I retired from the Navy two years ago this month. One year ago, my subconscious mind began actively punching through walls that kept it boxed up and demanded items buried deep be processed. I would wake up shouting in the middle of the night.
For help, I turned to a program called Journey Forward: The Military Mindfulness Action Practices for Success offered by Veteran’s Path. I learned to be more kind to myself, to forgive myself, and to be more mindful of how my own self-talk hurt me.
During the first session, I processed the horror-movie nightmare that had woken me the night before: Emergency vehicles were lined up in the valley behind my house; rescuers pulled people from hidden bunkers, some dead, others sick, many walking but weak. I partially woke. My partner said I muttered, “I knew they were there; I had heard their voices, I had heard their voices … .” I trembled with fear that the dream had been real.
With help from the session leader, I recognized that my subconscious was processing my fear of reemerging from an extended self-isolation that predated COVID-19 by a couple of years. I had recently re-activated my Facebook account and reconnected with friends from all periods of my life dating back to elementary school. My isolation, however, meant that some relationships were gone, some needed attention, but most were just happy to see me. I understood that I needed to be mindful of this transition and treat it with honor and respect.
In the military, we live with a level of stress that is far from normal and leads to all sorts of dysfunctions. We mock others who crack under the pressures and show the slightest sign of failure through accepted destructive behaviors: alcoholism and verbally abusive leadership styles. We see opportunity when those symptoms turn into actual failure through illegal drug use or inappropriate relationships. We see opportunity because we managed our stress better.
These reactions are more a function of not having the time or energy to ask one simple question: “You look like you are hurting right now, what can I do to help?” Our stress levels are so high in a hyper-competitive environment that we rarely have time to do the work side-by-side with our colleagues. Perhaps, with mindfulness incorporated into leadership schools in the military, we could turn our attention to our peers and offer them empathy. We could be aware that what we accept as normal is truly strange and profoundly unhealthy. The military does require a unique relationship with stress much like first responders, medical professionals and others in high-intensity work. But if we acknowledge it with kindness, patience and mindfulness, we might learn to be more kind to ourselves and others, and enable the success of our shared mission to defend the country and the values we cherish.
Steve Fuller retired from the U.S. Navy in 2019 after nearly 27 years of service serving at sea on ships as small as frigates and as large as aircraft carriers. A visit to the Driftless and a desire for a radical course change brought him home to Wisconsin where he lives on a small parcel of land with chickens and horses and … more to come! He has been a creative writer since he saw U2 perform in Live Aid, and looks forward to sharing more of his writing with willing readers.