A few days ago, we profiled Oregon National Guardsman Eddie Black, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1989 to 2004 before joining the Guard. Today, he is the state coordinator for a resiliency program that helps service members reintegrate. He also works at a domestic violence prevention group for veterans with PTSD.
As part of our focus on veterans, service people, and mental health, I asked Black about his experience with therapy — both seeking it himself, and counseling other veterans. Here’s what he said, in his own words.
On coming home, with your head still in a war zone
“My mind was always looking for the threat. The first weekend I was back, my girlfriend wanted us to go to a comedy club with some friends. They drove and I followed them in my car. My friend was driving like a crazy person, weaving in and out of traffic, and I was trying to keep up. When I got to the club I went straight to the bar and had a shot of Jack. My girlfriend was like, are you ok? What’s up? And I took a deep breath and I just started listing things we had passed in the ten miles between the house and the club, all of these things that were potential problems and dangers. ‘Down that first alleyway we passed there were three people. One was wearing a backpack. There were two people watching cars from on top of the overpass we went under. Did you see that car on the side of the road?’
“That constant vigilance wears you out after a time. A lot of people say they can’t sleep when they come back. Me? I couldn’t stay awake. I was constantly tired from paying attention to everything around me all the time.”
On faces and bodies
“In Iraq, it’s not as easy as looking for the bad guy. Because nobody wears enemy combatant uniforms, they all look like civilians. So how do you tell when somebody’s a civilian or when they’re a threat to you? You have to start paying attention at a very small level, to every little thing that might tip you off that this person might be a threat. And so I’m constantly doing that.
“For the first two years I was back I couldn’t remember anyone’s face. Because I’m not looking at your face. I don’t care about your face. Because you can smile at me all day long while you’re pulling a gun at me. I’ve seen that happen. So I’m looking at your hands, I’m looking at your feet, at your shoulders, how’s your hips? Are you postured to lunge at me? Do you have anything hidden behind your back? That’s what I’m looking for. I don’t care about your face.”
On seeking therapy
“I didn’t know I needed any readjustment in the beginning. The only reason I went to a therapist for the first time was because I could see that something was wrong with some of the soldiers around me in my unit. Drinking problems, relationship problems, employment problems. I found a therapist and went to talk to her to get some information for my guys. And as she was talking to me she kept asking me, do you ever get angry? I was like, yeah, I get angry, everyone gets angry. She was pretty smart, and she kept asking me for examples, and finally she pulled out of me an example of a time when I wanted to hit an old lady in the grocery store because she walked in front of me without saying excuse me. I told the person I was shopping with, I’ll go sit in the truck. I’ll just wait, I can’t be inside because I’m too angry. As I was telling this story, I kind of stopped. The therapist asked if I wanted to come in to talk more the next week, and i was like, ‘uh, yeah. Let’s see if there’s something going on here.’”
On anger in the body
“When you’re in a war zone, it’s very useful to be able to not feel anything. You have to learn to ignore your body, and not feel that pain. So that’s what we do. We learn to shut off the feelings in our body, and the more amped up we get, the less feeling we have. That was very true of me. When I got back I got a job bartending, and one night I was cleaning up, I was stressed, and I saw some blood on the bar. I started cleaning it up, and as I was wiping in circles around the bar I kept getting more and more angry because I kept cleaning up more blood. It would show up in places I had just cleaned up. I was like, where is this coming from? It didn’t cross my mind that it could be coming from me until I looked down, and I had a big old chunk of glass stuck in my hand. I didn’t even feel it.
“Therapy helped me to feel my body again. That’s a very big thing we do in our domestic violence program. These guys just cannot feel their bodies. I ask them what physical warning signs they have for their anger. And they’re like, I know I’m angry when my ears start to get hot. Well, you’re pretty far gone when your ears get hot. You’ve skipped the middle stages and you’re in the atomic stages. And there’s no such thing as anger management when you’re at level 10. There’s only, I’m going to start ripping people apart. So I try to help them recognize their physical signs before they get to that stage.”