Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Guest Blog: On Story-Telling and the Shared Humanity that Binds Us All

By: Colin Halloran

Having embarked on a recent book tour on Veterans’ Day, Monday November 11th, I had my final appearance this past Monday the 25th. My journey took me more than 3,800 miles, which gave me more than 60 hours of sitting in my car, contemplating the world we’re living in. Here’s a sampling of those contemplations.

This whole endeavor was born out of the fact that the university where I teach did not have any events planned for Veterans’ Day, and classes were scheduled regularly. That’s all well and good—after all, Columbus did way more than those who have served this country he “discovered”—but I felt that there should at least be some sort of on-campus acknowledgment of the day.

Mind you, I’m biased. I proudly served this country, and regardless of any lasting negative impact on my life, I will always be proud of that service. I wrote a book about those experiences, the impact they had, and I’ve been fortunate enough to continue in the military’s tradition of service by sharing my story in order to help other vets come to terms with theirs, and in order to educate civilians on just what that experience can mean. Remember, we volunteer to wear the flag and bear the brunt of the burden so that the other 99% of the population doesn’t have to.
(Related: I Never Imagined being a 20-Something Veteran: A Soldier Reflects on Why It's Important to Share His Story)

So I brought together a talented group of veteran writers to come together for a panel at the university on the evening of Veterans’ Day, so that we could share our stories, so that our experiences could live out in the ether, not just deep within our own minds. I had already been invited out to Ohio University to participate in their week-long symposium on “Conflict & Contact,” so a panel at my own school seemed like an appropriate way to kick off the week. Naturally, when my friends at the Warrior Arts Alliance expressed how they wished I could be out in St. Louis for Veterans’ Day, I said, “Well, I could head down after my readings in Ohio and be there Friday if you really wanted.” They did. And a tour was born.

Now, I know I’ve spent a lot of time in the past ranting and being seemingly frustrated with the world, but this post is different. These past 2 weeks confirmed for me what I have known to be true, if not always demonstrated: there’s a Hell of a lot of good in this world.

Whether it was a 19-year-old college student, or the 65-year-old wife of a Vietnam vet, or a small town school librarian with no ties to war, I found that people were incredibly receptive to my message. Even when they admittedly hadn’t looked at war in the ways I was presenting it, namely as a human experience that has become largely white noise in this country over the last decade, the people I encountered embraced this view, and later thanked me for broadening the scope of their thinking. This is not to toot my own horn, but to point out that even in the face of uncomfortable, often really depressing conversations, people in this country care enough to listen, to change their views, and to take on the burden of moral responsibility that they must bear as citizens of a nation at war.

In St. Louis, at the Missouri History Museum, I had the privilege of working with a group of veterans, who had served in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. We spent the entirety of the morning sitting at a large, pieced together conference table, sharing our stories. I had never seen so many grown men cry. I had never felt a part of something so deep. I have not felt so close to, felt such a sense of belonging with a group of complete strangers since my time in uniform. It was as though we all entered that room a bit broken, each person missing a small piece of his or herself, but by the end of the morning (which culminated in a group hug—seriously), we had filled in those missing bits for each other. Because what was missing was that knowledge that though we all have our own story, our own experiences, we are, in fact, not on our own.

After spending the week giving readings, which entails leaving much of myself out there for the audience, and often leaves me feeling emotionally drained, being able to help others share their stories, through conversation and creative writing, had the opposite effect. I left the museum feeling fulfilled in a way I didn’t get on any other leg of the tour.

I guess the point is this: no matter how isolated we may feel, no matter how disconnected this country or this world seems to be, there is a deep-rooted humanity that binds us all together. And we can find it by sharing our stories—not just by telling ours, but by listening to others’.
And if we do that, we’ll find that what we thought was missing wasn’t missing at all; it just hadn’t yet been found.

Colin D. Halloran is an Afghanistan combat veteran, English professor, and poet who leads student and teacher workshops on understanding war through poetry. He earned an MFA at Fairfield University, and he is an associate editor at Copaiba.org. His book of poetry on his war experiences, Shortly Thereafter, won the 2012 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award and is a Massachusetts Must-Read Book of 2013. He has spoken at conferences at the state and national levels, including the 2010 Connecticut Council for the Social Studies Conference and the 2012 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Time to Make Choices

So, probably like you, I get really annoyed when I see sappy and effusive praise for one’s self and accomplishments on, for instance, social media. Yay, you’re the best cat owner there is. Oh, you got another raise? Wow, your wedding / child / graduation looked SO beautiful! Yuck, yuck. Yeah, I’m just not into it.

I think most service members and veterans aren’t, too, because in the military you’re trained to just do a job, and even the heroic stuff is just you getting noticed for what anyone else in the military would’ve done.

That being said, I’ve been told that my story – yes, my annoyingly happy story of having a really f’ed up mind upon coming home from Iraq to being a healthy and happy human being – is one that should be shared despite the gag factor.

So here’s your motivation: guess what, you can get well. Some of us have and even do. That shouldn’t be a shocker, but I guess it kind of is. Now that I’m thinking about, we’re so inundated with so many stories of “victims” coming home from war. I guess that fits the mainstream template: the wars were stupid, and look at all the crappy things that happened to everyone involved.

Fairly, there is a degree to truth to all that. But what about the great things veterans are doing, even if they are having challenges still? What about the stories about the men and women who came home, struggled and are still struggling, but are also getting better?

Click the archive button and you’ll read about my once very fractured mind. I was incapable of basic existence after coming home from my second tour, and sought to destroy myself every night with bottles. Self-medication, I’ve learned years later, is what that is called.

Time was my greatest ally in getting better. Time and also patience to have realistic results. I didn’t go from Drunky McWastedface every night to outstanding graduate of my Master’s program overnight. It was harder than anything I’d ever done, especially harder than being in Iraq, but having risen above that challenge I can tell you, even though I wanted to quit and certainly could’ve accepted a less than desired result over the many years after war, it was totally worth it.

Time. It’s your friend. It’s an asshole, also, because time usually takes too much time, but trauma likes to hang around like an infection. You have to approach it holistically. This will be the new focus of my blog: How I got well, how others got well, and what we can share for you.

In the meantime, you’re reading this. You should go back in the archive, and also read the other blogs, and really get involved here at Courage Beyond. There are way worse things you could be doing. Like, what you may already be doing. Accept and believe in time, and that we’re here and want to and actually can help you. But it’s a decision that begins with you.    

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Snare

The curse of alcohol is that you can never move
away from the town where you’ve made the bars home.

You can never save up enough to purchase 
a way out of your problems.

Each shot becomes an expression of the regret
you can’t swallow, so you fill your cup again.

You settle for being empty and never quenched;
and each drink becomes more desperate than the last.

You cycle between the highs and lows
of your glass only to come to understand

you drank yourself away years ago.
And you can never get that time back.

And you cope with the bottles, 
and you love them.

Because the booze blacks out the memory
of your buddy’s head exploding;

the cold glass feels better than the warm blood
from when you bandaged another’s shrapnel wound;

because it was hot in the desert and the whiskey

pulses flame through your heart and mind.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Breaking the Silence

I’ve been silent for a while now concerning writing war. There are a couple reasons: I’m burnt out by talking about combat and coming home, and I’ve been running out of things to say. The narrative feels kind of old to me. How were things when I came home? Rough. Why so? That’s a story that sometimes takes too long to tell.

But mostly, I’ve been feeling removed from the warrior experience; so much so, that I walk around Walter Reed National Military Medical Center at Bethesda (a major military hospital – I have a part-time gig teaching writing there) and just feel numb to it all. Not so much the numbness I felt after my combat time where I just couldn’t relate to being a civilian again. It’s the opposite, really. I help instruct Navy Seals, Special Forces operators, EOD (bomb) technicians, and I can’t relate anymore sometimes to what they’re saying or feeling.

Maybe that’s a guilt I have since I didn’t do anything nearly on the same level of their experiences. But there’s this odd disassociation that’s been occurring within me. And it’s somewhat intentional: I play music loudly, like a nasty civilian when I drive onto base and park, and I don’t shave well and walk with headphones in my ears – things the Marine Corps would kick my ass for.

I’m in an odd place. 28 years young, but, this upcoming March, I’ve been a decade away from my first deployment. Time really does have this way of erasing your identity, healing trauma. I used to get drunk and cry. Loud noises or petty disagreements were calls to arms. Today I drink beers and yell at football, completely ambivalent to the war going on, not caring that the calories I’m consuming will make me slow and weak. Loud, unexpected noises I usually greet with a chuckle. Petty disagreements I let roll off my shoulders – like “water on a duck’s back” as many senior NCOs once said to me when I wore stripes. 

But I need to remember that OUR story IS an important story. All of us vets. And all I can do is share it, and continue to when I can, and hope it’s a beacon that can lead other warriors to where I am now.

Connect with Dario online:
Personal Website (Free Writing, Podcast, Dario in the Media, Biography, Books, Blogs)
20 Something Magazine (Editor-in-Chief, Creator)
JMWW Literary Journal (Senior Nonfiction Editor)
The Veterans Writing Project (Instructor, Nonfiction Editor)
LinkedIn (Professional Stuff)
Facebook (Be my friend?)

Monday, May 14, 2012

Still, Eight Years Later

I'm sitting with my war buddy at a hookah bar in Rhode Island: sweet flavor, low light, good tunes. A few drinks keep us warm, lessening the anxiety of our minds.

Eight years after serving together on the Syrian Border of Iraq, we still like each other’s statuses, keep in touch through text messages, and I visit about once a year.

We used to smoke hookah in Iraq, too. We spent all of our time together and became brothers. In many ways, I know him better than anyone else on the planet. And I’m sure he can say the same about me.

But there’s no timetable for getting over the trauma of war – and there are stories that people don’t want to tell, especially when they’ve secretly been feeling alone.

My buddy is a gregarious, outgoing guy, the life of the party. My visits with him are usually joined by many others: his friends or mine who just want to join in on our celebrations – of surviving the war, of staying best friends, of keeping true to our promises to always look after one another.

But tonight, for whatever reason, it is just us, and there’s a story he wants to share.

Before I was assigned to his team after serving in a different part of Iraq, my friend was ambushed while on patrol. He got out and shot, not knowing whom he was hitting or whom with him was being hit. But he learned right away that his vehicle gunner was shot, and his friend, too. My buddy held his body as the life drained from him all the way from the ambush site to the helicopter that took him away.
I’ve never heard this tale. I’m shocked that it has never been spoken. But I’m happy he’s shared it. He needs this therapy to get better. I will continue to be here for him. I will sleep without silencing my cellphone. He promises to call if he needs.

In regards to my own trauma, I’m better now, I’m happy to report. I’ve been well and happy for a very long time. But even I’ve forgotten that there are camouflaged wounds on our warriors that most of us will never see.

Connect with Dario online:
Personal Website (Free Writing, Podcast, Dario in the Media, Biography, Books, Blogs)
20 Something Magazine (Editor-in-Chief, Creator)
JMWW Literary Journal (Senior Nonfiction Editor)
The Veterans Writing Project (Instructor, Nonfiction Editor)
LinkedIn (Professional Stuff)
Facebook (Be my friend?)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Be the Beacon

I’ve talked in the past about the many people who, probably unknowingly, changed my life with just a little bit of care and concern, and I’d just like to revisit this topic again.

I’m assuming that you, as a visitor to this site, fall into one of three categories: you’re someone who is dealing with the trauma of war, you’re a family member or friend of someone who is dealing with the trauma of war, or you’re someone who is interested in looking for information on this topic and have some sort of general interest in what Not Alone does.

All of you, dear friends, can be the beacon – you can be the ones to help out the vets (or fellow vets) who need us. I’ll share with you one of my recent experiences, not to gloat about how much I care, but to simply show how easy it can be, if you apply the awareness you have on the issues from being one of these three categories of visitors to our site. 

Two weeks ago I went to get my oil changed, a routine occurrence for anyone who, like me, lives in the Baltimore / D.C. area (we’re always commuting. Too many of us. Sigh). One of the workers at the shop walked with me to my car. He noticed my Marine Corps sticker and Iraq Campaign Medal license plates.

“Is that you?” the man asked, pointing at the rear license plate.

I had just gone for one of those quick, five minute oil changes. I really wasn’t interested in talking too much. But I didn’t think that this man was a vet, too. I sensed a deeper question behind what he was asking.  “Yeah, man. 8 years and 40 pounds ago. Why do you ask?” I replied.

“I had a cousin who was in Afghanistan. He’s been very messed up since returning.”

We talked about his cousin. He described all the usual symptoms: hard time reintegrating, refusal to seek help through the VA, too much self-medication. I told him about Not Alone and what they do – anonymous and free e-counseling and many other resources – and I encouraged him to have his cousin get in touch with me.

I’m not a saint. I was very busy that day. And I didn’t really do all that much. All I had was a little bit of empathy and a little bit of concern to just to plant a seed from a two or three minute conversation.
Maybe his cousin will call me. Maybe he’ll go to this site. Maybe it’ll save his life. Who knows? I’d rather know I did something at least, than worry about what might happen because of what I did not do.
We’re everywhere, folks. There are two million of us who have been “over there.” In the next couple months and years, we’ll all be home. Who knows what the positive outcomes of a little bit of your help might be?

Conversely, I don’t think anyone can disagree about what the outcome will be if we as a nation turn a blind eye.

Connect with Dario online:
Personal Website (Free Writing, Podcast, Dario in the Media, Biography, Books, Blogs)
20 Something Magazine (Editor-in-Chief, Creator)
JMWW Literary Journal (Senior Nonfiction Editor)
The Veterans Writing Project (Instructor, Nonfiction Editor)
LinkedIn (Professional Stuff)
Facebook (Be my friend?)

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Truck Driver

In my crazy days after the war, when I was wild with anxiety, stress, and rage, I’d spend my days with co-workers and townies at a bar named the Treehouse. One such normal night, early off work, I traveled there.

The Treehouse stunk of the usual environment even though it was still relatively early. Classic rock played over fuzzy quality wall speakers and the Keno board intermittently flashed different numbers on the wall behind me. Underneath the epically-sized painting of a forest scene on the far side, some regulars made out and fondled each other in a booth. Ms. Pacman continued her desperate search for Mr. Pacman and some twenty-somethings screamed at each other near the Golden Tee arcade game with the busted screen – busted from overuse and abuse.

Still the first one of my fellow servers here at the bar (I had paid someone to do my side work at the end of the shift at the restaurant), I sat alone, staring at the muted TVs, two vodka and Red Bulls down, now guzzling a Guinness.

I noticed the man next me being presented a large dinner, t-bone steak with all the trimmings. It was 10:30 at night.

“Damn, that looks good,” I said. “That’s a big meal for so late, isn’t it?” I asked lightheartedly.
The man sat stoically, not turning from his plate. “Yeah, I drive trucks. I’m used to eating all sorts of weird hours.”

Maybe because I was feeling particularly sad – or entitled to be sad because of my recent experiences in Iraq – I replied, “I know what you’re saying. I was in Iraq. I had to eat at odd hours all the time, too.” Perhaps I was trying to validate the lonely feelings and negative behaviors I often acted out that brought me to this bar every night. Maybe I was trying to one-up him to earn some sort of praise or sympathy.
He stabbed his meat and began slicing it with the dull kitchenware. “Yeah, I was in Vietnam. After three Purple Hearts they sent me home,” he said, his voice trailing off. And suddenly I felt kind of dumb.

I wrecked myself for years because that’s all I could do. I know now that it’s called self-medication. And yeah, I went through some s*** in Iraq. But damn, how could I compare my experiences to those of a man who just coldly mentions his wounds? How often did this man look for sympathy or act a fool like me? I could never know. But I could know that, compared to him, I think I was acting pretty dumb.
Because I was made uncomfortable by this man, and because I was humbled by him, I paid my tab and went home early just that one night.

You never know how bad someone has had it. There’s always someone who has it worse than you.

Connect with Dario online:
Personal Website (Free Writing, Podcast, Dario in the Media, Biography, Books, Blogs)
20 Something Magazine (Editor-in-Chief, Creator)
JMWW Literary Journal (Senior Nonfiction Editor)
The Veterans Writing Project (Instructor, Nonfiction Editor)
LinkedIn (Professional Stuff)
Facebook (Be my friend?)