you were in Afghanistan covering the war, what was the experience like?

KUZ: War is so much bigger than anything you could ever imagine. So as much as you try to prepare yourself, you can’t fully know what you’re getting into. You can try to prepare yourself mentally. And I was a little bit older, which I think helped give me perspective. Oftentimes, for instance, service members are in their late teens or early 20s. They have very little life experience. But I went as a ripe old man in my 40s, and it allowed me to, I think, have perspective on what could potentially happen. I had given a lot of thought to what Afghanistan would be like, what the people would be like, what the landscape would be like. And it was a sort of beautiful education. I found the people to be very open and welcoming and hospitable. And the landscape is so striking. It’s one of the very sad aspects, I think, of the ongoing war there is that so few people will ever see this beautiful country. But the people were dealing at that point with war of various forms going back to 1979 when the Soviet Union had invaded. And that takes its toll. They were always a bit on edge. There is an ambient tension almost everywhere you go because war can happen anywhere. Explosions happened, firefights happen. But they seem to just occur here. They occur there. Very random. And so that puts civilians and troops on edge.

LAINE PERFAS: Were you embedded with the troops?

KUZ: I embedded with U.S. troops throughout the country, primarily in eastern Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush Mountains, but also down in the south in Kandahar. You spend time among the troops. And initially, I think you feel like an outsider. But it’s interesting how quickly you become part of their group. What I found, and I think what a lot of war reporters find, is that the lower the rank, the more candid the service member. If you talk to a colonel, he’ll give you official speak. If you talk to a private, you’ll get a story that is the grunt’s perspective.

LAINE PERFAS: Did you stay in touch with any of those service members when you came back?

KUZ: I have. And it’s interesting to get a sense of how they have transitioned into civilian life. And also, it’s a chance for me to reminisce a little bit about some of the things that I experienced. There was a unit that I embedded with very early on when I got to Afghanistan and there was a private. His name’s Josh. And he at one point said in a southern drawl, which I won’t try to imitate, but he said, “I think baby wipes are more important than my weapon.” And baby wipes, of course, are the thing that you use to shower with, to go to the bathroom, all of those things. And I just, it’s the sort of anecdote that for whatever reason sort of sticks in my mind as just one of those human moments. But other other service members I’ve talked to who have, some have had difficult transitions. Some of them have had problems with post-traumatic stress disorder. Having that kind of longer relationship with them has allowed me to sort of see the effects of the after-war and how they try to cope. And the good news is that almost all of them find their way forward. Many of them struggle for a period and many of them still have to try to manage their symptoms of combat trauma. But most of them are doing great. And it should be noted that the majority of them don’t have combat trauma. I think that’s a common misperception, is the idea that all of these veterans return broken. That they are messed up, that they are no longer able to cope with day to day life, and those relationships have enabled me to see that most of them are doing just fine.

LAINE PERFAS: Some of your reporting even has focused on this idea of the broken veteran imagery. Where does that come from, if it’s not really the reality that most veterans come back broken and unable to reintegrate successfully, why do we believe that to be the case?

KUZ: Well, that’s an interesting question. I think to some degree, perhaps a great degree, it’s a residual effect of what happened after Vietnam, where you had so much neglect of veterans who came back from that war, who needed help and who felt cast out and lived on the edges of the culture. We have this image and some of that is a result of popular culture. So you had movies like Rambo, for instance, in which you have the damaged, angry Vietnam veteran coming back to wreak vengeance on people he thinks did him wrong. The signals that we receive about the veteran experience often come through popular culture, and also through the news media. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I think what may have happened is that there was a very good intention to make civilians aware of post-traumatic stress disorder and the difficulty that a percentage of veterans were having after they came home. But the emphasis on PTSD created this odd binary where a veteran was either irreparably broken or a hero. In the effort to understand and to empathize, I think it went maybe a bit too far. My experience with service members and veterans is that they’re uncomfortable with both those labels. They neither, of course, want to be seen as broken, but they’re also uneasy with this idea that they’re a hero. They will tell you again and again and again, “I was just doing what anyone else would have done in my position.” They bristle at the idea that somehow they’re broken. War changes everyone. You can’t go to war and come back as exactly the same person because it’s so extreme. It’s at the extreme of human experience.

LAINE PERFAS: It’s interesting that you bring up this idea of intention. I would at least go as far as saying most people were doing that in an effort to help the situation or to empathize and better understand veterans. So, I guess, I’m curious, what is the danger in having those misperceptions? Why is it a bad thing?

KUZ: So I think the binary results, in part because of the remove at which civilians live from the military, less than 1% of the American population serves in the armed forces. So I think that’s in part where the hero label comes from. It’s this idea that what you do as a service member, your willingness to sacrifice on behalf of your country when so few of us actually sign up, that it separates you. And that elevation of service members, as I’ve said is, is something that makes most of them uncomfortable. It creates an otherness. The other part of that is when you start conflating PTSD and violence, it then almost puts veterans in these two distinct groups: you’re either a threat who might go off at any moment or you’re someone who is so heroic that I’m unsure of how to even have a conversation with you. I think civilians are almost intimidated and because they’re unfamiliar with war, they don’t know what questions to ask. They don’t know how to broach the subject of military service or deploying to war. And veterans, I think, often feel alienated. They can talk among their own, but they don’t feel like they can have an open conversation with civilians about what the experience is like.

LAINE PERFAS: You did a profile on someone for the Monitor. I think Zach Skiles was his name? And he’s actually done a ton of work with veterans. Could you talk about him a little bit and how you met him and why you decided to share his story?

KUZ: Initially, I had written about a program in Northern California called The Pathway Home that helped veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan wars cope with the invisible wounds of war. He had deployed to Iraq and had come back with post-traumatic stress disorder. He had lost close friends, but perhaps even more so, it was the pace of war. The intensity of the combat tempo. And Zach, by his own admission, spiraled and it took him a number of years before he found his way to The Pathway Home. And from there he started to sort of reassemble his life and he went on to study psychology and start counseling veterans at a VA clinic in Northern California in the Bay Area. And his devotion to helping them is inspiring. He’s taking his own traumatic experiences and using something that neither he nor I think any veteran would ever want to go through, just losing people who are close to you, seeing horrific violence on a large scale, taking those experiences that they never necessarily wanted to go through and finding a way to then help other veterans cope with similar experiences. In Zach’s case, he has healed in part by helping others, and he has made it now his life’s work to devote himself to veterans and to continue bringing them home and hopefully helping them on their journey forward.

LAINE PERFAS: It’s almost like he himself had to go through learning the language of how to communicate his experiences with others. So he also kind of becomes this model for growth. I can see how that would make a huge difference.

KUZ: And I think you hit on something that’s so important, which is the notion of growth. So there’s the concept of post-traumatic growth, which is the idea that a person who goes through a traumatic experience over time could eventually learn from that experience and even draw strength from it. And I think Zach Skiles is an example of someone who has experienced post-traumatic growth. He has found a way to draw on those experiences in a way that doesn’t further damage him. And now he can help others. And that is, I think another important point in this overall discussion is that a majority of people who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder also draw strength from it, with again, with the passage of time. It’s not the sort of thing that you wake up one day and decide “I’m better.” It takes a lot of internal work. We don’t hear enough about that notion either. The overwhelming emphasis is on post-traumatic stress disorder. And there are so many stories of veterans and civilians who overcome adversity. You can grow and you can recognize that this experience that you had or experiences that you had in war may have caused great anguish. But you can take something from that and not allow it to own you and possess you. You can try to control that experience.

LAINE PERFAS: Thanks for listening. We’d like to wish all service members and their families a restful Veterans Day and to express our gratitude for that service.

To see more of our coverage, please visit csmonitor.com/USA/military. This story was produced by me. Samantha Laine Perfas and edited by Clay Collins and Yvonne Zipp. Sound design by Noel Flatt. Copyright The Christian Science Monitor, 2019.

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