Saturday, February 1, 2014

In This Corner: When Worlds Collide

...When Worlds Collide

By Lynne Kinnucan

“The past is never dead.  It's not even past.”
William Faulkner

The nightly news runs films of returning veterans, happy families, strangers holding up signs of gratitude and respect. Yet too many never make it back at all, and of those who do - the ones who suffer no memorial but their own - re-entry is often more of a collision than a homecoming. The shell-shocked father in a shouting match with his wife as the family begins to crumble.  The commanding officer who knows that obedience is the first law of survival and goes into shock when a workplace employee says no.

Their stories are legion and heartbreaking. A veteran of the Afghani war is working out at the gym.  In the corner, a weight hits the floor with a bang; the soldier crouches in a defensive position and his eyes dart from side to side.  “His brain knows that after that explosion comes an ambush,” says Dre Popow, Executive Director of Veterans Rebuilding Life. “After that somebody dies, and next, it may be you.”  But at the gym, no one is aware of the danger – they stare at him in silence.  Later he takes to working out at home, in a basement room with no windows.  It’s safer there.

Sgt. Dre Popow
“It’s tough,” says Dre, a Marine Corps Sergeant, returned from a tour of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.  “If you’re one of the younger ones, as I was, you look the same to your friends but you’re very different inside. They can sense it, but no one talks about it.” The vets don’t want to talk about it either.  Part of it is the fear that there are no words to describe the horror; partly it is the fear of what would happen if they did. “How can I tell my wife that I shot a child?”

Sometimes the differences are big – uncontrolled rage, or a despair that can drive a person to suicide (“I lost more friends to suicide after the war than I did during it,” says Dre) and sometimes they are smaller.  But slowly the vets become more isolated and withdrawn.  “We bring all that home with us: the explosions, the screaming, the deaths….it’s alive in us and we feel we’ve had a part in making it all happen.”

No one can really understand what it’s like. “They hate themselves for how they are acting,” says Dre, “yet they can’t control it.”

While some vets have an easier time adjusting to homecoming, a significant number of men and women suffer enduring trauma.  Their brains have literally been rattled by the shock waves of bombs; they have seen things and done things that will give them nightmares for the rest of their lives. Many suffer from PTSD or TBI, traumatic brain injury.  Common treatments are medication and counseling.  But these often are not enough to pull veterans back into community with friends and family.  In their isolation, they have no outlet for their anger and grief.

“Medicine has advanced to such a degree that we save lives now that could never have been saved in earlier wars.  But the penalty for surviving the battlefield is the trauma of readjusting to the home front,” says Pastor Andrew Hart of The Old First Church in Huntington New York.

Dre, founder of Veterans Rebuilding Life, agrees. “We’ve seen things that no person should have to see, and seen them over and over again.  We couldn’t get away.  Sometimes we had to do things that meant innocent children got killed.”

He believes that if PTSD is a sort of military term for conscience - the guilt over having caused pain and damage - then the way to rebuild a veteran’s life is to help   rebuild the victims’ lives, one person at a time. Atonement. It is a matter of saving both lives: the victim’s and the veteran’s.  In partnership with other organizations, Veterans Rebuilding Life now helps children wounded by war receive medical treatment, and provides housing for severely disabled American soldiers.

How does all this relate to crisis intervention? The seven steps of the Behavioral Change Stairway are applicable to anyone in crisis; but especially, according to Dr. Mitchell Hammer, when intense, largely negative emotional realities such as anxiety, fear, anger and shame are present. 

An organization in Jamaica, New York, has put an unusual twist on crisis intervention. With the help of VRL, they are trying to get to the vets before the crisis overwhelms them.

Community Mediation Services
in Queens, NY.
“We see this as crisis intervention,” says Mark Kleiman, Executive Director of Community Mediation Services, "since from the moment of return they face the significant changes on both sides as well as many complex issues. Military culture and painful memories cause resistance. Therefore, we hope to enter the crisis as early as possible using mediation for stability while collaborating with other resources. If they are engaged, there is less likelihood of a jumper off a bridge or a despair-driven veteran holding a family hostage." 

Kleiman and Peggy Russell founded the Community Mediation Services’ Veterans Mediation program, where experienced family mediators team up with veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who have been trained as mediators by CMS. Launched in November of 2013, the idea is to have a veteran at the table when the clients come in. "Most often," says Russell, "another veteran is the only person they can really talk to, the only person who 'gets it'. “So we pair them with experienced family mediators and bring them to the table as a person to whom the vets can relate and whom they can trust.”

The power of this process, says Kleiman, is that it is present-and future- oriented.  Veterans have a hard time with demands that they somehow “change.” So the mediation program focuses instead on how they can rebuild.  "It sounds like you want to regain a relationship with your children.  Given what you and they have all gone through, what would that look like and how would you like to get there?  What does being married mean to you?  What do you think made things works when they did work?”

It also helps the family create a more understanding environment, to reconnect in ways they can trust, to build a comfort level.  This is important because typically the veteran is uncomfortable with everything.  The process works for incremental changes that create a more understanding environment, and ways to recognize when fear and grief are moving toward rage and despair.

"By doing this," says Kleiman, “we engage them in the experience of problem-solving, gaining insight into that all-important connection between how they’re feeling and what’s important to them, then what their goals are and how can they rebuild their lives around them.”

“The past is never dead,” wrote Faulkner. “It's not even past.”  And some wounds are too deep to heal. But with the help of organizations like Community Mediation Services and Veterans Rebuilding Life, some veterans may indeed heal, and perhaps their lives may be returned to them.


  1. What an intelligent and beautiful way to help those who have given so much to help all of us

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