All veterans need to find a way to save their souls.
That’s the sentence I wrote on the board in my class of student veterans at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point a couple of weeks ago.
On the east side of the room, written in back marker on the whiteboard, was the word “Agree.” And on west side of the room, written in chalk on the blackboard, was “Disagree.”
Most of my 12 students — all veterans, except for one who’s still in the Army — stood up and walked to the west side of the room. They disagreed with what I had written.
One even got a little agitated — not at me I don’t think, but at the idea that a veteran’s soul was tainted, in need of being saved. He took the sentiment as a religious indictment, something he strongly opposed. Others argued that they hadn’t done anything while they were in the military that they felt the need to be “saved” from.
Once our discussion was over, I asked the students to write a 2-3 page reflective essay that answered the following question:
Do you agree or disagree that all veterans need to be purified in some way before they can succeed in civilian society?
“If someone came up to me and told me they forgive me for what I was asked to do,” wrote one of my students, a Marine veteran of the war in Afghanistan, “I would lose my cool. No one asked me to go to combat. Uncle Sam did not come to my high school and tell me I had to do my part. I enlisted as an Infantry Marine with the intent of killing people who threaten my loved ones’ lives and peace of mind. I approached my recruiter. I told him I wanted an infantry contract, and most importantly I pulled the trigger without being told.”
Another one of my students, an Army Infantry veteran of the war in Afghanistan wrote that:
“I, for one, don’t feel I have to be purified for what I did. I didn’t do anything wrong, so I don’t feel any guilt. If people think I am a crazy baby killer, I could really give a shit less because I think people who think that are idiots. It will be hard for me to understand the need to be purified because I don’t feel the need to be accepted by society for what I did. I didn’t enlist so that society will look up to me and think I am some kind of hero. I enlisted because I wanted to be part of something larger than Amherst, Wisconsin. I wanted to do something that mattered in a larger picture than a small town community. So if society doesn’t accept that I changed while I was in the Army, and they think I should change back, I think that they are wrong.”
“Society doesn’t need to purify veterans,” he continues. “Society needs to quit assuming that all vets are suffering from something bad they did and accept the fact that most didn’t do anything wrong.”
Similarly, another Army veteran student wrote that, “The need for purification in order to be accepted in civilian society is just idiotic”:
“Who is society to judge us veterans and tell us we must do certain things in order to return to civilian life? Veterans not only sacrificed their normal lives to pursue a greater feeling of achievement, but they put their lives on the line for our entire country. If that alone does not allow society to accept veterans on their return home, then there is a bigger problem at hand.”
One of the other Army veterans — a veteran of the War in Iraq — felt similarly to those quoted above, though for a different reason:
“The other part that really bothers me is how we expect the soldiers to change in a matter of days or weeks or even months. It took several years of training and another year in a combat zone to shift my perspective on the world. I seriously doubt that taking a spiritual bath is going to instantly make me feel better.”
Not all of the students, however, agreed fully with such statements.
After reading about the ceremonies and rituals traditional warrior societies have used throughout history to purify their returning warriors, another student, an Army veteran who helped in rescue efforts at the Pentagon on 9/11, wrote that, “I believe it is important to keep an open mind when observing different healing rituals from around the world as we may be able to find bits and pieces of the different ceremonies that are effective in American society.”
Another Army veteran wrote that while not all veterans need to be purified, some have “demons” they have to live every day: “There were guys I served with who re-classified from 11B Infantry, who had a couple of combat deployments under their belts, who then took cushy jobs within the Signal Corps. I know for a fact that they had ‘demons’ within them that they lived with, and some went so far as to almost never drink because their inner fears came out to the people around them. I really felt for these guys, drinking and crying and more drinking and crying.”
“I feel like there may need to be cleansing for veterans who have actually experienced traumatic events,” he continued. “If that’s a ritual or a religious experience, so be it. If it’s as simple as talking to a counselor, I think they should seek help.”
Similarly, another Army veteran with multiple combat deployments wrote that he believes every veteran needs to find their own way to feel purified:
“Some veterans don’t need any type of purification because they don’t have any problems. Some vets turn to their religion for answers, while others talk to a psychiatrist about their problems. But most of these ‘purification processes” have one thing in common: They talk about their experiences with someone. If it is the entire village of Mozambique warriors, or just one psychiatrist, or even a friend.”
After he left the Army, this veteran says he found purification through travel. “I spent about 8 months travelling,” he writes, “across the United States, Europe, and parts of Asia. I didn’t spend much time in any one place — a couple of weeks at the most. But traveling has helped me clear my mind and see a different side of other cultures and society.”
When we choose not to recognize the meaning of our lives, we experience what psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl terms an “existential vacuum” — a feeling of meaningless resulting from a frustration of our existential needs.
This sense of emptiness manifests itself mainly in boredom, but can also lead to depression, aggression, and — most notably — addiction.
“I am reminded,” writes Frankl, “of the findings presented by Annemarie von Forstmeter who noted that, as evidenced by tests and statistics, 90 percent of alcoholics she studied had suffered from an abysmal feeling of meaninglessness. Of the drug addicts studied by Stanley Krippner, 100 percent believed that ‘things seemed meaningless.”
When veterans come home from war, they are confronted with two primary models that can be used to find “salvation”:
- The first is the therapeutic model: In this model, veterans are told (or they believe) that they have a “condition,” and that treatment of that condition will make them well. Only then, according to this model, will veterans be able to function productively in society.
- The second model is the moralistic model: In this model, veterans are told (or they believe) that they are unhappy — or damaged — because they must have done something wrong — or failed to prevent something bad from happening. The answer to such suffering, in turn, is penance. That is, veterans must find a way to atone for their “sins” in order to be pardoned the guilt and shame that accompany them. Only then will they be happy and feel fulfilled.
But what if there was a third way?
According to Steven Presssfield, a former Marine and author of Turning Pro, a third model veterans can use to find salvation is the “amateur and professional model.”
Specifically, Pressfield argues that what ails man is not that we are sick or sinful — like the other models contend — but that those of us who are unhappy or unfulfilled are living our lives as “amateurs.”
Simple as that.
“The solution,” he says, “is to turn pro.”
The difference between an amateur and a professional, according to Pressfield, is in their habits. Amateurs, above all else, are what Pressfield calls “addicts”:
- The addict deals with the pain of being human and the struggle against self-sabotage, but he does so in unproductive ways.
- Instead of embracing his calling, the addict runs away from it.
- Addicts cultivate and perpetuate their addictions in a futile attempt to obliterate shame and fear — the fear failure, success, looking foolish, under-achieving, over-achieving, poverty, loneliness, and death.
When we turn pro, however, we are forced to stop running from these fears. According to Pressfield, professionals — like well-trained combat troops — turn to face their fears.
It’s not easy, and it doesn’t just happen overnight, put professionals never give up.
In another one of his books, The War of Art, Pressfield writes that being a professional is much more than simply being trained and paid to do a job. Instead, professionals are those who cultivate certain practices (that amateurs/addicts don’t). Specifically, Pressfield says the professional:
- shows up every day,
- stays on the job all day,
- is committed over the long haul,
- realizes that the stakes are high and real,
- is patient,
- seeks order,
- acts in the face of fear,
- accepts no excuses,
- plays it as it lay,
- is prepared,
- does not show off,
- dedicates himself to mastering technique,
- does not hesitate to ask for help,
- does not take failure or success personally,
- does not identify with his or her instrument,
- endures adversity,
- reinvents himself, and
- is recognized by other professionals.
Once you discover your true calling, you must find a way to live up to it, to be a professional — to show the world what you are truly capable of.
For traditional purification rituals to work, two things have to happen. First, the participants must believe they need to be purified. They must also, in turn, believe that they are forgiven once the ritual is complete.
One thing my students have taught me this semester is that many (maybe most) veterans wouldn’t benefit from such rituals. Above all else, my students don’t seem to need or even want to be “purified.” They don’t want sympathy, and they don’t want to be seen as or treated like damaged goods.
Perhaps the key, then, to helping returning veterans regain their sense of purpose is to help them find meaning in a dignified and purposeful profession — to continue serving the public they sacrificed so selflessly to defend. It should be society’s job to help them carry over their professional tendencies to the civilian world — a place that arguably needs them now more than ever.