Tom Voss, author of Where War Ends: A Combat Veteran’s 2,700-Mile Journey to Heal, sat down with Consciously Unbiased to discuss his cross-country trek to process the trauma he faced during combat, and to raise awareness about issues impacting veterans.
Voss sheds light on how “healing begins when you stop resisting the teachers in your life, no matter their form, and start to get curious,” and why veterans “don’t just go to war to preserve the American way of life; we go to war so civilians don’t have to.”
From transforming trauma into power to overcoming bias about vets, you can listen to the unplugged conversation here, and read below for some important takeaways.
ON THE HARDEST PART OF RETURNING FROM WAR…
“The hardest part for me was the fact that not many people have this experience of fighting. It’s less than 1% of the population that join the military. Even less than that see actual combat. So you feel very, very alone. A lot of veterans end up isolating themselves. Once you do that, it’s pretty much downhill from there—especially if you’re suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or moral injury or traumatic brain injury. That’s why we’re seeing the suicide epidemic of 20 veterans a day who are killing themselves.”
ON THE DEFINITION OF MORAL INJURY…
“The definition of moral injury is witnessing or participating or failing to prevent acts that transgress your moral beliefs or your moral structure. In war, you’re inherently going to be violating your morals. As a child, I know that it’s not okay to take another person’s life. Everyone deserves to be alive. We all agree on that.
That’s lifted when you go into combat, and now it’s our job to kill. You’re in a life-and-death situation in combat where it’s kill or be killed. I had to do things and see things and witness other people doing things that violated my moral compass, and then you have to return to a society where it’s back to being not okay to kill.”
ON HOW PTSD AND MORAL INJURY RUN PARALLEL…
“When you have a violation like that, some of the symptoms are grief, shame, guilt; these things aren’t easily medicated away. I think the problem is people coming back from combat are being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder when they’re suffering from the moral conflicts of war. If someone is depressed, they’re given antidepressants. But the problem is they’re medicating the symptoms, not the root cause. I think that moral injury is the root cause of these symptoms that a lot of the men and women are feeling.”
ON TRANSFORMING TRAUMA INTO POWER…
“The first step [to the healing process] is accepting that this thing happened in my life. So often we have these traumatic experiences and we deny, deny, deny. You have to be able to say, yes, this did happen in my life and now I need to do something about it. That’s taking responsibility.
Once you take responsibility, you’re actually taking control of this thing in your life, because before that it’s just running wild. We mold our lives around the things we don’t like and the things we want to avoid in these traumatic experiences. When you actually grab it and you say, ‘Hey, I’m going to address this,’ that’s taking your power back.”
ON HEALING AS A JOURNEY RATHER THAN A DESTINATION…
“There’s this false notion that one day you’re going to be like, ‘Oh, I’m healed,’ and then everything is better. But it’s an ongoing process. [Trauma] changes your perspective and the trajectory of your life. You can change that into a positive thing. That’s what we’re starting to call ‘post traumatic growth.’ How do we become more resilient because of these things, and also how do we use it in a positive way to help others?”
ON THE BIASES VETERANS FACE…
“Unfortunately, there are a lot of biases surrounding veterans, whether it’s being mentally unstable or dangerous. I think it can be addressed through sharing our stories to help other veterans and the civilian population understand the veteran experience.
PTSD and moral injury are human reactions to very intense, uncommon human experiences. It’s a natural reaction that would happen in the majority of the human population if they experienced [combat] themselves. It’s just that it happens in such a very small percentage of the population that we’re only seeing it in people that experience it.”
ON THE POWER OF MEDITATION TO HEAL…
“The actual physical practice of meditation is really important because, for me, it gave me space from these traumatic events. Before I started meditating, I would get triggered and swept up in the emotion of a past [combat] experience.
Breath-based meditations especially can bring you back to the present moment, because the breath is directly linked to our emotions. When we can control the breath, we can actually control the emotion that’s going on within us. It just gives you a heightened level of sensitivity to what is going on in the mind that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else.”
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