VR gaming to combat suicide

I love this.

“The unique part of this VR training is that it’s voice-activated, so you’re required to say things out loud that maybe you’ve never had to say before,” said Master Sgt. Shawn Dougherty, a VR training facilitator at Travis, in a press release. “Actually saying phrases like ‘do you have a gun in the house’ or ‘are you thinking about harming yourself.’ We’ve seen over this week, even with squadron leadership, saying uncomfortable phrases like that, they actually say them quieter than other phrases that they’re more comfortable with. “ Dougherty said the training is helpful because it allows airmen to “get those reps” asking those questions so that they are more familiar if they have to ask them in a real-life situation.

The Air Force is using virtual reality to try to stop its suicide epidemic

This, in my opinion, is way better than simply being on the receiving end of another suicide awareness brief. Gaming has a role in training.

This generation is a generation of gamers. We have the tools and the technology to be more interactive. This is a step in the right direction.

Reps, reps, and more reps.

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Cloud Strife: A Veteran Lost in the Twilight of Sentimentality and Nostalgia

Originally written in 2015, but still true.

Final Fantasy VII was the first game I ever pre-ordered. I went into a KB Toys (RIP) and saw a sign announcing that the game would be available for pre-order and that if you pre-ordered it, you would get a free Final Fantasy t-shirt.

When the game was finally released, I was happy to receive the promised shirt. It was white with a picture of the main character Cloud Strife on the back. Next to the avatar was some biographical data.

If you look closely, his job is listed as “former soldier.”

I remember thinking at the time – and I was just a 15 year old kid who had no idea I’d be writing about the oddities of veteran life in 2015 – “isn’t it kind of weird to list your job as something you were formerly?”

Cloud Strife is a veteran, lost in the twilight of sentimentality and nostalgia.

As fans of the game know, the word ‘soldier’ probably should have been written in all upper-case, since it was more akin to a unit than an individual job profession.

But fans of the game also know that the crux of the story revolves around Cloud’s latent PTSD and his self-delusions of grandeur and heroism. Before I even knew what PTSD was, I watched Cloud struggle with it. He also struggled with transitioning out of the military. With no skills, he joined a bunch of ‘freedom fighters’ for no reason other than to keep fighting, really. He broke down – over and over – clasping his head as memories of the past surged into his mind.

As you slowly tease out the story of what happened at the Nibelheim Reactor, the big reveal is that Cloud isn’t who he says he is. What’s particularly interesting to me, is it’s not exactly clear whether he deliberately misremembered the past of his own accord (to trump up his deeds) or if he just didn’t remember, because of the psychological trauma or injury. I always thought it was a combination of the two.

“Former soldiers” or veterans tend to embellish their war stories. While war can be exciting, it doesn’t always match the vivid imagination of the listener, whose frames of reference are action movies and video games. Each time the story is told, a gentle adjective sneaks its way in. The next time, you were a little closer to the explosion – “it was right in front of me!” Usually, these retellings are innocent enough – and they don’t involve the release of a murderous psychopath bent on destroying the world. But the idea of a former soldier mistelling his past for whatever reason – fame, power, gil – is common.

I’ve always wanted to dig into the Nibelheim Incident and Cloud Strife’s PTSD and memory as a larger piece for this blog. It’s a good way to tell the story of something important (veteran PTSD issues, moral injury, stolen valor) in a way that is interesting and might capture the attention of an audience that normally would be uninterested in veteran issues. It was only recently that I remembered the pre-order t-shirt and I wanted to get this idea out there. I doubt I’ll ever have the time to explore Cloud’s lore and background to give the idea the attention it would deserve to do it justice, so in the meantime, these half-baked ideas will just have to sit here, and wait.

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Trigger Warnings, Microaggressions, and Student Veterans

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There’s been a lot of slinging going on about trigger warnings and microaggressions lately. For the uninitiated, trigger warnings are a kind of “spoiler alert” for those who might be affected by being exposed to something traumatic. For instance, this article on Life Is Strange makes the argument that the game might have done a better service to its players if it gave them a trigger warning because of the traumatic nature of the content. Others argue that by doing that, it robs the game of some of the suspense and surprise.

Microaggression is a term that I’m not sure really has a rock solid definition yet, but is pretty much a form of discrimination or passive aggressive hate.

“Oh you were in the military, huh? You weren’t able to get into college?”

There’s this back and forth going on about these things, with some people arguing that we need to be more sensitive to everyone else’s potential feelings. There’s nothing wrong with that. Marching towards a better world is a good thing, in my view.

But a lot of these conversations are very focused on students and especially students who may have faced some kind of hardship in the past. PTSD comes up a lot, and so naturally, it gets me thinking about student veterans.

I attended college between 2006-2011. The Iraq War was at its height both in terms of unpopularity and casualties. I was taking a lot of courses on the Middle East and international relations, and the Iraq War came up a lot. Professors spoke about the war as a self-evident failure. It was a joke and an embarrassment. Students nodded along and scribbled notes.

Not once did any of my professors ever ask “are there any veterans in the class?” It wasn’t even considered a possibility. Those who served were someone else, somewhere else.

For anyone that served overseas, especially in Iraq, it is likely that the experience was formative. It was for me. I was young and the work was extreme. My entire being is tied up with the name and the place, for good or for ill. And to have it spoken about so casually by college professors and students as a failure or a joke was painful as a new student, trying to make my way on campus, unsure of how I was supposed to behave.

Early in my college career, I’d challenge. I’d raise my hand and offer my perspective. I’d counter a student who stated categorically that American soldiers habitually raped Iraqi women. I’d correct misconceptions about the nature of military service and the rules of engagement. My jaw dropped when one student answered “about thirty or something” when asked how many soldiers had died in the Iraq War (the answer, at the time was more than 4,000). I felt like as one of the few student veterans on campus, I had a duty and responsibility to say something.

But it was exhausting.

I learned quickly that once you “out” yourself as a student veteran, that’s it. When people see you, you’re now the “Army guy.” It doesn’t go away, and whenever a topic that has anything to do with “the war” or the military comes up in class, all eyes fall on you.

Later, when I went to graduate school, I kept it a secret. I didn’t tell other students or my professors. I didn’t want them to see me as a military man. I wanted them to judge me fairly. When students or professors said off the wall shit, I kept my thoughts inside.

In fairness, it is an odd world where a war happens, soldiers fight it, and then come home and go to college while the same war rages on.

And in super-fairness, I went to the City College of New York and the School of Oriental and African Studies in London – neither of them exactly right wing war bastions of death.

But, if we’re going to move towards a world that is more considerate of peoples’ past experiences, then that should include student veterans. Whether they are suffering from PTSD or not, if they fought overseas – or even if they didn’t – their minds and emotions are likely intertwined with that discussion. Veterans certainly don’t need a trigger warning – the idea of being warned before they’re offended is comical. But what they do deserve is a fair chance at being heard.

And an understanding that they exist.

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Some random thoughts on suicide

I’ve been reading a lot about suicide lately.

Mostly, it’s because I’ve been a bit obsessed with Life Is Strange these past few months. If you haven’t played Life Is Strange, and you intend to, there are spoilers below.

Kate Marsh Roof Journal

In the game, one of the secondary characters – Kate Marsh –  kills herself by jumping off the roof of a school, with her fellow students watching. It’s her choice. You watch her jump, and it is terrifying.

One of the game’s dynamics allows the player to rewind time to make different decisions or use the knowledge you have about the very near future to go back and do things differently. Here, the game allows you to rewind and then essentially stop time so that you can get to the roof and intervene in the suicide. Once there, it becomes clear that you have exhausted your power, and whatever decisions you make, you’ll have to live with. There’s no going back, and since you know what’s about to happen because you witnessed it, the emotional tension is heightened.

Depending on choices you’ve made previously, how much you’ve payed attention to the details about Kate’s life, and the things that you say on the roof, Kate will either go through with her suicide or decide against it.

When I played it originally, I saved Kate. I felt great for it.

My wife played through the game recently, and she wasn’t able to save Kate. She felt terrible.

A few minutes later, as the episode ends, statistics are displayed showing what percentage of players managed to “save” Kate and what percentage were not. For a game as emotionally charged as Life Is Strange, it’s like an extra punch in the gut. Not only were you unable to save her, but others were, meaning, you are somehow shittier as a person.

It’s suicide as a game mechanic. It’s emotional, tense, and a little strange. It also puts the player in the unfair position of being responsible for Kate’s suicide.

For anyone who has been around suicide, the emotional toll that remains for the family and friends left behind is incredible, and they will forever wonder if there was something they could have done. Laura Dale tackled this exact topic in Polygon back in April.

All that said, I don’t think there is anything wrong with suicide as a game mechanicIt was part of the story, and it was handled in a delicate, but realistic way. It’s been done in other games, as well. And it is certainly better than “Press X to Pay Respects.”

More importantly, it has people talking about suicide.

For members of the military and veterans, it couldn’t be more relevant. While we are still a nation at war, suicide ranks as the top cause of death for members of the military by a wide margin. And it’s estimated that some 22 veterans die everyday by suicide.

Barely a week goes by where I don’t hear about an old Army buddy who took his own life or another Army buddy asks for prayers for the loss of one of his.

Over the past few weeks, probably because of Life Is Strange, I’ve been reading through a lot of the suicide articles that maybe I’d normally scroll past.

It started with a front page look at campus suicide in the New York Times which eventually led me to this longer piece about Madison Holleran, whose seemingly Instagram-idyllic life ended dramatically with a rooftop leap.

Last week I read about Stephen Akins, an Army veteran who killed himself in an apparent overdose.

Just a couple of days ago I read about the family of 24 year old Army veteran Ian Michael Curtis who killed himself last year. They are still trying to figure out why he did it. His wife thinks it was simply a chaotic moment of darkness, a spasm of anger.

There’s the dark story of Marine veteran Daniel Rey Wolfe who killed himself and posted the pictures to Facebook as he bled out. The gruesome photos were left online for two days while the family struggled with Facebook to have them removed.

Related is this article in Vice that chronicles the intersection between suicide and the internet – something that is likely to become more important in attempting to get help to those who need it.

Normally this would be the part of the article where I attempt to tie everything up neatly and provide some sort of synthesis, some greater idea that puts everything together neatly. After reading through all of these pieces, there really isn’t much for me to offer. As much as we know about suicide, it’s still a personal mystery, unique and difficult to understand.

The only thing I would add is I’m starting to think there is a greater role that youth plays in all of this. If you read through these articles, the underlying symptom is depression – mostly gone untreated, or at best, self-treated through drugs and alcohol.

Something I’ve recently begun to notice – and this might be one of the benefits of being the oldest platoon leader around – is my junior soldiers (~25 and younger) tend to fluctuate wildly in their moods. That is, one day they may seem happy, jovial, energetic. The next day they look down in the dumps and bummed out. My senior NCOs (~25 and older) tend to be more consistent in their mood. External pressure doesn’t push them too hard in one direction or the other. I think it’s easy to dismiss this as simply an effect of training and experience, but we now know that the brain continues to develop well into the mid-20s.  Yes, it’s true that at 18 a young man or woman can join the Army and go fight, but that doesn’t mean that everything is settled internally.

Thinking back to when I was a junior soldier, I could fluctuate wildly as well.

While I’m not offering anything here but anecdotal conjecture, I think there is a lot more we can learn about depression and suicide, especially as it relates to the military community, if we take a harder look at youth and emotion. While simply getting older doesn’t eliminate the risk of suicide, there is evidence that shows it is major youth problem.

Add the risk of youth suicide (of which young military men and women fall into) with a generally pro-firearm environment (firearms are the most common method of suicide for American men) and an “accomplish the mission” attitude likely instilled through the process of militarization, and the problem of military suicide becomes more apparent.

If video game developers can integrate suicide as a game mechanic, and do it in a way that treats it seriously, then we can at the very least talk about it seriously, understanding that it is not simply a thing that happens to other people. It happens to us.

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Together Strong: Tackling PTSD and Suicide through the Mass Effect conversation wheel

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Honestly, when I first heard of the Together Strong App, it looked terribly boring and similar to the myriad of mandatory computer based trainings soldiers are forced to endure to meet mandatory training requirements. Still, given it sits at the intersection of the military world and gaming, I thought I should give it a fair shot before dismissing it.

I downloaded the App for iPhone (free) and launched it. It asked for some basic information; zip code, service status (active, veteran, etc.), gender (to include trans and other) and age. Then it launched into an introduction of the character you would be role playing as, a well-adjusted Marine who transitioned into the civilian world, not without his own transition issues though. After a brief introduction – which seemed a little long, actually, for the ADHD-induced norm of smartphone gaming – I began a conversation with ‘Hector,’ a veteran who is normally outgoing that suddenly stopped returning phone calls and text messages.

For a game whose chief action is conversation, it’s actually done pretty well. The characters speak in a manner you’d expect from veterans – often a little rough around the edges without being cheesy. You are given options on what to say next based on previous choices. Thankfully, there is no clear “right” answer, and unlike a lot of the similar mandatory training games soldiers go through, you are not fenced in to take a certain path. There are multiple “good” answers and often the best answers are the ones that don’t really accomplish anything but simply moves the conversation along, gets the characters talking.

The conversation system here is very similar to the conversation wheel used in Mass Effect – it’s never exactly clear what the reaction of the characters are going to be when you choose to say something – which makes the conversation actually exciting. There was a point in which I called out Hector for trying to solve his problems with booze, to which he reacted aggressively and defensively with me. Unlike Mass Effect, however, there are no quick-button triggers to go Renegade on poor Hector.

In this first conversation, it becomes apparent that Hector has been thinking of killing himself and you are presented with the option of asking the hard question: “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” Army leaders who have participated in ASIST suicide intervention training will know that that question is one the most important steps in intervening in a potential suicide. Hector admits that he has, and then you are presented with more options on what to do next.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the conversation – it’s worth exploring on your own. As a “player” you are awarded with stars throughout the conversation if you manage to steer it the right way. I’m not sure if it’s possible to “lose” in a conversation – I only went through it once and managed to get all five stars.

The dialogue, for its part, seems pretty realistic. It’s not sugar coated or overly emotional. It sounds like two veterans talking, curses and all.

The first conversation, including setup and introduction took me about 20 minutes to get through. I actually felt pretty engaged while playing, but admittedly, this isn’t something I’d play on a subway train to work or for “fun” to blow off steam. It felt akin to learning a skill, something I was doing to better myself at handling these types of conversations, which I’ve faced in real life many times – often choosing the wrong things to say.

When the conversation ended, there was a dialogue box that asked me to check it if I’d like to be reminded in a week to do the next conversation. I thought that was a nice touch, because now I don’t feel forced to sit and continue more conversations, but would like to explore it more at a later time. When I get the reminder, I’ll do it.

The App is joint project between the NY/NJ Veterans Affairs Health Network and Kognito. There’s a bunch of research behind the software and the methodology which says its effective. You can read more about that here. Important to note is that the App is free until December 31, 2014, at which time it’s unclear how much it will cost (just download it now).

Obviously, this App isn’t going to appeal to everyone. There are lots of folks that will immediately be turned off to it because no matter how much lip service it gets, there is still a stigma attached to seeking care for mental health. However, if you’re an Army leader, I urge you to at least download the App. Let it sit on your phone and when you get a quiet moment and nothing is going on, open it up and give it a few minutes of your time. That’s what I did and I was surprisingly impressed. You might even gain a valuable skill or two on handling these situations in the future, which you are sure to encounter.

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Veterans Drifting to the Dark World of Conspiracies

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I’ve been thinking about how to accurately communicate this for awhile now, and the best I can come up with is to be blunt:

The veteran community has a problem with losing our own down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories that gets them in trouble.

I’m not talking about the sometimes antagonistic ramblings of conservative or liberal veterans. I’m talking about the ones who go off the deep end, who jump over the White House fence to warn the President about the “atmosphere collapsing.” I’m talking about Navy veteran Chris Dorner and his wild manifesto. I’m talking about your war-buddies who casually call for the internment or genocide of all Muslims on social media. The ones who lash out at you or call you naive if you disagree with them that 9/11 was an inside job.

Over the past few years, I’ve watched a number of my buddies – intelligent, good people – start drifting towards the dark edge of the internet. At first, this manifested itself innocently enough – angry rants about the civilian-military divide or the cheapening of modern culture and the indifference of the media towards things that matter. Over time, that morphed into links to “false flag” operations and whispered hints and giddiness at prepping for a coming inevitable revolution.

At first, I ignored it mostly, understanding that some people tend to gravitate towards conspiracy almost like a hobby. Growing up, it is fun to explore conspiracies like aliens at Roswell or the search for Bigfoot or Loch Ness Monster.

It hit home for me when a personal friend and combat veteran started drifting down that path. I spent years sporadically trying to convince him that he was not the “chosen one” to warn people of a coming apocalypse.

When I spoke with someone about my friend, they said what I was describing sounded a lot like the plot of the 2006 film BugWhen I finally got around to watching it, it felt like some of the dialogue was lifted right out of the mouths and Facebook postings of veteran friends. I wish the exchange below was available online, because it is delivered brilliantly in a manic, quickly strung together manner. In the scene, Peter, a war veteran who believes he is being tracked by the government, is explaining to Agnes what he believes is going on – this is his world:

Peter Evans: Listen! Listen! If you want to know what is going on, you have to listen to me! You have to! Because you don’t know the fucking ENORMITY of what we’re dealing with! Listen: May 29th, 1954, the consortium of bankers, industrialists, corporate CEO’s and politicians held a series of meetings over three days at the Bilderberg Hotel in Oosterbeek, Holland… they drew up a plan for maintaining the “status quo.”

Agnes White: What’s that?

Peter Evans: It’s “the way things are” – it’s “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.” They devised a plan to manipulate technology, economics, the media, population control, world religion, to keep things the way they are. And they have continued to meet once a year, every year, since the original meeting. Look it up! Under their orders, the CIA had smuggled Nazi scientists into the States to work with the American military and Calspan, developing an inter-epidermal tracking microchip.

Agnes White: A what?

Peter Evans: It’s a surveillance tool. It’s a microchip that’s been implanted in the skin of every human being born on the planet since 1982. The test group for the prototype was the People’s Temple! And when the Reverend Jim Jones threatened to expose them, he and every member of his church were assassinated!

After it was revealed that the White House fence jumper was an Iraq War veteran and may be suffering from PTSD, the Minutemen quickly assembled and began to fire warnings off about linking PTSD to violence – in this case, jumping over the White House fence being considered a violent act. When it was revealed that Mr. Gonzalez was trying to warn the President about the “failing atmosphere” so he could “get the word out” my mind instantly raced back to friends I see posting links to off-the-wall blogs with 5,000 word diatribes about this or that conspiracy.

Last year, I posted about the movie Jacob’s Ladder. In that film, a group of Vietnam veterans believe they are being chased by demons. They become paranoid and only find solace in one another because together they are able to confirm the existence of the demons. While that film isn’t about conspiracy or even veterans per se (it’s a psychological horror) it captures some of the zeitgeist of what I think is going on in a small segment of the veteran community.

The stuff folks find online and take to believing becomes real when other veterans egg them on and agree (and click ‘like’) – a special few who “get it” while the rest of us remain brainwashed.

What really bothers me about this phenomenon is that it seems uncrackable. Anytime I’ve tried to intervene or explain I’ve been either lashed out at or dismissed as naive. I think there is an easy reaction to explain it all away as a function of mental illness, and while that may be the case for some, I’m not convinced that drifting towards conspiracy means someone is mentally ill. I’ve seen too many well-adjusted, successfully transitioning veterans slide in that direction.

The purpose of writing this is a hope that by acknowledging that “something is going on,” something can be done. I really don’t know what it is, but my hunch through experience is there is a link between military service and drifting towards conspiracy. I’ve always thought that one of the things that makes military service so special – and what makes the transition to civilian so difficult – is the feeling of being important and the center of attention when you’re in the service. Once you get out, you really don’t matter much anymore (in a grand, geo-political way) and conspiracy is a way to keep you “in the game.”

From here, it’s left to the experts to figure out what is actually happening.

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The Tipping Point: Veterans and Violence

The Lament for Icarus (Herbert James Draper, 1898)
The Lament for Icarus (Herbert James Draper, 1898)

It’s been a hectic few weeks in the media concerning veterans and violence. After the Fort Hood shooting, there was the initial wave of reporting that made casual linkages of PTSD in veterans with increased rates of violence. The much maligned Huffington Post article (now removed) was aggressively jeered and rebutted by the Minutemen – the veterans and veteran advocates who rapidly respond to these type of pieces, whether in the form of highly explosive torpedo tweets or full on essays at major news outlets.

There was some other nonsense too, like the BuzzFeed article that treated Fort Hood and the soldiers stationed there like zoo animals.

And then this week, an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times with the headline “Veterans and White Supremacy.” The Minutemen rallied and defended.

A lot of the articles being written are really good – on both sides. There is a canvas being slowly unfurled. Unfortunately, it seems that whenever anyone writes anything on this subject, there is an immediate reaction from “the other side” that tries to sink the other ship.

This morning, I read a good piece at Slate: “War is Hell, And Hell Rubs Off” which pretty much says what I know a lot of people have been thinking: “Maybe – just maybe – there is something going on here.”

The idea that PTSD is unrelated to violence back home is one of the central pillars of today’s rigid “support the troops” campaign. After every mass shooting event involving a veteran, Veterans Affairs psychiatrists and veterans advocates deliver the same stern warning: Mentioning PTSD in conjunction with these shootings is not only inaccurate, it hurts veterans.
-David J. Morris

The article is written by David J. Morris, a former Marine officer, which gives him the space to say what he says without immediately being branded as a traitor or a dove. In it, he basically argues that there is scientific data that connects combat stress with increased levels of violence – not new information, mind you. He also, and more importantly, tells a deeper story – and this is the story that I think combat veterans know, but don’t want to talk about – that there is something here we are not acknowledging, whether it is the “thing” that draws people to the military in the first place, the brutal process of militarization, or the “thing” that happens to you when you go to war, that “thing” that stays with you.

There has been so much point and counter-point going on in the media concerning veterans and violence that I think the shouting match has become the story. It seems, though, that we are now at the tipping point. Voices are growing bolder in recent days, spurred on by the deluge of articles where violence and extremism find themselves on the same page – in the same story – as veterans and service members. We might be reaching the point where instead of instinctively pushing back or deflecting, we start talking seriously.

What does this mean? The beginning of a more thoughtful, honest conversation about war, I hope.

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Katniss Could Have Carried Peeta: Catching Fire, PTSD, and Women in the Infantry

Last year I kind of reviewed The Hunger Games shortly after seeing it because I enjoyed it so much. Shortly thereafter I borrowed the book from a friend at IBOLC and bought the other two, read all three, and now I consider myself a fan. I’m glad I didn’t read the books before seeing the original movie because it made the original viewing experience much richer.

Catching Fire was fantastic, but only because it met my imagination and expectation – not because it surpassed it.

I’m not going to do a full on review of Catching Fire, but I will mention a couple of things that stuck out to me that seem relevant to write about here.

If you haven’t seen the movies or read the books, you will find spoilers below Caesar Flickerman.

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Very early in the film, we see that Katniss is suffering from her role in the 74th Hunger Games. She has an early flashback of killing one of the contestants and is obviously disturbed by it. She also dismisses any help offered by those around her when they recognize that she is suffering. I’m not the first to point out that she’s likely suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Haymitch (Katniss and Peeta’s mentor) also seems to be suffering from PTSD and is often found self-medicating with alcohol. The same can be said for some of the other ‘victors,’ specifically the ‘morphlings‘ from District 6 who, upon winning their games, turn to drugs and become addicts.

One of the most powerful scenes in the movie (and certainly the book, when it came at a complete surprise) was when President Snow announces that the tributes for the 75th Hunger Games would be reaped from the remaining victors. When I first read it I remember my stomach sinking and wanting to throw the book across the room. In the theater, that reveal had been numbed since I already knew it was coming, but I could hear the collective gasp from audience members around me who didn’t know. The Hunger Games is such a traumatic and terrible event, that only the thought of a peaceful life of luxury afterwards seems appropriate. To have to do it again, fully knowing you’ve passed an almost impossible test and will be tested again feels like a powerful punch right in the gut.

While not quite as dramatic as having to fight in the Hunger Games a second time, the concept of having to do it again reminds me of the repeat deployments soldiers often endure. The reactions of the victors are the same reactions I’ve seen (and felt) in the faces of friends I know. While there are some who relish the opportunity to go and prove themselves again (District 1 and 2), there are some who feel like they are getting screwed (Johanna – “Fuck that!” she screams. “And fuck everyone that had anything to do with it!”). Then there’s Katniss and Peeta, who just won The Hunger Games in dramatic fashion, and are going right back in (stop loss/combat tour extended).

There was one specific scene in the film that ensured I would write about the movie, and that came when Katniss turns to Finnick and pleads with him to carry Peeta (who was injured). “I can’t carry him,” she says, looking to Finnick and letting those words hang in the air as an absolute truth. Of course she couldn’t carry him, she’s a girl after all. Powerful Finnick helps carry Peeta and everything works out just fine.

Instantly, I was ripped out of the movie and my mind turned to that common trope used to argue against allowing women in the infantry – the “she has to be able to carry a 220lb soldier with combat equipment under fire” argument. It was unfortunate, because I was enjoying the movie until that point and was immersed in the world, but I can’t help where my mind goes. I imagined other people in the audience – probably other infantrymen, since I was at a theater near post – thinking, “See? She can’t carry him, women shouldn’t be in the infantry.”

I’ve argued previously that the “she can’t carry” argument is an argument of extremity. It’s a scenario that rarely occurs, and even when it does, good leaders will always point to the biggest guy in the squad to do the heavy lifting.

Also, I think Katniss (as played by 20-something “beast mode” Jennifer Lawrence) could have carried Peeta on screen, as opposed to 16 year old, malnourished Katniss from the book.

Lastly, I just want to comment on one of the things I love about the first two movies – the music. From the Panem anthem to the intro music to Caesar Flickermann’s show, through the first two movies I really believed that these tunes were well known throughout Panem and the people in the Hunger Games universe knew how to react to them. Like, the way that when the music starts in the arena the victors instinctively look up to the sky to see the fallen. They know this because they’ve watched The Hunger Games on television throughout their lives and know all the little rules and cues. All of this is weaved into the films seamlessly, which makes the whole world believable and frightening.

Fantastic movie. You should see it.

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The Looming Spectre: Addressing the long war with PTSD

Charlie Haughey photography.
Charlie Haughey photography.

This is a guest post from a friend I served with. 

I’m writing this and sending it to a man that I respect. I’ve known Don a while now, but there is distance between us.  We haven’t been face to face in over ten years. That’s why I feel safe sending this to him. While I have a loving wife and family, great friends, and mentors that would understand, I am too embarrassed to discuss this with them. Call me a coward, but some would say I’m a brave man based on things in my past.

I have PTSD and I thought that it would go away if I ignored it. To be honest, I thought it did for a while.

I’ve done two deployments; one really good one, and one really bad one. The first one set me up to think I knew how the second would play out, and I was wrong. My unit struggled from the beginning and sustained regular casualties. I was the Company 1SG and felt enormous pressure to stop the bad things from happening. I didn’t want my boys hiding in the COP, but I didn’t want them to keep getting killed either. Two incidents stand out in my mind regularly.

My company was sitting in a patrol base and the tell tale stream of smoke indicating an IED, sprang up from the orchard. I knew that we had no forces there, and that it had to be a local national that set it off. I gathered a squad-plus and moved out there to engage the populace and see if we could help. As we rounded the corner, four or five women were on the ground in their burkhas, wailing in the manner only women from there can wail. A man walks out from around the mud wall separating the orchard from the homes and has a plastic sack in his hand and an angry look on his face. I glanced at the bag (you know how they are kind of translucent) and saw random body parts from a girl no more than eight, sticking out at rakish angles. A hand, a leg with a foot attached. My translator told me the angry man was blaming us for this; I tried to explain that we didn’t put the bombs in the ground.

A second man comes around the corner holding the little girls severed head up by her hair. He just stood there, holding it up above shoulder level, looking at us. I was stuck. I just looked into that little girls eyes. They were blue. We left.

Another incident that I think of regularly was a catastrophic IED that struck one of my vehicles. Seven of my soldiers were killed in that blast. I arrived on the scene to conduct CASEVAC operations and spent the remainder of that day cleaning up the site and recovering the vehicle. Placing the remains of my boys in body bags, not knowing what parts belonged to whom, was a difficult task.

At one point we ran out of body bags and had to use trash bags.

I still don’t know how to feel about that. Once during the course of the event, I thought to myself that if I just stepped on an IED that this would be all over for me and I wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore. I shook that off and immediately chastised myself as being selfish and weak. I was a leader and the job needed to get done. I had to galvanize the company into action. I told myself to be the example and try to look like it didn’t bother me.

During that deployment I went home on leave. There were inklings of problems even during those two weeks at home. I had little patience and my emotions were all over the place. I can only imagine how my wife felt.

Since coming home (it’s been three years) I’ve actually been to counseling for anger management.

I’m still adjusting. I had a violent incident with a stranger at a casino. I had an incident at work that involved a physical altercation with one of my peers. That’s when my boss and my wife recommended I go see someone. Seeking help was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Doing it gave me the false sense of security that goes with thinking that I was cured.

I’m at an Army school now and things have slowed down. I’ve took on lots of things to keep me busy. I’m taking two college classes in the evenings and I quit using smokeless tobacco. I’m trying to stay in shape to try out for a selection in November. I’m trying to restore an old car in my driveway. I think that I’ve tried to take on all these things to keep my mind off of the past.

It isn’t working. It’s coming back. The sadness. The anger. All of it.

I can’t sleep. I’m writing this thing. I’m embarrassed. I’m worried that it will affect my performance and my career. I’m worried that it will negatively affect my family. I got up at five-thirty this morning and ran three miles. My eyes got misty during the run. Little things set me off. My treadmill broke, my bike wouldn’t start, the transmission leaks on my car… I throw things in the garage. The random violence is coming back. I know I’m feeling sorry for myself and it makes me angry. I’ve lots of reasons to be happy.

I don’t want to be like this. I want to be happy. I want my wife to be happy. I want to be positive about the future. I know I can be successful; I have been my whole career. I should be able to smash this.

My point is that it never goes away. Keep the pity. You have to deal with it all the time. I don’t want sympathy.

What I want is for the guys out there that know they have it, but refuse to get treatment, to know that if they don’t, it will get worse. You are going to have it forever. There are coping mechanisms available. I can see the anger coming now. I know how to physically and emotionally stop and deal with it.

Those of you reading this, I don’t have a specific reaction that I’m trying to get from you. I’m not trying to change your mind about anything.  Do what you want and think what you want. This just made me feel a little better.

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A good article on the 10th Mountain in Afghanistan that gets so much wrong

Saw this article from the Washington Post making the rounds a couple of days ago: In Afghanistan, redeployed U.S. soldiers still coping with demons of post-traumatic stress. It’s about soldiers in the 10th Mountain Division who are currently fighting in Afghanistan. Not sure why I decided to read it – I think someone said it was an important article so I jumped in.

It’s a good article, but one of two things are happening here: either the journalist doesn’t understand the nature of the modern, all-volunteer military (doubtful), or he’s taking advantage of the fact that most Americans certainly don’t.

They have served as many as seven combat tours each, with the accompanying traumas — pulling a friend’s body from a charred vehicle, watching a rocket tear through a nearby barracks, learning from e-mail that a marriage was falling apart.

But a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder is not a barrier to being redeployed. Not when the Army needs its most experienced soldiers to wrap up the war. Instead, the Army is trying to answer a new question: Who is resilient enough to return to Afghanistan, in spite of the demons they are still fighting?

The first paragraph is catching. Seven deployments! That’s pretty incredible, and probably unfathomable for someone reading this who has not served in the past ten years. It’s incredible to me – as someone who has served!

But it is the second paragraph that had me leaning in and wondering where this article was going. Not when the Army needs its most experienced soldiers to wrap up the war. What is he talking about there? That sentence is making it seem like these men were forced to go overseas, specially selected, when they certainly were not. Stop-loss as a policy has ended. These men chose to stay in the Army, which is admirable. They are not victims of the Army preying on their war experience to close this thing out. The Army is not having any problems recruiting or retaining its soldiers. These soldiers chose this, proudly.

The author then goes on to list some soldiers and the problems they faced upon redeploying from previous tours. All good stuff.

Later, he writes this:

His commanders and his subordinates said Borce is an impeccable leader, the kind of soldier his unit needs here in Ghazni province. He was chosen to redeploy. He followed orders. But he acknowledges that he was still reckoning with what he had already been through, even as he boarded the plane for Afghanistan in January.

Chosen? Again, this line makes it seem like the Army singled him out, which the article is not substantiating. It appears that Borce wanted to go, despite dealing with readjustment issues. The Army “chose” the 10th Mountain Division, of which Borce was a member. That is all.

Further on, he writes this:

“The mentality was that you had to be hard. There was no concern for behavioral health, even though at the time I had a lot of issues,” he said. “Some of the stuff I saw really messed me up.”

That mentality has changed, he said, and for plenty of reasons. Last year there were 349 suicides among active-duty U.S. troops, more than the 295 Americans who died last year in Afghanistan.

I’m pretty sure that this was the line that compelled me to write this down and make sure I responded to this here. It was just a few weeks ago that a study came out confirming that deployment factors are not related to the spike in military suicides. If you didn’t know that, you would probably buy in to the popular narrative that deployments are related to the military’s suicide problem – which the studies show is not the case.

Lots of people like to write about the “veteran as victim” narrative and the civilian-military divide. While there was some good stuff in this article, I got the sense that it painted the soldiers in this story as victims of their own professionalism. They are professional soldiers, capable of coping with multiple deployments – that is a good thing, and worth writing about. The style and juxtaposing though, hints at things that don’t exist, and to me, that does nothing to inform the public of the reality of what is going on with their military, but rather only reinforces tired old narratives that don’t want to die.

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