Among the topics that I have written about over the past two years, I doubt any of them have been more sensitive or personal to me than this one, and I come at it with more than a little trepidation. It is possible that some (including those on the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the UUA) might misunderstand, but I cannot but think that there are others out there who face a similar struggle. As my fellow seminarians know, the need for ministers to model what they wish to see in the world is deeply important to me. So, I approach writing this article with some fear of exposure, but also knowing that it is important for me, as a future minister and as someone coping with having been trained to violence, to talk about that struggle. If those who cross these two worlds don’t talk about it, then it will remain in the dark.
Last November, I was invited to speak at an event at a joint UU/UCC church on Peacemaking, in my role both as a military veteran and a member of the UUA CSAI Core Team on Peacemaking. In the introduction, a big deal was made over the personal commitment that I have made to never carry or handle a firearm ever again. That commitment was portrayed as being about my commitment to “Peace”. I cringed inside… because it is not about “peace”… not really. I made the commitment and I keep the commitment to not own, handle, or touch firearms because I am deeply afraid of what I might do with them. My commitment is not about making a stand for peace, but about trying to keep my soul.
For most of my life, the structured use of violence has been a part of my identity, of my culture, of my career and of my family history. I am the son of a soldier who was also a cop (MP, and then State Revenue Officer). I started martial arts at a young age, and deepened that study when I became a soldier in a Special Forces unit at 19 (sierra qualified support, not Q, for those in the know). I have practiced forms that included both hand to hand as well as the use of swords and medieval armor. In the Army I used more types of firearms than most people know exist, from handguns to machine guns to rocket launchers. I “slept with my M-16” as the old running cadence goes. When I came home from Bosnia, I carried a handgun everywhere I went for years as a personal security blanket. There were nights I ran out of my house with the handgun up and the safety off because I “heard a noise”. I am blessed that I never hurt anyone, beyond the myriad of fights I’d get into.
I now know that these behaviors, that the “need” that I felt for the security of that weapon, the years I spent beating on people with a wooden sword… that all those were fairly classical reactions to combat-related stress. Through some help and some caring individuals I found my way through it. Part of that journey led me to liberal faith. Another part led me to the realization that I never needed to carry a firearm ever again, in the same way that a recovering alcoholic does not need to have a bottle of brandy on the shelf.
Why? Because the years of training in violence will always be with me, though through awareness of it and of myself it is more now an internal struggle than an external one. It helps that violence has always been structured for me, never unstructured or uncontrolled. In essence, what I have learned was a new structure… one that turns that energy toward non-violent ends.
Why have I chosen to write about this today? Because today I felt that violent part of me arise in the checkout line at the local drug store. A man was being rude, threatening, and calling me and many other people names because he did not like the way we were forming the line. I felt the old reaction set begin to click in, I felt the way that I used to know to identify a threat and move to neutralize it. And, through awareness, I knew what I was feeling in the same instant, and was able to defuse it. I told the man that I did not care for the way he was speaking to myself and others, and I walked away. I walked away. There was a time I would not have been able to do that, once the reactions had started.
It happens from time to time, and will for my entire life. It is like a flashback, not to specific memories but to a specific kind of “muscle memory” of how the soldier, how one trained to structured violence reacts to threats. One type of mental challenge for soldiers, known as “Battlemind Injury,” is the inability to “switch off” those kinds of combat reactions (necessary to survive in combat) when you leave that environment and enter into civilian life. What I have come to realize in my life is that such Battlemind challenges are chronic… we carry them with us forever.
About a year ago, I was walking past a construction site in my neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, and the crew was using a nail-gun that sounded exactly like an M-16. For a split-second, my mind thought someone was shooting at me, and my eyes darted for cover, my body beginning to roll towards the ground. Yet in that moment, there was another awareness that saw what was happening within me, that reassured me there was no threat, and that brought my racing heart and mind back under control.
I have been sitting with newly returned veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, and seen in them the same set of reactions, with that second awareness coming much more slowly… and my heart just bleeds. What I have to tell them is that it never goes away, but there is a part within us that learns to adapt, that learns awareness… and that some practice of awareness, such as meditation, journaling, or counseling can help develop that part within.
Yet, I still have it. I still have the reactions. So, I do not carry a weapon. So, when someone asks me to spar or to fence, I decline. Because that part of me that reacts in the instant, responding to threats with structured violence is still there and always will be. The awareness is key, but so is limiting the damage I might do if it ever fails.
Because I want to keep my soul.
Yours in Faith,