Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Lesson I Learned in War

Jennifer Pacanowski

By Jennifer Pacanowski

Speech to the Conference on the Veterans Peace Movement, Rutgers Presbyterian Church, New York City, May 18, 2013. 

The lessons of war I believe are different for everyone.

I have heard more than once from other veterans of all eras that war/conflict stays with you, seeps into your soul, creates moral injury—a restlessness that is unresolvable even with time.

PTSD is not curable.

All week long I have been struggling and battling with the ideas, What did I witness? What do I continue to witness as a veteran?  Creating a war again, a war with myself.

We bring the war home with us but my lesson to you today is that it does not have to define who we are as veterans, as people, as beings in this universe.

Every since my return from Iraq I have felt that my experiences in war have controlled and conquered who I was, how I react to other people, how I view myself and what my future would be.

From 2005 to 2011, I was a victim and prisoner to my emotions, my PTSD, my co-dependent relationships and my addictions.

I can not say it was a single moment I woke up one day and said, "no more" but I definitely started developing my own toolbox of coping.

At first, I dealt with my reactions of anger, of not applying the sledgehammer of rage to ALL situations but maybe starting smaller with a mallet of discussing what I was angry about and not just destroying everything in my path. I started fostering and training bullmastiffs, taking care of them gave me a reason to wake up.

My mother drove me to the veterans' retreat in Martha's Vineyard that slowly started the change of course in my life. THIS is where I first experienced a community of veterans talking, understanding each other, writing and creating combat paper.

As the years passed I allowed myself to grieve the loss of my idealism, MY YOUTH had been replaced with a hatred and resentment for everything I thought this country once stood for, honor, integrity, leadership, selfless service, loyalty, a fearless solidarity and defense for what is right.

Soberly, I cried and released the pain without feeling weak but empowered by my ability to break away from the conformity my mind had been trapped in.

During these last two years I have discovered a map to guide me. My map started with the process of putting the needle down and stop using my extensive medical knowledge to get high, escape and be numb…

Throwing away the VA meds, the bottles of whiskey and vodka and walk away from my hope of death.

To trailblaze a new path, to learn how to transition from war and from the military culture and not only do it for myself but also as I discovered to be able to help others too, as I have always wanted to do.

I moved to Ithaca to expand my comfort zone and embrace the future I never thought I would live long enough to see.

Working with the Veterans' Sanctuary, I found a healing approach that I disregarded because it was for hippies and tree huggers and well anyone else but me—this was of course the holistic approach.

I went to a "wellness chiropractor," acupuncture, I ran, I walked with my dogs in the sunshine, rain and snow, I went to the park and festivals, I farmed and celebrated pot luck dinners, I spoke to college students, we wrote and created art and combat paper but above all, I had a community, we created community.

Lately I have felt immersed in war and this idea of community has diminished into a job, facilitating workshops, speaking events, outreach, even my own writing a chore, a reminder of failure, feeling that no matter how much I do there is still more to be done, the wars go on and the veterans continue to be misunderstood, lost, addicted, homeless, suicidal, homicidal and traumatized by their communities and the system set up to help them, the VA.

And events like the Boston bombings validated my greatest fears of bombs blowing up on the streets in the USA.

For awhile it was like, FINALLY, after searching all these years for bombs in the road, scanning and scanning, reliving convoy after convoy, ALL THESE YEARS, it happened....... just like it use to every day in Iraq. Now my war truly came home and my angry, frustration and despair broke my core.

Today, however, in my moment of despair, a light shined on my map, the war IS with me, a part of me but it is does not have to consume me, it does not have to be a burden or a huge weight to be carried.

 It can be a thought that drives me or the war can disappear completely in those moments at the playground or the dog park.

My lesson about war, OUR LESSON IS CHANGE.

Challenge my mind to think differently about war, to change the way we feel about war.

Change it to something that works that helps me feel great, empowered, experienced… Knowledgable, so not all others will follow that path.

For my PTSD to kick ass and not let it kick my ass!!!!!!

In that way, I facilitate workshops so others can learn to express themselves in positive ways to create community.

The lesson I learned in war is that
Healing is not a job,
Speaking the truth is an honor, especially if I can speak for those who can
   not, and
Writing is my gift.

Most of all, for me, I had to change my perspective on my purpose....
I had to forgive myself for sacrificing my humanity in war,
To live and come home.

Jennifer Pacanowski, a former US Army combat medic who served in Iraq, is a poet and Warrior Writers facilitator for the Veterans Sanctuary in Ithaca, NY