Overcoming trauma: A tribute to veterans


I’ve never served in the U.S. Armed Forces, but my life was surrounded and deeply touched by things military:

My father, a Captain in the U.S. Public Health Service, provided medical services to Native Alaskan Indians. His services as a pediatrician would fix the place of my birth, Sitka, Alaska.

My father-in-law, George Collins, as a 17-year-old radar man on the USS Catoctin, would sail the oceans of the world, stopping at ports with exotic names — Chinwangto, Taku, Jinsen, Chefoo, Okinawa, to keep our country safe.

At 15, my life became more military when my two brothers and I left home to attend a military school near St. Louis. Military school was hard and at times harsh. I learned quickly how to survive by forming strong bonds with the other cadets in my squad. Life was not all hardship: I liked ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) training and learned how to shoot a rifle. Another aspect of military school I enjoyed was listening to the war stories of the “real soldiers.” The World War II, Vietnam and Korean War veterans, the men who ran the school, the men who had actual battle experience-the “hardened men.” My young mind was riveted to their tales, and I wanted, but did not ask them the following question: If I was in real combat, would I run in fear or would I have the courage to fight?

My next exposure to the military was when I started a clinical training rotation as a psychologist at the VA Hospital in Indianapolis. At that time, VA hospitals all over the U.S. were conducting research on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and they would eventually pioneer innovative and highly effective treatments for soldiers suffering from combat trauma.

At the VA, the stories changed. Instead of the World War II messages of patriotism, service and duty, I heard the Vietnam stories of betrayal and loss. I was required to learn a whole new vocabulary of exotic terms such as flashbacks, hyper-arousal, out-of-body experiences and startle response.

How could I explain these two different war experiences? Trauma research teaches us this: When a man or woman experiences a life-threatening event, or, when they see or hear about the death or wounding of someone they love, care about, or as in the military, someone they trained with, the mind starts a process of attempting to understand what has happened. It does this by assigning a meaning to the trauma. The mind will process the trauma in one of three ways:

1. A positive outcome

2. A negative outcome

3. Sealing off the trauma into mental compartments.

Only one of these three, number 1, is healthy. It is as if the mind, like a gypsy traveler, is compelled by the trauma to move and walk down a road until it comes to a three-way fork: The left fork is one of loss and despair; the right fork is one of recovery; The middle fork is a downward tunnel of darkness and isolation. One thing is certain — once traumatized, the mind cannot stay the same, it must move, it must travel in a search for meaning. To go down the path of healing, each traumatized person must find a new meaning in their life that explains why they had to suffer. They must overcome their trauma.

Trauma, like lightening, strikes our lives and rips us from our normal existence. Traumatized individuals are forced to re-shuffle all the cards of their lives and search for a new way to find meaning in their life. How exactly do combat veterans, or any person whose life has been shattered by death, illness, or loss, overcome trauma? Trauma begins to heal when the veteran hears the “right words” from their families, their friends, their community, and their nation.

This month is Memorial Day. If you see a man or woman who is wearing a military hat or uniform, use the “right words,” saying “Thank you for your service.” Why? By showing our respect, we honor them, and by honoring them, we also honor all men and women who have died, or served for us. By demonstrating this respect, we help to give their life a positive meaning. We travel the road of trauma with them, with our arms around them, as supporters, as comrades in arms, so they can cry, and tell their story. This is the way they can heal and discover a positive place in their hearts, to live without the pain of trauma.

The content of this article is for educational purposes only, and should not be used as a substitute for treatment by a professional.


Dr. Richard Elghammer contributes his column each week to the Journal Review.