When working with wounded combat vets, I sometimes encounter “the question” from caregivers and spouses that I find difficult to answer or explain.  So in this week’s post, I wanted to share a bit of insight I have recently gained in the hope it will be beneficial for some of my readers.

To caregivers and spouses, I want to first state that I have the highest level of respect, compassion, and understanding for what you do.   Two of my favorites out there are Uncle Sam’s Mistress and the ladies of Family of a Vet.  Please follow the links to their sites to learn more about their organizations, as they are the real inspiration behind today’s post.  Additionally, I’d like to state that if you have never served in the military, but are caring for a wounded service member, my praise for what you do is even higher.  Juggling your loved ones ever-changing moods and emotional states can be perplexing and exhausting (I hear you Mistress…I’m sugar coatin’ it!).  To make it worse, trained medical professionals do not completely understand how to get this beast under control.  You live your life with little guidance or feedback, never knowing what is coming next.

From all this, I have learned that there is a question that begins to take shape in the back of a caregiver’s mind.  Knowing that you are the one charged with managing this monstrous task, you would like to “understand” what either caused this condition or maybe you are thinking if you could get a glimpse of what caused this, you could deal with it better…the problem is your warrior doesn’t want/like to talk about what they did or saw.

“The question” is “what is he feeling?“

Sound familiar?

I realize “the question” is ultimately going to come up when I interact with caregivers and I do my best to describe what science is revealing to us.  We talk about the changes that take place within our bodies when we are constantly bombarded by adrenaline.  We also discuss the emotional impact placed on us when we experience things that don’t seem natural or are terrifying.  However, you can only talk so much.  Ultimately, the connection is incomplete.  Telling someone to “be terrified” is not the same as being terrified.  It would be hard for me to pass on to you everything you experience when you step over your first “dead guy.”  This is something you have to experience first hand.  You have to be in combat!  That’s just the way it is…or so I thought.

It’s only recently that I have come across something that allows caregivers a glimpse of “adrenaline poisoning.”  Here’s what I discovered completely by accident.

I work several times a year with a Wounded Warrior Family Retreat, sponsored by the Scott Rigsby Foundation.  Over a weekend, I am part of an amazing staff that creates a trusting environment with a full schedule where warrior parents get some quality time to themselves and with each other, while their children and teens are engaged in games, activities, and counseling groups.  We have family talent shows, we have family relays, and we do cycling, nature walks, and yoga.  We also have a zip line.

For my readers that have never experienced a zip line, here’s a quick backgrounder.  A metal cable is suspended above the ground and anchored by trees/poles.  The distance between the start and end can vary, but is at least 100 feet long to make the experience last for at least 10-15 seconds.  A participant puts on a safety harness and attaches the harness to the suspended cable using a pulley.  This pulley allows you to slide down the length of the cable from the start to the end.  Sounds fun, right?

At this particular zip line we work with, the participant has to climb up a 30-foot pole to reach the start of the zip line.  Safety is incorporated into every phase of the zip line, so our campers are always protected.  Still, they must climb up a pole, gain their balance on a small landing at the top, attached themselves to the cable, and as a final move of confidence they must jump off the small landing to “zip” down the line.  At the end of the line, a safety person helps them disconnect from the cable and gets the participant back onto the ground.

At our last camp, I served as the ground safety during a session when our spouses got to experience the zip line.  If you are a military spouse, just imagine having to climb a 30 foot high pole, perch yourself on a landing, attach yourself to a cable and then jump off the landing to slide down the line…all in the presence of the other spouses.  Sounds terrifying, right?

After all of the spouses had tried the zip line, our next activity was arts and crafts.  As the spouses gained their composure and they got focused on painting pottery, an eerie silence fell over the room.  So I started asking questions…

“It sure is quiet in here, any reason why?”

No answers…just heads down painting.

So I continued,

“Can I get a show of hands of everyone that was breathing heavy when they completed the zip line?”  I already knew the answer, because I was the safety helping them disconnect from the cable.

All that rode raised their hands.

“How many of you had a hard time squeezing the snap link to unhook yourself at the end?

All that rode again raised their hands.

How many of you felt a little sick at your stomach a few minutes after the ride?

Again, all hands went up, along with the last rider who added, “I’m still not quite right!” This got a bit of a laugh from the rest of the spouses.

“And how many of you wish I would just shut up so you can focus on your pottery?”

I even got a few hands for that one, along with a big chuckle from the group.

I continued with this, “adrenaline changes your body.  Although you only climbed 30 feet, your heart and lungs were working like you had run a mile, your arms were weak because adrenaline forces the blood to your legs which makes you ready to run, and that sickness you feel is cortisol being released in your bloodstream kicking up your glucose levels and in big doses that can make you feel sick.  Some of you faced a huge fear and that has you rattled.

After an experience like that, you all seem to be enjoying the silence and keeping to yourselves.”

They were all listening…and that’s when it came to me, so I asked “the question.”

“Do any of ever wonder what your warriors felt like when they were in combat?”

I looked all of them in the eyes and I could see it…the rush, the fear, the anger.

“Well if you can imagine a zip line that lasts for 11 months, then…

"Now you know.”

Take Away

Many times our warriors are reluctant to talk about what they experienced “down range” because it is against their code of honor.  You see, they take an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”  Bringing these images back with them is in a way, to them, violating that order.  These intruding thoughts and mood swings are replacements for the enemy they faced overseas.  Exposing you to the thing they swore to protect you from is not within their nature.  Knowing that the beast is inside them, I believe our warriors' fight to try to “hold it all inside.” They think that we fail to realize is the beast gets stronger, the more we fight it!

I can only say from experience, there is a better way to deal with this beast and I offer this help to you.

If this sounds familiar, let me hear from you.

All the best,

Warrior, Over!