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: 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: 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.