About Alan Basham:
Alan Basham is a recently retired faculty member in the Department of Psychology at Eastern Washington University, where he helped to train Mental Health Counselors and School Counselors for over twenty years. He has presented multiple times at the Forum monthly meetings. At the height of the Vietnam War, Alan joined the U.S. Navy to be trained as a hospital corpsman whose specialty was sea/air rescue and medical evacuation with the Marine Corps. In Vietnam, he was one of a handful of Fleet Marine Force medevac corpsmen (MAG-16 Flying Docs) who flew medevac missions with USMC helicopter crews. When asked whether he thinks of himself as Navy or Marine Corps, Alan replies, “Both, but I’ve got green blood. Semper Fi.”
Doc’s Corner 1: Singing in the Darkness
I was wandering today through the riverside woods for my usual early morning walk with Sofie, enjoying the peaceful quiet of the forest near my home. I was reflecting on how I am less hyper-vigilant when in the outdoors than I used to be, more able just to relax and be present to the good stuff around me. I was also aware of a resurging feeling of tension, of apprehension, and of an expectation that something really bad was about to happen. So I asked myself (because there was no one there to talk to except Sofie), where is this coming from? If I’m not just reverting to my previous combat induced psychological states, why am I once again tense, focused, and preparing for the worst? Was I just being “triggered” back into my old survival defenses, or was this about something else? And then it dawned on me, the obvious source of my renewed vigilance that perhaps you are aware of in yourself: We really are under attack by an unseen, pervasive enemy that we currently have no viable defense against. You and I and those we love and the well-being of our country are at risk. Segments of our society are being overrun; others are facing dire circumstances without adequate supplies or reinforcements; the future is unsure and the outcome still unknown. Having thought through what being a veteran means in all this threat and loss, I decided to pass on what I learned in case you might find it helpful.
Unlike many American citizens, we understand some things from our military training and experience that can help us all get through our pandemic time of trial. Whether or not you were ever deployed, in harm’s way, or in active combat, and no matter in which branch of our military you served, you learned some important skills and principles that are needed by our people. You have experience at taking on difficult tasks, on working with teammates to get the job done while trying to ensure everyone’s safety, and on doing your best without certainty of the outcome. You also learned that it’s not about Me, it’s about Us, and that our collective survival and victory depends on everyone doing their part, whether or not they are praised or publicly rewarded. We know what it is to be committed to the task and to each other, what it means to look out for the wounded and helpless, and how not to be overwhelmed by what might crumble others. We have each faced loneliness, fear, and uncertainty, and most of us are convinced that we would not have made it without each other. That’s what we know that we can bring to our people, to help them get through a long, dark night.
So here are some recommendations from Doc to help you help others when you can. First, make good decisions about helping to control the spread of the virus. Think about this as an infantry patrol analogy…..we don’t bunch up on patrol, especially when the threat of attack is imminent, but maintain a good distance in case of incoming or ambush. However, we don’t get too separated, either; keep visual contact with your troops. Yes, we have to limit contact with others (social distancing), but we should avoid isolation. It’s not good for us, and it’s no help to those who need us. Especially, reach out to those who might need to hear from you, even if it’s just to be supportive and encouraging. Second, do your best to be calm and reassuring, but avoid rationalizing or minimizing the severity of the situation. It is because we are able to name hard truth that we can be strong for our citizens. Two things are evident in this case: We cannot respond effectively to a threat we deny exists and great leaders in harm’s way do not panic or become hysterical. Third, take care of yourself so you can be useful in caring for your neighbor. This is no time to be drinking to excess, or to start smoking again, or using drugs to cope, or to be restlessly and aimlessly roaming the night. While those of us with PTSD symptoms are at greatest risk for “coping” in the wrong ways, it can happen to anyone. Now is a good time to check those behaviors, both for ourselves and for those who need us to be there for them. And finally, stay aware. Try to find news reporting that is factual and accurate so you will know what is happening in your state, in your country, and globally. Political infighting is part of our problem, and it’s not very beneficial to unit (or national) cohesion. Rather than debate whose fault it is, let’s be a part of the solution by working with others to take care of our own neighborhoods, families, and community. Remember, the strength of character and commitment in the face of adversity that you gained through military service are much needed by the majority who are not veterans. When life is on the line, the calm wisdom of those who have been there can be a significant source of hope for our people.
As a rule, I tend not to tell war stories, except those that are funny or (like the following true story) seem to have a deeper meaning, even if I’m not sure what it is. Nearly fifty years ago I was flying over the tropical terrain of I Corps in Vietnam. It was pitch black on an emergency night medevac, headed out to who knows where (the pilots knew, thank goodness) in a Marine CH-46 to pick up wounded troops. I was the Doc in the Phrog. There were tracers searching for us from the ground, a little strobe in the bush as our only landing light, and some on-going activity in a hot LZ. As always, we didn’t know what we’d find on the ground or what might hit us as we left with our wounded Marines. We approached the LZ and began dropping from 3000 Ft. to the perimeter the Marines had set up for us. I was staring out the open window looking to provide suppressing fire if needed. I was also singing to myself to stay calm, thinking no one could hear me above the roar of the helicopter. The button to engage my helmet microphone had gotten flipped over and was pressed against my collar bone. Unbeknownst to me, I was being broadcast over the radio frequency linking our medevac flight to the ground units below. As I sang “Be Still My Soul,” a voice on our frequency asked “Who’s singing out there?” Someone on the ground responded, “Don’t stop him. We need all the help we can get down here.” I didn’t know exactly where I was or what was about to happen, but the situation was very dangerous. I knew that I could trust the crew and the Marine patrol on the ground. I knew that my help was needed, and I believed that it was worth the risk, whatever took place. I hope you get my intention in telling this story. Sometimes our efforts can be far more helpful than we realize, especially in dark and difficult times. Even if you (like me) are feeling the effects of ever-present danger, death, and facing the unknown, it is important to remember to sing (not always literally, of course), even if it mostly helps our neighbors. Stay positive, stay connected, stay alert, and stay focused on the task at hand. Our country needs what we know and the strengths that we carry because we are veterans.
Doc’s Corner 2: The Courage to Journey Within
I have always held a great deal of respect for adventurers and explorers, those who willingly head out into the unknown to find what might be found Out There. Tales abound about the exploits of our heroic travelers and their discoveries, findings that brought what was unknown and not yet understood into the light of knowledge. You’re probably aware of many of these adventurers yourself…..Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Commodore Perry, Kit Carson and other mountain men, Lewis and Clark, and NASA astronauts. Although some of our most important explorers never physically set out into the wide expanse of the unknown, they nonetheless made important discoveries in the realm of science that benefit us all…..Jonas Salk, Tesla and Edison, Marie Curie, Pasteur, and Albert Einstein, for example. I’ve had the opportunity to do a bit of exploring myself, as have many of our Spokane Veterans Forum allies, mostly hiking solo into the western mountain ranges. And along the trails I’ve had plenty of time to discover a once uncharted landscape that presented as much challenge as backpacking into any wilderness…..the challenge of coming to understand what was going on inside myself.
I firmly believe that to be healed and whole, we must pay attention to our conduct, decisions and actions, all of which tend to impact the external world that we share. But I am convinced also that no amount of behavioral control can substitute for understanding what has happened to us (the experiences we have internalized), how it has shaped us, and what defensive techniques we have developed to cope with the consequences of our experience. To understand ourselves more fully and to discover the roots of our behavioral and attitudinal difficulties, we have to mount an intentional journey of self-discovery by going to a sometimes really scary but grandly adventurous place we tend not to go…..into ourselves.
Now before you dismiss this idea as the psycho-babble ramblings of a misguided professional counselor, stay with me for just a bit more. My experience of being in the military (and perhaps yours) is that at its best the military mindset is no-nonsense, task focused, matter-of-fact, and structured. From the beginning of training we are expected to shut down our personal feelings, especially of sorrow or fear; to build an effective team that can get the job done, whatever it is; and to focus together on the tasks at hand. Too much emotional processing at the wrong time brings inefficiency and resultant failure. But in our personal lives, especially when we are going through a “valley of the shadow” experience, not to look within ourselves at what is really going on is a big mistake. Unfortunately, many people (especially males) are taught from a much younger age that feelings don’t matter or are dangerous, and that mature people don’t have disruptive inner dynamics. Wrong. Trying to learn about myself, to heal of past trauma, and to develop any form of personal peace requires that I consider what’s going on in my “inner kingdom”. And that necessitates a willingness on my part to explore my thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and the effect of past experiences. It may be intimidating and unknown, but I need to be brave enough to journey into my own internal undiscovered territory.
So here are a few things to keep in mind if you get curious about discovering what lies within. First, the belief that the emotional experience of life is not important is seriously
misguided. In truth, whole sections of the human brain are given to creating and integrating the non-linear aspects of awareness we call “emotion.” To pay attention only to one’s logical thoughts while rejecting the wisdom of insight is a serious mistake. It’s like blocking half your allies from being in the fight.
Second, when you set out to discover your interior kingdom, leave Shame and Guilt out of the journey. Shame is about blaming and rejecting self because of who I am, a general sense of inadequacy and inferiority. Healthy guilt is about blame for something I have said or done, or left undone, that caused harm to others. Unhealthy guilt is a constant tendency to criticize, blame or find fault with myself. It doesn’t help to discover unknown truths about Self if your purpose is to condemn and destroy what you find. There will be time enough for regret and accountability, but mounting an expedition to discover what must be conquered and destroyed in oneself doesn’t bring healing. Understanding why I am the way I am and what has happened to bring me to this place is the goal of the expedition. Think of yourself as a liberator, not a conqueror.
Third, it’s important to have someone to talk with whose judgment and compassion you trust. Having a close ally to help you with the journey makes all the difference. Remember that sometimes cave explorers or deep sea divers are connected by a rescue line linked to the surface. Going deep into your own inner experience works best if you are connected in the process.
Finally, be kind to yourself as you journey into your memories, hurts, fears, courage, and survival. Life can and does affect us, often positively and joyously, but sometimes cruelly. This journey will get personal. You may have to explore the why of your temper, your use of substances to change your mood state, a tendency to isolate and operate as a loner, how easily others control you, or who knows what else! And this exploration can be somewhat scary, which is partly why many people never examine their own lives. Not us, though. We know what courage is and what a grand adventure is. We are on our way to discover even more positive things about ourselves, to identify where the damage has been done to us along the way, how we have learned to defend against the hurt, and how those very defenses have become part of the problem. All we need to do is to turn the direction of our journey inward. If you expect to find monsters in there, don’t be surprised if instead you find allies or an angel who has been waiting for you to show up.
Doc’s Corner 3: Good Grief!
In our previous edition (The Courage to Journey Within) I described the importance of taking a good look inside oneself (without guilt or shame!) to understand what was happening in our thoughts, feelings and attitudes. One of the unexpected discoveries many veterans eventually come across in this journey is that they are carrying the pain of unresolved loss and hurt, and that this unhealed injury is contributing to current difficulties in life.
Perhaps you’ll recall that I flew as a medevac Doc with the Marines in Vietnam. In the spring of 1971 our Phrog dropped in next to a village somewhere in I Corps to pick up our second round of injured persons from that same LZ. I was ready for wounded Marines but not for the patients they brought me this time. A little boy and a little girl about five or six years old came in on one stretcher, both covered in shrapnel wounds and clearly affected by blast. They had received minimal medical care and were bleeding out. My heart sank because I knew immediately that I could not possibly save them both. I worked as fast as I could as we raced toward the field hospital, but my initial triage perception was correct. I had to choose which one to save…..so one child died and one lived. And something died inside me that day, too, despite everything I had already seen, because I grieved silently about that tragedy for years.
When we lose something or someone valuable to us, meaningful to us, important to us, we experience loss…..and this loss is painful. We have each known significant loss in our lives, some from our military experiences, others from the painful events of life in general, and some from both. Loss produces anger, sorrow, and sometimes a feeling of being unfocused and adrift. These are normal, emotion-filled responses to loss. When we journey through the process of discovering why we are angry, embracing our sorrow, and learning to live with the reality of the loss, healing actually happens. The problem we are facing within is grief; the gradual process of healing is called mourning. And No, we don’t want to spend our lives wallowing in self-pity (that’s the argument often given by those who don’t want to let the hurt be true). But not to address grief is to give it the power to block our path forward.
What are the signs in a person that s/he is experiencing unresolved grief? Here are a few, remembering that each individual will exhibit a unique pattern of symptoms:
- Unwillingness to talk about the loss
- Preoccupation with the lost person or thing
- On-going physiological stress reaction
- Angry acting out (physically or verbally)
- Directionless and ungrounded path (drifting)
- Inability to function as one had before the loss
- Increased substance abuse
- Withdrawal and isolation
- Refusing to accept the new reality that loss creates
Some losses are tangible (someone keys your new car or you are diagnosed with a serious illness), some are intangible (the loss of innocence and hopefulness that can accompany trauma), some are relational (loss of a loved one through death or break-up), and some are internal (the loss of a personal faith). The most damaging losses are those that we stuff away without ever talking to a trusted ally about them. Please remember that when we bury our feelings, we bury them alive, where they continue to adversely affect our progress. Loss leads to grief. Grief never ends if it does not heal. Grief is healed through mourning.
There are four main tasks if you choose to heal your grief, whether it is new or about things that happened years ago. First, you must accept the reality of the loss. Hindrance to healing comes from refusal to let what is true be true. You don’t have to like it or feel good about it, but you must not deny it. Knowing the truth does help set us free, although (as I’ve discovered) the truth quite often beats us up before it sets us free. Tell yourself the truth about what you’ve lost anyway and see what happens. Second, talk out and express freely the effects of the loss, including its accompanying emotional pain. What can hinder you here is the refusal to feel. Grief is an emotional problem and will not fully heal if you avoid your own emotional experience, past and present. Third, adjust to a life and a world in which what is lost is missing, no longer present, gone. It does no good to cling to the past, wishing to regain what will never be true again. The potential hindrance to growth here is refusing to adapt to a new reality. Fourth, emotionally relocate what was lost to the past, even if it was a person or thing of great value to you. Remember to be grateful for the goodness you experienced before the loss occurred. Then move on with life, becoming more and more aware of the goodness that exists in the present. Hindrance to growth here is the refusal to accept, value, and love what is new. If I am anchored by unresolved past hurt, I am imprisoned in the present and unable to reach for the best future.
Fifty years after my most tragic medevac, I have walked through what seemed at times like endless sorrow and anger about little ones caught in the crossfire. Whatever you believe about soldiers and military readiness, I will always believe that children should not be allowed in the vicinity of fire fights. But they are, in every war. It took me a long time to let it be true that children are among the most frequent casualties in combat. I finally let myself tell a few friends the story I’m writing about here, which I delayed for years because it always made me cry. The sadness of their broken little bodies was hard enough to witness, but having to choose because I could not save them both was devastating, and I never got over its effects. I had grieved for years but never mourned their fate, or my own. However, by talking about it with those I trust, I was able to let the feelings be current but recognize that the events were history. I learned and I gradually changed. I now see more clearly how vulnerable children are in general, and how much each of us is responsible for watching out for them. Now when I see the young children in my peaceful, friendly neighborhood racing up and down the block on their bikes and little scooters, whooping and hollering and being free to be children, I remember my little wounded siblings on that flight. I can’t change what happened to them and to me, but I am so grateful for the safety, and nurturance, and hopefulness of my neighbors’ little ones. The memory is still tender, but I don’t live on that Phrog now. I live surrounded by children on a peaceful street near the woods, albeit with a scarred heart.
Remember, if you never grieve, it can only be because nothing matters to you. If and when you experience grief, it is a clear sign that (especially regarding people) you actually love and are emotionally attached. So take stock and wander in the direction of your own losses. After the truth has gotten your attention, it will set you on a brighter path, but only after you have named the shadows in your valley.
Doc’s Corner 4: Gentle Strength
One of my favorite sayings is, “There is nothing as strong as gentleness, and nothing as gentle as true strength.” Though I came across that saying for the first time later in my life, I discovered its meaning long ago, during the first year after I was mustered out of the military. And I learned it, not from a book or a teacher, but from a horse, a particularly anxious, mistrusting and ready-to-fight little mare named Baby Doll.
Like many veterans do upon discharge, I started classes immediately at a college near Camp Pendleton. I was also hired to be the Program Director at a ranch-themed children’s camp on weekends, supervising the staff of college and high school students who worked directly with the 100 or so 8-11 year-olds who arrived by bus each Friday evening. The staff ran the activities, monitored safety and “playing nice”, and intervened to solve problems. As “Deputy Doc”, I told stories and led campfire songs, kept the schedule running smoothly, and functioned as the camp nurse for the occasional scraped knee. During the week I lived in a house on the ranch, my quiet roommate a construction carpenter who was wrangler for the horses the children got to ride.
Most of the camp’s horses had been donated, were older and easy going, and were very safe to be around. Not Baby Doll. She had been given to the ranch by a family who had been unable to train her to ride. She was small for a quarter horse, and quick to kick or bite. Her previous owners had used a harsh bit in an effort to control her, so she would never allow a bit in her mouth. She had scars from a whip or rope near her withers and seemed to be afraid of everything. Because the campers could not ride Baby Doll, feeding her and paying for veterinary services was untenable, so the camp administration thought to send her on to a different home; I feared she might end up as glue or dog food. To prevent this, I offered to pay for all her expenses if I could have the school year to try to save her. And that is how my lessons started.
I placed Baby Doll in a smaller corral where she would not fight the other horses, and put Big Red in with her. He was an old, ambling-along-peacefully plow horse, powerful but gentle as a lamb. I took care of their food and water every morning and night. I always had an apple or a carrot or sugar cube when I climbed up on the corral fence to talk with her. It took several days before she would come near me, but the treats helped. Over time she learned the sound of my ’67 Chevelle Malibu rumbling down the road coming in, and would trot over to the fence to wait for me. Eventually I could ride ol’ Red in their corral as she learned that I was safe to be around. We never did try to put a saddle on her or a bit in her mouth, but within a matter of weeks I could slip a wide loop over her head and walk her around the corral. Then I took to having her walk along with me as I rode another horse around the hills in the evening. By springtime she followed me around the corral like a puppy dog. I could brush her, check her hooves (which did take some gradual getting used to!), and even look into her ears.
I took some time letting her get used to a blanket, which I wore around my shoulders for a few weeks. Eventually she let me put the blanket on her, and I led her by a simple leather halter. By late spring I could ride her, but only with a saddle blanket and moccasins and that halter……never a saddle, a bridle and bit, or spurs. She got in line behind Big Red on the trail rides and never once bucked or startled. When I left the ranch to transfer to a university, Baby Doll had become a favorite of the staff and was no longer wild and untouchable. Even a child could ride her as she walked along with the other horses, though she always wanted to be with Big Red.
I thought at the time that I was rescuing that battered little mare, but years later I have come to understand how much she did to save me. I was skittish, too, and thought everyone and everything was prone to hurt me. Like Baby Doll, I wouldn’t let anyone get close. I realized over time that the children’s camp had been the perfect place to begin to stand down. It was beautiful. I could be alone in the woods or find solitude down by the stream. I could ride out over the hills at sunset, and I had a safe place to live. My meals were provided at the cookhouse where the ranch hands ate. I was 23, and they were a lot older, many of them veterans or merchant mariners. Learning that I was a Marine Corps doc who had just returned from Vietnam led them to treat me with tremendous kindness while giving me the distance I needed. I went to school during the week, lived close to nature in a quiet valley, and was surrounded by happy children all weekend. Looking back, it seems as if someone had written a prescription for healing that perfectly suited me.
So, while Baby Doll had me to nurture her back to peacefulness, I had a year marked by the strength and kindness of those around me at the ranch. As I later studied psychology in college, I read about trauma and the techniques that help with healing. I discovered that I had already been helping that little mare simply by being kind, and consistent, and patient—the strength that comes from being gentle. Decades later I reflected on that hard, first year back in the civilian world. I realized that much of my own healing had come from the kindness, understanding and protection of strong people who were gentle when I was hypervigilant and feeling lost.
I hope you take this to heart, especially if you pride yourself on being “tough.” Endurance, faithfulness, commitment…..these are all good things that can require us to be genuinely tough at times. But being harsh, critical, and abusive toward others is actually weakness at its core, because it can only destroy that which is good. Being kind, and patient, and encouraging are far more powerful because they make things better. Try bringing to others the gentleness that is born of true strength, and relying on the strength that emerges from being gentle. And for what it’s worth, it has been my experience that Spokane Veterans Forum seeks to operate just that way.