Flashes of Light: Staying Alive After War


An average of 18 veterans commit suicide each day.
The source for the suicide statistic is not some obscure organization with an anti-war agenda, as might be expected, but an organization that probably knows something about the rate at which veterans are killing themselves, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
I mentioned this statistic in passing to an acquaintance, a retired schoolteacher, and his response was to let out a low whistle and say, “Soon there won’t be any veterans left.” And maybe this is the point. Every veteran who kills himself is one less potential terrorist, one less potential Benjamin Colton Barnes, one less distraught soul. And the more veterans that kill themselves, the less the country has to deal with listening to us.
Not long after I commented on the death of Benjamin Colton Barnes, I had a chance to join up with a small group of veterans and experience the Sawatch Mountains of Colorado on an Outward Bound course. I was a little nervous about the trip because I didn’t know who would be there, and meeting new people isn’t easy for me. But the trip coordinator explained that Abigail could come along. So I went.
Outward Bound is a well-established outdoor education organization that began in Wales in 1941 with the training of young seamen to help them withstand the rigors of sea duty. Beginning in 2008, and relying on generous donations from the Sierra Club and other private donors, Outward Bound has been able to provide wilderness courses to veterans at no charge.
This opportunity for veterans to connect with other veterans and experience the backcountry wilderness away from society has proven to be invaluable, particularly for those dealing with post-traumatic stress.
The founder of Outward Bound, Kurt Hahn, viewed society at large as suffering from a decline in fitness, initiative, imagination, skill, self-discipline and compassion. His curriculum was modeled to address these failings. Today, Outward Bound has added an international Peacebuilding branch, a reflection of Kurt Hahn’s dedication to cooperation and compassion among all people.
There were six other veterans on the course, all male. I was the only one in my 30s. Everyone else was in their 20s. It was not long before we lapsed into the adolescent pranking so prevalent within all the branches of the military, but particularly so in the combat branches, and particularly so among the infantry, which comprised most of our group.
But beneath the banter and joking, at least some of us were wondering how we had managed not to kill ourselves. And not abstractly wondering, but wondering in the particular. It turned out that most of us had had problems staying alive and maintaining a sense of direction and purpose. Some, like Tim, a 25-year old Marine who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, went through phases of hard-core “professional” drinking. Will, 29, went through a long period, as in months, of not leaving his room. “Just smoked pot and watched South Park.”
(Will would later blurt out, angrily, after a course instructor gently intimated that we should be proud of our service, that he was in fact not proud: “I was over there committing war crimes…responsible for a whole generation of Iraqi men missing from the landscape.”)
But perhaps the most important thing I heard was a story told by Brendan O’Byrne, 27, a veteran of the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan and one of the soldiers featured in the documentary Restrepo. It was the evening of the 4th day and we were camped at 11,000 feet in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. The temperature was not much above 0 degrees and we were sitting in a snow kitchen fashioned with our avalanche shovels. In the freezing darkness, with our bulky coats, occasional foot stomping, and muted conversations, we resembled as much the inmates of a Siberian gulag as anything else. But we felt at home.
Brendan was talking to Tim and I was halfway listening in, holding onto a cup of cocoa, feeling Abigail shivering slightly beneath my hand. The bench of snow was cold, but bearable.
“Let me tell you this story,” Brendan said. “There’s this Zen master out walking with some students in this massive storm, and it’s completely dark so they can’t see, and they’re on a narrow trail. If they stop they die of exposure, if they keep going, they risk slipping off the trail to their deaths.
“So what they do is, they wait for a flash of lightning, get their bearings in that brief moment and continue on as long as they can, then they stop again, wait for another lightning flash, and so on. In this way they make it safely to the monastery. Once they’re there, a student says to the Zen master, ‘I’m glad we made it. I was worried I would die before reaching Enlightenment.’
“The Zen master shakes his head and says, ‘Enlightenment is not the sun that shines all day but the lightning that gives only quick glimpses, allowing us to move from one troubled place to another.’ That’s what you have to do, Tim,” says Brendan. “Keep moving. Keep fighting.”
In the darkness I don’t have to disguise a brief spell of emotion.
With the same heart that brought us into the service in the first place, the belief that there was something bigger than ourselves, which we were willing to die for, and which we all discovered in the end was not some bullshit notion of our country or democracy or the capitalist system, but our flesh and blood brothers, the ones we ended up getting tossed into the mix with, the ones we confided in, the ones that may or may not have come back with us, Brendan reminded me of something I have been wanting to say for a long time.
Stop wasting us.