Food for Thought on the Mind of a War Fighter

Had the most thought-provoking appointment a while back. It was a TBI appointment that I had waited months to get. I was looking forward to it because even though I have had a fair amount of blast exposure I never thought that it really effected me. If it could explain some of the questions I have about how the hell I am narcoleptic than great.  I was also all about going because it was at a hospital two hours away and I knew that I was going to be able to get away from work where has-beens like myself drift around aimlessly waiting for uncle sam to put them out on the streets.

It started out like every other 100 doctors appointments ive had lately where the doctor goes down a list of symptoms and I check all the boxes that apply to me. I already did the neuro-psyc test. No brain damage. Fine motor skills are not so hot but I am never going to be a surgeon anyways.I have done the MRIs and never heard anything about them so I assume those were good to go.

He starts going into how its impossible to tell exactly how bad TBI is after the fact and the lasting effects. He asked me if I didn’t mind answering a couple more questions. I was ready to zone out and provide my yes or no answers when he asked me if I liked sports? I said of course. Whats your team? I said any of the Boston teams. Then he painted me a scenario.  So if we were at a bar having a couple of beers talking about the Celtics and a beautiful woman in a short skirt, high heels, and a small top with her boobs spilling out walks by us what do you think would happen? I almost laughed out loud not because of the question but because he was an older man who was getting a little too detailed about the description of this woman. Clearly to make a point but I was still caught a little off guard. I answered well “we would look.” He asked my why is that?  I didn’t have an answer. Partly because I was worried he might elaborate more on this fictitious woman and distract me from the point her was clearly trying to make but because It’s just what happens. So then he went into the explanation that had me dumbfounded the two-hour drive back home.

So we have two parts to our brain. The instinctual side and the rational side. What separates us from animals is the fact that we can reason where all their actions are driven by instinct. So in the case of the scenario with the beautiful woman you would look. You find someone attractive your instinct says procreate. Now the rational side will take back over after you look because you know you can’t just chase her down and try to make babies. That is not acceptable behavior obviously. Whats important to see is how quick those instincts kicked in. In the middle of this sports conversation we both just stopped and looked. We couldn’t control it and our rational side got pushed aside for a second.

So then he broke it down for how this affects us in the aftermath of a deployment. He explained how it all boils down to the fight or flight instinct that is in all of us. All animals use this instinct for survival. We as humans are no different. In the extreme nature of a deployments we actually rely heavily on this instinct. You adapt to your surroundings and your brain gets rewired to be more instinctual than reasonable. He went on to explain how the instinctual part of your brain reacts much faster then your reasonable one so that you can deal with the threat in time to survive.No one rationally wants to fight for their survival but your instinct kicks in and it allows you to do all of those things that training has taught you with little thought. You just do. I thought about any time I was in a firefight. The memory is always a little hazy and hours feel like minutes. I know if you have ever been in a good TIC that went your way afterwards you sit down with your buddies and bullshit about it. Through all of the collective bits an pieces of what you all remember the whole story gets told but you couldn’t possibly do it because you weren’t thinking a whole lot.

He also said that the problem is that you eventually go home. Your rational brain knows that your home and safe but your instincts don’t ever get the memo. So your brain is now rewired to do something that is no longer necessary so there are effects of this in the way your mind operates and does not work well in normal society. So he asked me some things where It might be a problem in my life.

Lashing out in anger. Instincts kick in and precise a threat and you quickly respond to fight that threat. Something I know a lot of people like me do is lash out in anger at loved ones in the heat of the moment. Yelling, saying hurtful things, in some cases becoming violent. Later on you think about it and don’t know why you got so angry. Your loved ones are clearly not a threat. Why get so angry so quick? That asshole of a instinctual brain can’t distinguish one threat from another but any form of aggression in your environment it fires because that was what kept you alive.

Hypervigilence. You know your home and safe and that weird-looking trash on the side of the road isn’t an IED but you catch a glance of it out of the corner of your eye and before you know it you have swerved two lanes over. Or when you’re in a crowded bar and you know that it’s just crowded but you start to feel uneasy. I know I never wanted to be surrounded by anyone but other american soldiers overseas because anyone could be a threat.

Sleep. Think of the places you slept and the schedules you kept. You were in the same tiny strongpoint outnumbered 2-1 by the ANA and ALP during a time with a lot of insider shootings. Or you patrolled at all hours of the night to keep your patrol patterned unpredictable. Or you had two guard shifts a night at the COP where you were responsible for the safety of those who were getting their turn to sleep. Is it any wonder you wake up 6 times a night?

I thought of another 20 or so where I could apply this theory but damn it made so much sense to me.  So simple. Seems like it could end up a little to convenient for people to blame unrelated shortcomings but damn did it make a whole lot of sense. It may not fix a damn thing but getting a good understanding on who you are is important. Food for thought.

3 thoughts on “Food for Thought on the Mind of a War Fighter

  1. Dude, I feel like I’m reading about myself. How the hell can you make so much sense yet my docs at the VA suck. One story at a time, you are helping me to become a better person, father, husband and less entitled veteran.

    Thanks bro.


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