Written by Jaymes Poling
As a 29-year-old Junior at John Carroll University, I already feel as though I stand out a little. I’m almost 10 years older than everyone around me, except for those in our veterans group. The active core of the John Carroll Veterans Association is made up mostly of white males in their mid 20s who served in the Army and Marine Corps. For most of us, life before John Carroll revolved around the preparation for, and execution of warfare.
War, although complex today, is still tied heavily to instinctual evolution. For example, chimpanzees will conduct organized raids on neighboring chimp communities to increase the size of their territory. However, as we focus on the individual war fighter, war becomes much more primal. In the thick of the heaviest fighting, peripherals vanish, and you rely more on your true, undiscovered, animalistic nature. Or at least I did.
This places me in a unique position as I find myself seamlessly oscillating between the traditional liberal arts conversations about US intervention in Latin America through the 20th Century, to a conversation with my guys about the serious lack of stopping power in the NATO 5.56mm round and how many times you must shoot someone before they cease to be a threat. As I look at the two worlds in which I live, I’m reminded of balance. As it stands, the veterans at John Carroll comprise the only group of individuals that I’m able to speak freely around. To them, I will never be the guy that’s killed people in Afghanistan. To them I’m just Jay, the guy that networks too much, and wastes his life sending countless emails. They provide a familiar social support as I ease back into civilian life. This isn’t to say that civilian communities are at fault for their inability to provide this. Even within the veteran community, we allow our labels to shape our interactions with each other. This just happens under the pleasant umbrella of a general commonality. I think one key to my successful transition began with the physical blending of these two social interactions, and continued internally with the melding of these two personalities. However, I still face challenges.
During my first semester at John Carroll, I signed up for a class with a professor that is generally a difficult grader. He’s one of those individuals that elicits a twitch of pain when his name is heard. He’s a brilliant individual who pushes his students and truly cares, but will also undoubtedly lower most students’ cumulative GPA. In our first meeting, he commented on the tattoo that covers my right arm with the blunt disapproval that polite society especially reserves for our elder members. I smiled as I explained I got it during a different time in my life, when I was in the army. He immediately followed up by asking if I’ve ever been overseas. I informed him that I spent three years in Afghanistan. With no hesitation, he asked “Do you have PTSD?” I was so caught off guard by the personal nature of his question, that I stuttered a bit as I tried to find some type of response. I would have normally found this question rude, but behind his bluntness and flat affect, I saw a genuine concern for my well-being. The issue for me, was and still is, that I can’t define PTSD. In fact, I can’t think of one person who is ever asked if they had PTSD without finding confirmation that they do. But by the time I had left the Army, I had been told I probably had PTSD so many times that at my first VA appointment, my primary care provider simply stated, “Well obviously, you have PTSD.” I remember thinking, “what makes it obvious?” Still, as I sat in my professor’s office almost two years after that appointment, I found myself confused by the question. I finally managed a response; “If I do, I guess I manage it well.”
Weeks later I was studying for my first exam in the same course. I had transferred in with a 4.0, and was doing everything I could to maintain it at the new school. About an hour before the exam I received a phone call from one of my closest friends. This close friend and I fought in Afghanistan together for three years from 2007-2012. When I answered the phone, he asked if I’d been on Facebook. With both of us having spent eight years in the same unit, our Facebook pages are saturated with hundreds of interconnected veteran relationships. It’s become sort of a one-stop shop to support each other, only on this day, it harbored a goodbye message from our friend. My close friend told me that our brother committed suicide at work. As I sat back down to continue studying for my exam, my mind was racing through all the familiar places. How could we have prevented this? What if I would’ve reached out? Would anything have helped?
In Afghanistan, you become familiar with loss, you know people are going to die. You accept it. It’s not easy, but it’s familiar. It’s like a festering wound, that hurts all the time. You wake up feeling the pain, on occasion it spikes for extreme brief moments, and then goes back to a steady ache. I sometimes imagined that outliving all your loved ones might lead to a similar feeling later in life. But then you come home, and you begin to heal that wound. With suicide, though, you allow yourself to be tricked into healing each time. So, each sudden surge of pain, comes with the new searing or ripping of partially healed flesh followed by the familiar ache, and the internal embarrassment of complacency.
I failed the exam in spectacular fashion. I’m sure that I could’ve gone to the professor, explained my situation, and begged for leniency. However, I didn’t want to be labeled as damaged, or fragile, or someone to be spoken softly around. As I walked back to my professor’s office, to discuss missing class for the funeral, I found myself rehearsing what I would say. I settled on using the term “close friend” and staying as vague as possible. My entire plan went out the window when I got in his office. His responses, though monotonous, came from a kind place. “Was it someone you served with?”, “How did he die?” sunk rapidly into my fragile emotional state. After I told him it was suicide, he quietly responded in a tone that made me believe his comments subconsciously escaped his mouth “yeah, that’s a thing with you guys.” “Yeah” I quietly said back. It’s rare that I have a conversation that void of empathy. More often, I find people avoid the subjects they feel may trigger some unfavorable response from me, even if it leaves some awkward hole in the conversation. I find the same general level of discomfort in both situations.
I ended the semester with a B- in that class. After accounting for the lack of stress from trying to maintain a 4.0, I’m just as happy with my 3.8 GPA. I find myself relying less on the support of the veteran’s group, and more on myself. I find myself learning at a rate I never have before and I’m watching myself becoming a better son, sibling, and partner. The other day I watched an old speech from General Mattis, in which he described a period of personal and professional development after combat. He referred to this as posttraumatic growth. It was the first time I’ve heard that label, and I wish I’d have known it when I left the military. I can see it in my past, present, and future. It’s as tangible and saturating as standing outside in a heavy downpour. However, if I had left it up to society, the VA, or my fears, I would have stayed inside where it’s safe. Where I could have taken comfort in my new, lowered expectations. When individuals asked leading questions, I could have played the part, without ever lying. I could have digested the labels and narratives, becoming the product of their nourishment. I could have been broken, and sedated myself. The worst part would have been the general acceptability of it all. But now, when someone asks me if I have PTSD, I have a new label to give them.