Surviving life after the military is a difficult thing.
There are all sorts of pitfalls you need to avoid. Civilians don't give each other the same respect your brothers in arms do. Drugs and alcohol are too tempting of a coping method for survivor's guilt, PTSD or dealing with service related injuries. Probably the biggest injury that goes unseen is having a family of brothers, who you've bled and sweat with, suddenly ripped away from you. I've always thought if the Army had a way to relocate our platoon to the same city, after our service so that we could see each other more often, we'd be much better off. I don't think a program like that exists.
I've lost brothers. Some to suicide and some to combat.
My roommate from the Army and my best friend from Basic Training hit me the hardest. My best friend from basic, Robert Kislow was one of the greatest guys I'd ever known. He lost his leg, and was even shot in the head but refused to give up the gun. He wound up saving most of his platoon because of it. He lived with injuries you could see, and even more, that you couldn't see, until one day his stressors got the best of him and he took his life.
My roommate from the army, Kevin Lipscomb was who I was the closest with after military life. We talked every other night on facebook and called each other once a week. One night he messaged me saying, "Things are getting too dark." This kind of conversation wasn't uncommon for us, and we usually talked our way through it. We talked all night. From 10 pm until 4 am. We laughed and joked about the Army, talked about women, and talked about art. I was the writer, and he was a sketch artist. By the end of the night, we were laughing and joking! I thought I talked him down.
He was found dead the next day.
My heart still hurts, and survivor's guilt still has me reaching lows where I go, "If only I'd known this was the time it was going to happen, I'd have jumped on a plane and gone out there." There is no way I could have made it in time or even known that this was the time it was going to happen but, I still beat myself up over it.
So after having a traumatic brain injury and being separated from my brothers, how did I cope?
I'm not going to tell you it's been an easy road. It hasn't. I've gone down dark paths and came pretty close to the edge at times out of sheer grief. Those first few years after leaving the Army are worse than any monster you have ever known.
I think when I sit and examine the pieces, I had some perks most folks don't have. I had a lot of support. My mother and father both loved me. I have a great dog (believe me, a great dog is important!) I met an extraordinary woman who became my wife and gave me a son and a daughter. My wife is amazing and has always known when to look at me with soft eyes and when to use a stern voice. Through her, my new in-laws were all family that had served in the air force, including my father in law who was Para-Rescue in Danang and worked shuttle recovery on the Apollo missions. A real American badass!
One of the key factors to coping was: I gave up drinking.
I get too depressed and make too many poor decisions that haunt me when I'm drunk. It doesn't work for me. It probably doesn't work for most other veterans too but, getting us to admit it is... Well, sometimes self-medication is needed because we don't get the same love and support systems. It is sad but true.
I made sure to make my VA appointments, and the VA worked hard to help me survive. Say what you want about the VA, I'm sure it is not great in a lot of places, but the doctors, nurses and case workers that helped me, worked hard to do so. Yes, the bureaucracy is insane, I agree, but that's a whole other can of worms we can tackle some other time.
These are all support systems that we as veterans deserve and need to thrive.
But then there are the accidental support groups that I didn't see coming, that made a huge difference.
Rob Kislow’s brother, Jason Kislow visited me. He even introduced me to his son! Although Jason and Rob don’t look too much alike to me, when Jason spoke, I swear I heard Rob’s voice and infectious laughter. We are still good friends today! It means a lot to me that I've earned another brother through Rob's brother.
A center for autism that I used to work for rehired me. I was back in my element of helping folks. The place has so much altruism with people who believe they can change the world. They help give others abilities most of us take for granted. While I was caught up in trying to help kids grow, the kids turned around and surprised me by reminding me how to live! Laughter and warmth are what I need to flourish, and if I put it out into the world, it tends to come back to me.
The biggest surprise came from creative types.
I met a writing coach who functioned as a counselor. She listened to my tales of woe and frustration in the civilian world and encouraged me to pull that creative spark from it.
I fell in with a convention called BayCon and found this great group of artists that is overflowing with people from all walks of life.
They encourage each other to grow, dance and live! I found police officers, activists, writers, mothers (so many mothers!), actors/actresses, painters, podcasters, an old salty army ranger, and even a woman who I'm fairly sure was meant to be born as a shield-maiden fighting on battlefields during the time of the Vikings. That last one is the writer and martial artist Setsu Uzume, in case you are wondering. What I'm trying to get at though is: I found folks that felt like warriors reborn as artists and that enthusiasm bled into me. Here is a community, who I'm sure, often felt like outcasts growing up but were all united by one common thing: a love for science fiction and fantasy. I could name them all individually, and probably should, since they all deserve the recognition, but there are too many folks that make the BayCon community magical. This post would go on all day.
I still miss my brothers from the Army, always.
I mean they are only a phone call away. I can call them day or night but, that doesn't stop me from wishing they lived next door.
Still, I'm thankful that I've found good folks in my life who were strong enough to push me through depression and guilt. Folks who helped me live again. Instead of dwelling on sadness and depression, these kind-hearted people reminded me how to dance. They taught me that in life the dance steps aren't as important as the act of dancing itself.
So much love to the families, support systems, and accidental support groups that save some of us veterans. We might not always write about it or vocalize it, but you can bet, we sure appreciate you.