Jon Downing

Jon Downing, Part 4: Talking To Veterans Is Difficult, and It’s Not Your Fault


Let us, for the moment, hit pause on the tale of Jon Downing. Before we can discuss Jon’s homecoming, we will need to establish some perspective. To this end, Part Four shall serve as an interlude. Try to set aside what you thought you knew about post-traumatic stress disorder. Most veterans, as they reintegrate, will experience a sense of social disconnect, wether they were in combat or not. These veterans are not necessarily damaged. They are simply different.

If you have ever felt uncomfortable talking to a veteran, rest assured that you are not alone. It is not supposed to be easy, and most of the friction is primarily due to conditions well beyond your control. To name just a few of these conditions: Is the nation at war? Are we fighting for our survival? Is there a military draft in effect? Circumstances change, and circumstances matter. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. An automatic response to a veteran – be it anything from praise to contempt – can do more harm than good.

Thankfully, making significant progress on this issue won’t require any controversial legislation or exorbitant public funding. Through a little awareness, civil-military relations can improve.

If a prophet exists today in the genre of civil-military affairs, it is Sebastian Junger. He is an acclaimed author of non-fiction – he wrote The Perfect Storm, back in the mid-1990s – and he has since spent decades overseas in a variety of conflict zones as a war reporter. His latest publication, Tribe, is a short book, but it packs a punch.

Author Sebastian Junger

As civilians, we’ve been quick and eager to attribute PTSD to roadside bombs and sucking chest wounds. Junger takes an alternative approach. He consults what are, in actuality, quite basic principles in sociology and evolutionary biology. Drawing upon the testimony of experts in these fields, he reaches a very different conclusion from what we’ve all been told.

History offers endless examples of civilizations in conflict, and Junger mines them for clues. He begins in the 1800s. As American settlers advanced westward, they were somewhat puzzled by the difficulties of cross-cultural assimilation. Captive natives living amongst the pioneers would, somewhat naturally, flee the comforts of large settlements to rejoin their tribes. White settlers who were captured by natives, on the other hand, were far less predictable.

Some whites refused to leave the tribes. Others, once they were repatriated, would attempt to escape, and return to native life. Junger is careful not to romanticize the era, but rudimentary bonds of communal living seemed to have had a strong effect. (For a gripping account of this particular subject, pick up S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of The Summer Moon)

During and following World War II, a large percentage of Americans served their country – either directly, through the armed forces, or indirectly, through the workforce back home. Once the collective ills of war and depression were vanquished, Americans proceeded in lockstep to tackle the issues of industrial expansion, job creation, housing and education.

Why don’t we see that level of cooperation today? In a cover story for the Atlantic two years ago, writer James Fallows offered one obvious reason: While nearly 10% of the entire US population was on active military duty following the second world war, only three-quarters of 1% of our population had served in Iraq or Afghanistan in the previous 14 years. Fallows and others, like Robert Kaplan, have argued convincingly that such statistical disparities make war-fighting and foreign policy alone extremely difficult. Both Fallows and Kaplan have sounded solid warnings about defense policy, and how far away from the voting booth it continues to drift.

In Tribe, Junger is more concerned with psychology, and the hardships that veterans encounter on a personal, day-to-day basis. Today’s soldiers experience the glue of shared living and shared sacrifice in a way that compares similarly to other soldiers across history. But when they come home they are all separated, and many land inside cities and towns in which they are unlikely to interact with any other veterans at all. The times have changed, too. The country is divided politically now. Wealth inequality is staggeringly high, and the job market is fiercely competitive.

Without this historical context, America’s PTSD figures make little to no sense. As combat deaths have gone down over the course of the past century, for instance, disability claims and documented psychiatric cases among veterans in America have gone way, way up. This is surely due, in part, to a better understanding of “shell shock”, as well as to – unfortunately – problems involving waste and fraud. But the story, as Junger explains it, is more complicated than that.

“Even the Israeli military—with mandatory national service and two generations of intermittent warfare—has by some measures a PTSD rate as low as 1 percent,” he notes. Anthropological evidence is presented as well. Disability claims would be one thing, but an epidemic of depressed and struggling soldiers like Jon Downing, within any warring nation, would be a cause for concern. What we are witnessing in America today is quite unprecedented.

Often, a wider lens will lead to feelings of helplessness. As it reveals new glimpses of powerful influences and variables – many of which may have previously gone unnoticed – historical context will, concurrently, proffer whispers of fate and inevitability. When we view our history in terms of tectonic shifts in the social landscape, the results will begin to seem, to a certain extent, predetermined.

“I’m almost convinced that in order to fix this,” one intelligent veteran once told me, after finishing Junger’s book, “America needs to just get involved in another world war.” This is a fairly common critique of Junger’s book. But progress begins with questions, and we have more answers today than we did when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started, thanks in large part to Junger.

There are many reasons why civilians and veterans have trouble communicating. They each derive, in some form or another, from the politics, culture, and geography of the United States. We can’t re-engineer the macro-economic and geo-political events that got us here, but two small rules will still make a big difference.

Jon Downing, center, with friends

Rule #1: Don’t Be Afraid To Ask

Knowing what we now know about PTSD – or, rather, acknowledging what we still don’t know – should make communication a bit less tense. Post-traumatic stress may be common, but it is helpful to consider the range of factors from which it may have evolved. Instead of upsetting veterans, your interest or curiosity into what they went through may indeed be helping them.

Only around 10% of active American service-members have ever seen combat, and only a fraction of those soldiers have witnessed anything truly horrible. Those particular veterans will, almost certainly, be capable of side-stepping or omitting any details that they aren’t comfortable discussing. You will find that this minority of combat veterans will typically apologize to you, for losing their composure, before you have the chance to apologize to them for prying.

Rule #2: Don’t Be So Nice

Most soldiers are anything but delicate. Genuine appreciation is no crime, but hollow or excessive gratitude sends a very different message. By now, most veterans can tell the difference. For the average, thoughtful American civilian, Rule #2 will be easy, and may even come as a relief.

Certain corporations and politicians, however, may resist Rule #2, for they have been most responsible for creating and exploiting our current climate of enthusiastic adoration. It is wise, as always, to remain skeptical of anyone who stands to benefit personally or financially from charity or goodwill.

All of this is directly relevant to Jon Downing’s story. Following his deployments to Iraq, Jon felt like a different person. Like many other warriors, Jon attempted to mask his injuries. As long as Jon was willing to erode mind and body in service to the federal government, our politicians gave Jon a role, and gave him a voice.

As a veteran, Jon appeared to have benefited briefly from his use of marijuana. The veteran community has made strides, since then, on this issue. As early as 2015, however, Washington wasn’t listening. Hesitation on the part of some politicians to sanction and support the legalized distribution of a new drug was perhaps, to a small extent, understandable. As a therapy, it was still untested (mainly because many of those same politicians refused to allow testing).

But our politicians aren’t fools. If they were afraid of medical marijuana in 2015, then they should have been terrified of pills like klonopin and oxycodone, long before that. There’s your red flag for hollow support.

Prescription pills became a deadly part of Jon’s new life as an Army veteran. We’ll talk about that new life, in Part 5.

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