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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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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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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Jacob’s Ladder and the need for “serious talk” for veterans

I watched Jacob’s Ladder last night. I saw it once when I was a kid, probably around ten years old. My parents had HBO and it was on one day. It was a sleepy Saturday afternoon and I had control of the television and it was rated R. I remember being chilled to the bone when I saw it then and I was surprised by how much of it stayed with me some twenty years later. It all felt very familiar.

It’s a great movie and before its time. Seeing it now, as a veteran, it gripped me in a way it didn’t – it couldn’t – the first time. The movie is still terrifying, but less so because of the psychological/horror aspect of it and more because of the similarities some veterans face on homecoming.

The scene above (not in its entirety, unfortunately) [Don: 2020 – video no longer available] was especially powerful for me. Here are two Vietnam veterans in New York City who haven’t heard from each other in years. One calls the other and pleads, saying he has to speak to him. Without question, they meet at a bar. They speak in whispered tones, and admit to each other that they are both being chased by demons that others can’t see. Worse, they can’t talk to anyone about it, because no one else understands.

But they understand.

You can sense the relief they feel, just knowing there is someone else out there that gets it.

It reminds me of one of the key findings from my research, that many veterans need “serious talk” in order to successfully transition from military service.

There’s another scene – of which I can’t find the clip – that demonstrates this perfectly. The group of vets are together at the funeral of a buddy and Jacob begins to talk about the demons. Most of the veterans pause and look up at him, wanting him to say more, to confirm that what they’re facing is real. One of them nervously makes a dick joke, not wanting to deal with it. None of them find it funny. The time for jokes and war stories has passed. These are older men now, out of Vietnam and trying to get on with their lives but still haunted by demons from the jungle. They want to get better and figure out. They want to move on.

I don’t want to spoil the movie for those who haven’t seen it – so if you want to call me out on some major plot points, don’t bother – I know.

For a movie that really isn’t about war or homecoming, it manages to capture both of those things in a way most movies don’t. There are some stereotypical Vietnam images in the film, but nothing that stood out as offensive.

Sometimes fiction speaks the truth better than the truth.

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