Dear Veteran,

I talked with a veteran of the war in Afghanistan for two hours last night. Well, he talked, and I listened. Listened to the millimeter sizes of guns, grenade launchers, rocket heads, the power of AK-47s, the horrifying range of rifles that can hit a target at 1,000 feet with precision. To feelings of compassion for the enemy because he would have done the same thing the enemy was doing if it were his country. To descriptions of buildings being leveled, finding bullet holes in the netting of his helmet, of body parts flying, people exploding as they were “smoked.” To bullets ricocheting through rib cages and friends coding, to terror so stark that it leaves numbness in its wake. To the beauty of the Black Hawk medevac precision landings, to men just sitting down to cry, to the hair on the back of the neck rising to set off the warning of the presence of an IED, to loyalty and hugs of relief, to gratitude and pride of having saved his friends and the humility of being praised for it.

“How can I possibly help,” I wondered in horror. “I’ve never felt this kind of terror.”

And then I knew.

His voice trailed off and we leaned toward each other, our eyes holding the same haunting question that rose up from deep in our souls, “Why?”

Why is life like this? Why have I survived? And, what on Earth is the point of it all?

We can only guess at why. Fluke, Fate, the journey of our Soul as predestined by God. But, certainly, I knew what to do with it all. Live, integrate and save someone else with your painfully hard-earned wisdom.

The worst thing that I have ever done in my life to bring me that painfully earned wisdom? I did not get into bed with my dying mother when she asked me to. We were so close that I could hardly bear the pain of watching her fade away. I could not imagine how I would be able to continue living once Mom died. I often felt like I could hardly draw a breath and would sometimes burst out of the house, desperate for fresh air. People who knew how we cared for Mom during her final weeks complimented me on what an incredible daughter I was, that no daughter could have done more.

But I knew better. I knew how fighting off feeling my grief and helplessness kept me from being there in the way that would have felt so comforting to her. I adored my mother. I felt like I was barely holding it together. I feared that if I got into bed with her, I would completely fall apart and wouldn’t be able to reemerge from the depths of my grief and despair.

So I didn’t do it. And then she died. Alone. In her bed. Without the comfort of someone right there whom she loved and who loved her.

No one would accept my knowledge. No one wanted to believe that I could have done more. Everyone wanted to see this realization as just the result of my grief.

For years, this was a secret pain in my heart. When my mother most needed me, I was not fully available. I cried for years for her aloneness and for my inability to give her that little bit of comfort. My grief and regret were inconsolable.

Five years later, I met a young woman who had been taken into a Satanic cult as a very young child. Along with the other children in the cult, she endured unspeakable torment and abuse, until she managed to escape at age 12. Sobbing, in my office, she told me of this, accusing herself that she did not escape sooner and take the other children with her. Her new, adoptive mother, beside herself with pain and helplessness, tried to assure her that she had done everything she could, that she had been too young to be able to do anything different than she had.

Suddenly, I felt the agonizing memory of my mother’s death emerge. I broke into the reassurance her mother was giving her, and told the young woman that she was right. There had been more that could have been done. She could have escaped with the other children.

But that was not possible for her at that time in her life. She had done the best she could have, given her level of development and everything she had been trying to deal with. As I spoke, she stopped crying and looked at me in amazement and relief, no longer alone in her secret guilt and pain. We looked at each other in deep understanding, and she was finally able to forgive herself.

Although I still feel sorrow for Mom not having had me there as much as she needed me, I feel that I can forgive myself, as well. But best of all, now I understand the lesson and the gift in the pain. I had been able to use it to help someone else. My mom didn’t go through that experience for nothing.

The one thing that all life has in common, from dandelions to slugs to fainting goats to us, is that we start smaller and grow as big as genetics and environment allow. All life evolves. Everything we encounter in life is an exercise in our becoming “bigger” than we were. Everything is an opportunity for us to be “stretched” in who we are as beings.

If we remember that growth is the true purpose of life, we will be able to look at life with a different perspective. We will know that we each have the challenges life has brought our way or God has designed for us. It is our job as a life form to meet and transcend them, even if we do not understand the Why. Rather than feel unlucky when we are facing difficult times, we can look at these times as opportunities to take a step toward becoming bigger, wiser than we were before. We can have faith that somehow, sometime, we will be able to use what we have learned to ease the way of someone else, even if we cannot see it in the midst of our pain.

Oh, dearest Vet, whether you are newly returned or served in Korea or Vietnam, there is no way to make what you went through OK. There is no way to erase those memories or bring back either friends or those you “smoked” who were only doing for their family and country what you would have done for yours. There is no way to undo the tracks of terror that adrenaline carved through your nervous system as you braced to be the next one hit.

But you survived and have so much to offer others, who, like you, are trying to make sense of being alive, trying to forgive themselves and find peace.

I learned the hard way that seemingly unbearable grief and helplessness are not too much to bear. They are painful and hard, but not too hard. Don’t fear them. They haven’t destroyed you. Harness them — they have prepared you. Because of your strength and courage in facing them, you will be able to help others understand this journey of growth that we are all on — that we can only know what we know. You can help them search within themselves for the lessons and meaning that are uniquely theirs to discover. You can help them deepen their acceptance of themselves and, in turn, reach out a hand to others.

You’ve been burned free of the illusion about the human soul and know the evil that is the potential for all of us and the reality for too many.

I think your courage in seeing gives you a responsibility, a challenge, and a gift — an honor. For you to bear your grief and be an oasis of strength and integrity. A teacher, a beacon and an inspiration that we can all overcome and choose differently.

You can be effective in reaching people because you have been there. You don’t know about things in theory. You know fear. You know the drive to survive. You know heartbreak. You know about wanting to die and choosing life anyway. Not just choosing it but choosing joy and laughter and meaning and God.

That is the power that you have now. You have touched the bottom and what can make you afraid? You know what is possible; you know the other choices we can make, who we can aspire to be. We have a place on this planet, to lead people to those choices. To help them choose to make a good life despite everything. To make a good life, anyway.

The soul’s journey is fierce. But it is what we are born to do. I have no question. This is certainly not a pretty planet with an enlightened species controlling it. But we have the gift of vision. Each of us has the ability and the honor of being one of the guides, the teachers, each of us sharing what we have found and encouraging people to find it, too.

It takes strength for us to do this. Most people act out of desperation and blindness. It takes strength to see and keep going. You have that strength. It helped you survive. It helped you keep your heart intact. I have it too.

Ah, my beautiful, beloved Vet, I am so very grateful to have met you. I’m so very glad that you came home.


Jan Harrell has been a psychologist for 40 years. She has taught at UCLA extension and Southern Oregon University, and works with many veterans who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. She is the author “Love Now — Untangling Relationships.”

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