I just got home from Iraq and I’m 30 lbs frustrated.
My SWAT mentor, whom I hold in highest esteem, suggested to me years ago that when conducting a hostage rescue I should get angry. “I like to think that it’s a member of my family – my wife or one of my kids – that has been taken hostage,” he said. “And then go rescue them.”
Anger is certainly justified at times. I can think of a few circumstances in which anger has resulted in a positive action or reaction as it were. Nevertheless, there is not ever a benefit to uncontrolled rage. “It is when we become angry that we get into trouble.” (See Gordon B. Hinckley, “Slow to Anger”, Oct. 2007.)
But anger and war go hand in hand. It seems to be the inevitable result. While contention can impede progress, tension can actually be beneficial to warriors. That’s one of the reasons for difficult, tense, realistic training.
It is the tension or “anger” that allows aggression. In tactical circles the phrase “violence of action” is often used. In recent years that has changed to “controlled aggression.” When busting down doors and justifiably winning firefights, catching bad guy or rescuing hostages, controlled aggression helps with confidence. Instead of fearing, warriors can aggressively do what needs to be done. Those who have uncontrolled rage commit war crimes, and those who have no rage may fear to the point of inaction, hesitation, and poor performance and dangerousness.
What’s needed in close combat situations a self-confidence that anyone on the opposite side of your gun should fear you because you are going to intentionally, justifiably injure them, if warranted. A mindset of fearing personal pain, injury or death, or hesitating to use lethal force, is outright dangerous to an individual and team. With a winning mindset physiological and psychological inhibitors will flee, causing warriors to not just survive but win deadly force confrontations. All of this can be done without wild rage or illegal, unjust actions.
Yes, in tactical situations a little anger and aggression can be muscle. A little eagerness to fight when justified has helped warriors win battles and skirmishes since the dawn of time. Unfortunately, transitioning back to civilian life, anger -- which in one form is simply frustration -- is just unnecessary extra weight. The muscles atrophy. They turn to flab. Last week in Iraq a little aggression was okay, even wanted or encouraged, this week in America it’s socially unacceptable. Again, I’m not talking about uncontrolled rage, “for anger resteth in the bosom of fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:9).
We don't have to be mean to others, however to be tactically adroit. I've been told that I'm too nice and should be mean and yell at others, but those who've said that haven't seen me in tactical situations against deadly killers. Nor do they understand the power of proper motivation.
Truth be told, the stresses experienced in war zones, with or without experiencing up-close battles or intense personal trauma, can bring in its wake a great deal of individual frustration.
While speaking to a giant room full of soldiers about the unique stresses we experienced over the last 12 months, I joked, “There are some people who if I ever run into in a dark alley…” I stopped there, but my words were nonetheless interrupted by a roaring, overwhelming applause and laughter from several hundred soldiers. Their response was partial proof that we all feel a few pounds too frustrated.
There’s no doubt I grew some anger buttons this year because I find myself more easily irritated than last year at this time. I’m not easily offended and I’m normally a laid back person, but I do not want to hear anyone say cruel, mean or condescending words or phrases, even in jest. That pushes one of my anger buttons.
I also don’t want to hear anyone complain. Hearing the ingratitude of others wouldn’t have really bothered me last year as much, but now I’m certain it would really irritate me. Among other things, I’m elated just to have indoor plumbing and a sink with running water where I can actually brush my teeth! And, I’m glad I’m not sleeping on a cot anymore.
Other things bother me too, like hearing this morning that PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) wants to ban horse racing because a horse was euthanized after breaking both legs at the Kentucky Derby. I don’t believe gambling is good for any society, but shoot, according to some zealots, horses are for looking at and not riding. While we’re at it let’s just ban horses from breaking their legs too! I guess there aren’t any cowboys on PETA's staff that could set them straight.
What’s even more bothersome than PETA is that their puny voices are getting colossal attention in the news. Why? At any rate, it's a terrible trend. (See my blog, Internal Cleansing of America's Social Disasters.)
One soldier, who’ll be going back to his job as a police officer now that we’re home, confided in me that he gets irritated by things based what he experienced this year. Besides getting blown up, putting a tourniquet on his friend’s leg after his femoral artery was severed by shrapnel (which saved his life by the way), and experiencing other stresses of war, he had to deal with tragic leadership failures. There are things that bother him which are difficult to explain why to others who weren’t there. But I can understand him.
In my homecoming self assessment I’ve determined that I’m a lot like him and the most of the other soldiers: I’ve collected some excess frustration. I realize I need to be more patient at things that aren’t life or death, but I also ask that others are patient with me. If I ask nicely to avoid certain subjects or certain things that prompt terrible memories, I hope others understand. This will be a time for greater patience with my wife and children too.
I’ve never been one to inflict any sort of pain, physical, emotional or verbal upon anyone, especially those closest to me. Unfortunately, some people are. There are a few soldiers I worry about. One caught his wife cheating while he was deployed. He told me he was going to find the perpetrator and let him know he didn’t appreciate him sleeping in his bed with his wife while he was gone. I urged him to self-control because taking out anger in the wrong way is never worth it.
As far as my health and well-being is concerned, I began my “diet” this morning with a hearty meal and a short run. I need to shed some frustration. I imagine it will only take a week or two, unless sales reps from PETA come knocking at my door.
Seriously though, it’s a vulnerable time for the troops. I urged them to avoid drinking their problems away. If they don’t get help now and learn proper outlets during this critical change and tough transition, they might gain more excess baggage than what is considered normal and healthy. Citizens, employers and family members alike need us at our best. To that end, I urged the troops that if they felt like hurting others or themselves that they needed to get help.
“Problems might not occur for a few months,” I warned, “but if they do, please get help. No one should be ashamed about seeking professional help from the VA. There’s greater shame in allowing problems to continue.” I told some poignant stories and shared some personal observations. Afterwards a dozen soldiers and a few civilians in attendance approached me and sincerely thanked me for my words. Even two days later, soldiers are still thanking me. But my thinking is we’re all in this together.
Note: The title of this blog was inspired by Lt. Col. (ret) Dave Grossman. See PTSD is like being overweight.