The Riggs Blog

Finding Our Connections to Returning Soldiers and Veterans

By Christina Biedermann, Psy.D.

As I have been amassing a set of papers and interviews from the presenters of the 2012 Fall Conference at the Austen Riggs Center entitled, Untold Stories, Hidden Wounds: War Trauma and Its Treatment, I have been reflecting on one of the conference aims, to find our connections to the soldiers and veterans who were—and still are—fighting on our behalf a world away from Stockbridge, the small town in Western Massachusetts where we gathered.

Whenever a person or persons belonging to a group carry out a task related to the larger group’s functioning, there exists the possibility for thoughts, feelings, and experiences to be split off and dissociated, held by the subgroup.  When those experiences are threatening, as they are in war, this provides some sense of security to the larger group.  It is, however, a false and brittle sense of safety that leaves everyone vulnerable.  Soldiers return feeling alienated and alone, rather than appreciated or joined, and the citizens they have represented are left without a full understanding of their worlds and the complexities and threats therein.  Just like an individual struggling with dissociation, citizens who remain unaware and disconnected from the experiences of those fighting for them are without crucial information necessary to fully participate in their lives and communities.  This kind of dissociation deprives and hurts everyone.

Rediscovering our connections to soldiers and veterans in a felt way is one means of mending these ruptures.  At the conference, we watched Return, an evocative, award-winning film by local filmmaker Liza Johnson, and listened to the perspectives of philosophers, clinicians, and survivors of trauma regarding its devastating effects, particularly when in its aftermath the traumatized feel alone, misunderstood, and alienated from their communities, when the connection between what they have endured and the people they have endured it on behalf of has been severed.  We strove to reflect upon these disconnections and what motivates them in order to reestablish these essential bonds. 

There are, of course, many other ways one might do this—attending to international politics and conflicts, participating in the governance of these wars, learning about soldiers’ experiences by reading and/or watching relevant media, hiring a veteran, volunteering in local veterans’ support services, and, finally, simply talking with soldiers and veterans to recognize their service.  It seems not only an opportunity but, perhaps, our duty to reconnect with the parts of ourselves and our worlds these men and women hold for us.

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