“Going from war to everyday life turned out to be much more complicated than it was for me to go from everyday life to war.” – Bryan A. Wood
In his memoir, Unspoken Abandonment, Bryan A. Wood brings his readers on a riveting journey through the war in Afghanistan and back. For Bryan, life in Afghanistan was miserable: “hours and days of utter boredom sandwiching seconds of pure terror; that is life in Afghanistan.” But upon return home, the state of affairs did not improve. The war was now his transition to civilian life.
Bryan found himself unable to connect with friends whose infuriating black and white view of the war drove a wedge between them. At work, he could no longer derive a sense of purpose from the office job he had once held: “I started looking through the work files…trying to find a purpose to any of them. Strangely, I could not find a single one that seemed to matter.” After witnessing the profound tragedy of war, Bryan’s sense of what mattered in life was uprooted. Referring to the conversations of co-workers he states, “I couldn’t believe the kind of silly bullshit these people thought mattered in life… I couldn’t believe I once thought these same things were important.”
After a few years of feeling isolated and battling post-traumatic stress, Bryan received advice from a friend that would begin his healing process: “If you try to do only for yourself, you’ll only get so far in life. If you reach out to touch other people, you can fix your own soul. Reflecting on this advice, he began dealing with bottled up emotions regarding the war by reading his combat diary for the first time since his return and writing about his experiences.
Self-blame and the feeling of guilt became a major theme in his writing: “How could I have witnessed death, and then just walked away like nothing happened?” This lead him to interpret all of his subsequent suffering as deserving punishments rather than events out of his control. Eventually, Bryan overcame this state of self-blame through counseling, focusing on self-improvement, finding a sense of purpose in a policing career helping children, and most of all, finding a loving and supportive partner.
Bryan’s story on returning home from combat illuminates an overlooked element of veterans’ experiences; the element of guilt and self blame. Although it has not received a great deal of attention until recently, this experience has been encapsulated in the concept of ‘moral injury’. Moral injury is a concept developed by psychologists to build on the Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis which lacks emphasis on self-blame. Moral injury is particularly dangerous since this feeling of moral culpability can lead to self harm – although in Bryan’s case, he did not go as far as deliberate self-harm.
In the face of moral injury, the advice that helped Bryan turn it all around stands strong: “If you try to do only for yourself, you’ll only get so far in life. If you reach out to touch other people, you can fix your own soul.” Moral action is necessarily social action. By letting his walls down, sharing his story, and finding purpose in helping disadvantaged children, Bryan came to terms with his feelings of guilt and moral culpability hidden behind isolating walls. Opening up and sharing his story, Bryan was able to heal his soul. Both reader and writer surely benefit from this unforgettable memoir.
For an illustration of moral injury, see a recent article on the Public Insight Network: http://www.publicinsightnetwork.org/2013/06/21/invisible-injury-beyond-ptsd-illustrated-story/