In the Shadow of Our Collective Sadness

From the War to the Home Front (Part One of Two)

Posted Dec 10, 2013

U.S. soldier

U.S. soldier

In the shadow of our collective sadness, we feel grateful that a man of Nelson Mandella’s stature has graced our lives. Throughout this holiday season, we cultivate gratitude and concern for those we hold dear. We reflect on those men and women who have contributed to our collective well-being. For those who are with us, we wish the full measure of possibility to enrich their lives. That is why, especially at this time, it brings me pain to think of the plight of so many in the American military. Ponder this fact: during the most recent complete calendar year, 2012, more U.S. soldiers died from suicide than from battle casualties. Although the final numbers are not yet known for 2013, according to the NY Times, the shocking trend continues. Since 2001, over 2,700 U.S. armed service persons have killed themselves.

We know that the stress of battle is excruciating. The unrelenting external threats are enough to elicit panic in even the most lionhearted. Still, why do so many Americans turn deadly force against themselves? How is it that self-inflicted violence exceeds the deadliness of attacks meted out by the enemy? How can this be?

Despite reports and studies commissioned by the Pentagon, a proper answer to the question, “Why can't our soldiers protect themselves from themselves?,” has not come to light. This is my view: the root of the problem that makes our troops so vulnerable has to do with their inability to: first of all, identify the limit of their tolerance for mental turmoil; secondly, acknowledge the need to seek help because they are over that limit; thirdly, the failure to seek out help or engage others to help them seek help. Instead of following these three steps, in the face of overwhelming stress, our soldiers languish in harm’s way.

Afghan conflict


On the battlefield the steely glare of an idealized image, that of a soldier who can put up with anything and remain duty-focused, gains laser intensity. Its beam can burn down and then blow away vulnerable men and women who do not know how or when to say, “I need help. I cannot endure any more and survive.” Unfortunately, the Catch-22 mentality, the notion that, “If they are aware enough to state their limitation, they are fit for duty,” haunts the realm of non-fiction as well as fiction.

After a soldier has made and honored their commitment to serve the nation, don’t we have a moral obligation to care for them if they are pushed beyond their limits for tolerating difficulties? Certainly when soldiers break bones, they get medical assistance. Do we still hold, because psychological breakdowns are somewhat less measurable than physical, that they are less real? We know better in the 21st century. We know that PTSD is just as deadly and life-damaging as many other severe medical conditions.

I admire perseverance in the face of difficulty. Probably everyone reading this article does. It’s a form of heroism. What I’m saying here is that it’s not the only form. There’s another variety of heroism rarely described. This alternate paragon fearlessly articulates what he or she feels. This alternate type of hero exemplifies awareness of their own limitations, and acts accordingly. Such a person seeks help. Able performance on the battlefield requires courage; pursuit of survival from within a state of great vulnerability and upset does also.

The traditional interpretation of a soldier’s need for relief from combat is that it is shameful, cowardly, a sign of personal defect. The finality of suicide represents an escape from the unbearable. The problem can be shame, guilt, anger, fear; whatever it is, its challenge pivots on handling feelings about the self. Saving these men and women from themselves depends on helping them do this.

Finding a non-judgmental listener to respond sympathetically to the high-risk soldier can make the difference between life and death. Someone who can validate that the act of asking for help is worthy of an empathic response; this is what is needed. Acceptance.

In Part Two of this article I will veer from the war front to the home front. I will explore the consequences of living with a partner in a state of siege atmosphere. I will speak about often the lack of emotional safety often leads to premature demise of the relationship.

My new book, The Power of Three-Dimensional Communication: A Couples Guide to Creating Emotional Safety is almost ready for publication. I will take you further in the healing direction there. In the meantime, I welcome your comments, questions, reactions to this piece.

Remember, love and good feelings are plentiful yet elusive; I’ll be around to help you locate and develop them in the Middle Ground.

About the Author

Marty Babits is Co-Director of Family and Couples Treatment Service, a division of the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in New York City.

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