When working with combat veterans in the Veterans Administration system, one thing I discovered both going into a war zone and in coming back was the weight of the bags one has to carry home. I remember distinctly having three bags (A, B, C) that I deployed with to Kandahar, Afghanistan, and how difficult it was trying to get from point A to point B with those heavy bags. They each weighed 100 lbs. or so, and of course, you cannot leave your bags unattended in an airport. Ah, the dilemma of even trying to get to Kandahar…
When I returned home, I not only had those bags, but I also had another bag that I call the E-Bag. The E-Bag is the emotional bag that you carry back home, and compared to the other bags, the E-bag can be even heavier.
What's amazing is that most of us who have deployed don't even know we brought the E-Bag back with us. We were so focused on doing our job, staying alive, protecting our country, and so excited to see family that we dropped off our A, B and C bags only to realize months later that the elephant in the room was the E-Bag.
Hyper-vigilance, hyper-arousal, situational awareness, death, pain, suffering, finances, relationships, legal issues… you name it. It's all in the E-Bag. We try to hide it, act like it's not even in our closet, and stuff it away, yet symptoms such as sleepless nights, anxiety, worry, and depression all hit us like they came out of nowhere. Instead, it was there all along – hiding in our E-Bag.
We can act like it doesn't exist, but then symptoms only get worse. We can stuff it and stuff it, but that only creates more pressure until finally, it explodes. Then we hit the point where people may give us ultimatums. Those closest to us provide threats of "love" that if we don't "do something," they may leave us, all in an attempt to get us to deal with our E-Bag.
Let's do a little test, shall we? Do you take over-the-counter medications for your symptoms? Need a lot of coffee or power drinks to wake up in the morning? Take more prescription meds than your parents? Wonder what would happen if you actually acted on the thoughts inside your head? Experience financial issues, relationship problems, health issues? How packed is your E-Bag?
Instead of trying to stuff it, here are a few tips in dealing with your E-Bag:
- Don't ignore it. I've worked with many Vietnam veterans who thought time would heal everything. It doesn't. Time gives you the opportunity to do something with it, and what you do with it matters.
- Don't go it alone. We talk about leaving no one behind, so why do we come home thinking we have to shoulder the E-Bag alone? It makes no sense. Let those around who love you help you. Resources abound such as Military.com, VA, USO, and a host of others. Two strands really are better than one.
- Give yourself grace. In theater, it took time for both training and experience to prepare you for what to expect. And honestly, even then, sometimes we weren't prepared. So give yourself time to decompress and "unlearn" some of those learned behaviors. We often up-train but experience very little down-training. Let's be honest, how many of us haven't responded to certain sounds or alarms back home? It's all about context. What saved you in war may not serve you well back home.
- We all have blind spots, even Lamborghini's, and I know you are a lean, mean fighting machine. So don't act like you have to be perfect or protect everyone. You served valiantly, now let others serve you. Why in the world do you think the Veteran Service Organizations and a multitude of other not for profit 5013 (c) organizations came about in the first place? Because they care and they want to make a difference. LET THEM.
- Get off the couch and tie your shoes. The hardest part of exercise is getting up, tying your shoes and exercising. Nobody wants to do it in the beginning, but once it's done, they feel so much better. It's amazing how endorphins work and avoidance is one of the primary culprits of our E-Bag. So, tie your shoes and get out there. We cannot afford to leave anyone behind.
- Finally, seek professional help if needed. Consider attending a Project Sanctuary retreat for the family or for couples. It's an amazing experience to relax and take the pressure off the pressure valve of your E-Bag.
LTC (Dr). David F. Tharp is a two-time National and Congressional award winner and volunteer national board member with Project Sanctuary, a not-for-profit organization that holds free retreats for post-deployment military families and couples. Project Sanctuary and a host of other organizations are designed specifically for you, to help take the pressure off your E-Bag and help with the reintegration process.