On this Veteran’s Day, November 11th, 2017, I want to express a deep respect for the tremendous sacrifices made by our vets. Let us call attention to veteran issues that are arising from current events and the voices of our ENDPAIN veteran contributors. With increasing national security threats, both from terrorism and hate crimes fueled by gun violence, the health of U.S. military systems is of increased significance. Whatever the conditions of war, the fact is that service members, because of their experiences in the military, are sometimes catapulted into a very painful and harmful cycle of behavior, increasing the vulnerability of both themselves and those around them. This matters because they deserve better as human beings.
Between 2002 and 2015, 21.8 million service members have worked for the U.S. military* which is roughly 7% of the general population. Each year, 250,000 veterans return to civilian life* and face reintegration issues. This subject is close to my heart, as I have been blessed by the brave and generous veterans that have shared their stories with us in short films such as The Weight We Carry, Healing PTS, and MDMA: Stories of Treatment.
Along with these stories, I have also had the honor of getting to know a group of previously incarcerated vets on numerous occasions thanks to a dear friend, Dr. Shoba Sreenivisian, who has selflessly dedicated her life’s work to serving veterans by providing and advocating for necessary mental health treatment and reentry opportunities. Dr. Sreenivisian has been working with many of these men for over ten years, both when they were incarcerated post-military service and since their release. My experiences with Dr. Sreenivisian and her group of vets challenged me to question my own ideas about crime, punishment, and redemption. What has struck me with the most potency, however, is the pure and sincere desire of the men in this group to make living amends with society and reintegrate into the community. They have hopes of experiencing self-forgiveness, finding peace, and being validated by society.
At the bottom of these desires is the basic quest for permanent housing and jobs. The men in this group are presently receiving eviction notices and will be forced out of Los Angeles Veteran’s Affairs (VA) housing within weeks. Although the cause for these evictions is unclear, beyond statements of budget cuts and termination of programs, these vets are witnessing veteran colleagues being vacated from VA housing and moved to skid row. The trauma and uncertainty of their circumstances is clearly triggering a deregulated state of mental health.
WHAT HAS STRUCK ME WITH THE MOST POTENCY, HOWEVER, IS THE PURE AND SINCERE DESIRE OF THE MEN IN THIS GROUP TO MAKE LIVING AMENDS WITH SOCIETY AND REINTEGRATE INTO THE COMMUNITY.
In the midst of my inquiry into the VA, the nation was rattled by last Sunday’s mass shooting, in which twenty- six innocent men, women and children were murdered, leaving Americans with questions about what could drive someone to commit this vicious act of unbridled violence and rage. As the story unfolded, however, we quickly learned that the shooter was an ex-U.S. Air Force soldier with a history of violence and psychological instability. This immediately draws attention to U.S. Military’s capacity to effectively address the mental health needs of current and ex-service members for the sake of public safety. Shooter, Devin P. Kelley, who in 2012 was convicted of domestic assault resulting in his discharge for bad conduct in 2014, should have been flagged and obstructed from acquiring firearms. Instead, the Air Force neglected to share his court-martial sentence with the appropriate federal database. So, without issue, Kelly purchased the assault rifles he used in Sunday’s shooting rampage at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Following Kelley’s 2012 assault of his then-wife and young stepson, Kelley was sentenced to one year in the “Brig,” a military prison. Prior to serving his sentence, and upon reports of the assault charges, as well as, “attempts to carry out death threats he had made against his military superiors,” Kelley was placed in a mental health facility from which he escaped and was arrested shortly after.
Outside of this temporary mental health intervention, it appears little else was done to address Kelley’s severe mental health issues and violent behavioral tendencies. In fact, soldiers who are dishonorably discharged from the military are not eligible for VA-sponsored mental health services, though they are potentially the most at-risk veteran demographic. We should all agree that serving a prison sentence is not a rehabilitative function, and it feels irresponsible for the military to release someone with a violent profile into the general population without serious and ongoing treatment protocols in place. The “Texas Massacre” incites urgent questions regarding public safety and the military, a concern further echoed by many of the veteran “experiencers” who have contributed to ENDPAIN.
Most recently, I had the opportunity to interview Marine Corps Vet, Pablo Agrio, a fifty-nine year old man living in Los Angeles, who, after serving seven years in the military and five years in the police force, served twenty-eight years in prison for the accidental murder of his wife in an act of self-defense. In our conversation, Pablo sheds light on a system that does little to support successful reentry into society post-military service, and how the compounding wounds of military service, on top of existing childhood pain or trauma, can render a person unfeeling and at-risk.
SOLDIERS WHO ARE DISHONORABLY DISCHARGED FROM THE MILITARY ARE NOT ELIGIBLE FOR VA-SPONSORED MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES, THOUGH THEY ARE POTENTIALLY THE MOST AT-RISK VETERAN DEMOGRAPHIC
The theme of inner violence manifesting in lethal aggression is present in both Pablo’s story and that of Devin Kelley. And while shooter Kelley is dead and leaves a legacy of destruction in his wake, Pablo is here and ready to share how his experience as a U.S. Military Vet has left him with little hope for redemption and reentry, in spite of his desire to heal and contribute to society.
Now is the time to call attention to the desperate need for improved reentry services for the thousands of men and women that have served our nation and are in need of healing and support. In exploring the issue of the veteran experience, I want to understand a topic relevant to both the “Texas Massacre,” Pablo’s story, and the story of others who have served in the military. Is there an unspoken social contract to sever the heart and mind of every enlisted military personnel during their service for our country, and how does that reflect our American values today? If this is the case, how do we support our veterans in re-entering civilian life with success?
The Social Contract: unlearning and relearning empathy
In the ENDPAIN short film, MDMA: Stories of Treatment, army veteran James Casey explains, “Over there, to survive, you have to end up separating the connection between your heart and your head. Because if you try to process all this death and destruction that you’re seeing, along with your heart, that’s just not gonna work out.”
This sentiment—that an integral component of the military ethos is quelling empathic and emotional responses and impulses—has been echoed by other veterans that have spoken with ENDPAIN.
So we must ask ourselves: is there an unspoken social contract that obligates service members to disconnect from empathy to do their job in the name of national security? Is a systemic culture of power dominance and brute force training necessary to create “auto-responders” that can function outside of natural human response mechanisms? If so, what is the government currently doing to address the reintegration of active or inactive military personnel? Are mental health services for Veterans accessible and non-discriminating? What advancements are possible in our cultural understanding of the current social contract between the U.S. military, the Federal government, and the civilian population?
In my interview with Pablo, the same idea rang true, “The funny thing with the military is that they have a goal in mind. And their goal is to get you to tame your feelings, not to think too much about what you have to do. Because, when it comes to the bottom line, they want to have young men who, if they give them a weapon and they say, ‘Look, you’ve got to go over there, and you’ve got to shoot the enemy,’ they don’t want you thinking too much about who the enemy is.”
NOW IS THE TIME TO CALL ATTENTION TO THE DESPERATE NEED FOR IMPROVED REENTRY SERVICES FOR THE THOUSANDS OF MEN AND WOMEN THAT HAVE SERVED OUR NATION.
In Healing PTS, Tom Voss, U. S. Military Reconnaissance soldier, states, “There was a point in my deployment where I actually had to accept my own death. And that came about because going out on these missions, just the level of anxiety that you have and the vehicles that we have. You’re exposed pretty much from the chest up. So there’s a good chance that an IED goes off, Improvised Explosive Device, car bomb goes off, you could catch shrapnel, or even ambushed, your just kind of exposed. So getting used to that is extremely challenging. So I had a lot of anxiety about okay, ‘When’s the next car gonna blow up,’ all these kinds of things going through your head. And after you’ve been through a few attacks, you’ve been through a few car bombs, you’ve made it through a few ambushes, you finally get to this point where you’re just like I’m already dead. Once you accept that, you can be an effective soldier.”
This taught auto-response technique is first and foremost a matter of survival—if you get caught up in your feelings during a combat situation, you could be killed. But beyond this, it is a way to ensure that soldiers are doing their best job to protect our country. In other words, it is a cultural social agreement that for the good of the American people, soldiers must become auto-responders during their time in service.
If, as Americans, we accept this contract—that soldiers must train as non-empaths in order to do their best work protecting our country—then what is being done to help them relearn empathy upon their reentry into civilian life?
WE MUST ASK OURSELVES: IS THERE AN UNSPOKEN SOCIAL CONTRACT THAT OBLIGATES SERVICE MEMBERS TO DISCONNECT FROM EMPATHY TO DO THEIR JOB IN THE NAME OF NATIONAL SECURITY?
Pablo: “The military has one job and that job is to repress the enemy. Your job is to get your orders and carry them out. I’m fine with that. What I will say to you in response to your question is when men and women are getting ready to leave the military, then I think that they should be sent to some place with professionals that then will help them make the transition into civilian life wherein they’re kind of walked back from where they’ve been and made or helped to understand that, look, the training you received for this particular job is not going to be the same thing that you’re going to be experiencing out here. So you gotta come down. You got to, you know understand… You have to get back into the community now and leave this military training behind.”
What is clear to me is that being an auto-responder may be helpful in a combat situation—a matter of life and death, even—but is harmful in almost every other context. It puts relationships at risk, and it makes love and human connection difficult. As Casey said in MDMA, “I knew I loved my wife with all my heart, but I couldn’t feel it. I knew I loved my mother and father dearly, but I couldn’t feel it… it was just, constantly not feeling anything.” Additional coping tactics obtained in military environments, such as repression and aggression, have little to no productive role in civilian life.”
In Healing PTS, Joshua A. Moore shares, “I came back from the second deployment to Afghanistan and within a few months I was divorced. That light switch definitely works much easier to turn off the emotions and kind of deal with the shit you’re handed. There just wasn’t anything there for us as far as help. All this ramp up, all this training. Year and almost a half long mobilization. And then its like yeah, welcome back. Get back to work. And you’re supposed to be normal, you know.”
So, just as the military includes structured and rigorous training for those who wish to become soldiers and officers, should it also include empathy training—required training—for those wishing to separate from the military and return to civilian life? And if programs of this nature do exist for Vets, how widespread is access, and can we learn more about their effectiveness to assess what modifications or enhancements may be required?
Soldier, Tom Voss, shares, “I would get pretty much drunk every night just to go to sleep, just to make sure that I wouldn’t wake up, or I wouldn’t dream, or whatever. It got to that point where I’m just like okay, I have two options. I’m like A: I’m going to kill myself. Or B: I’m going to try one last push to try to get out of this hole.”
"This is one of the things that frustrates me the most now,” says Pablo. “And I'm speaking now in terms of Pablo, fifty-nine years old, sitting here with you talking about this thing, and a man who is in need of help, and is reaching out and asking for help. And finding out that the help is not there, or is not readily available. Here's the problem. Here's where the problem starts. When you are part of the military and you have the gung-ho mentality, you don't want to show any signs of weaknesses. You don't want to raise your hand and say you need help or you're having problems with certain issues or nothing like that because any time you do that, especially back then in the seventies when I joined, that can be detrimental to your career and the perception that your superiors have of you. So the last thing you want to talk about is you're having nightmares or dreams that are a little off-centered or that your feet hurt or your back is out of sync, or your neck, or whatever. Or that you're being affected by the training that you're receiving. No. You're not going to complain about that.”
As part of the unspoken social contract between vets, the government, and the civilian community, how can we meet these Vets where they are to support the healing they deserve?
THE UNSPOKEN SOCIAL CONTRACT WE MAKE WITH VETERANS THAT REQUIRES THEM TO SACRIFICE OR REPRESS SOME OF THE MOST GRATIFYING ASPECTS OF THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE, SUCH AS LOVE.
It has been my experience that there is so much to learn from the voices of the veteran “experiencers” in seeking solutions. I am eternally grateful for Vets like Earl Granville, featured in ENDPAIN short, The Weight We Carry, who is a double amputee from service-related injuries and brother to a vet that committed suicide. Earl remains dedicated to conveying the message that no weight physical, psychological, or emotional is insurmountable when there is honest communication and a desire to heal and thrive. He emphasizes the role of community in healing for vets. Earl is known for carrying Cindy the cinderblock on his back in marathon walk/run events. “Cindy represents the heavy mental hardship that we face in society,” he says. “Depression, anxiety, stress. Something to hold us down that stops us from enjoying life. Look, this isn’t to be a badass or anything like that, this is a message, knowing that you never have to carry this hardship by yourself. You look at the military community as well, a lot of these guys, they don’t want to get help, because they feel like it makes them look weak. It’s what we’re going to deal with as human beings.”
As more veterans speak openly about the fragility of their humanity, I hope that more attention will be given to the unspoken social contract we make with veterans that requires them to sacrifice or repress some of the most gratifying aspects of the human experience, such as love. I am confident that with more candor from vets pursuing holistic healing and successful reintegration into society, more avenues will open for others.
*Source: Veteran Affairs