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POV Regarding War

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Readjusting to Civilian Life

written by Arthur Varanelli
on November 07, 2009

From the editors: Vietnam Veteran Arthur Varanelli participated in the original Re:Vietnam | Stories Since the War in 1996. We welcome him back to Regarding War.

Being asked to comment on the veteran's readjustment to civilian life is a formidable but not impossible request. I personally began that process, or what I thought was that process, in 1970. Thirty-nine years later, I find myself still hard at work seeking that equilibrium between what drives me internally and the expectations of the civilian environment. My wife expressed her concern that POV's request — for me to talk about my experiences on Regarding War — might mentally take me back to places in the Vietnam War and really set my mind in motion. I explained that this was not about the war or combat memories, but about readjustment to civilian life, and that I did not expect any fallout. She will tell me if I begin to slide in a wrong direction. This is a compelling and important topic, and worth all the effort to stay on track.

First, I must say that not all veterans have significant issues in returning to and readjusting to civilian life. That is not to say that those veterans who do not have significant issues intellectually abandon their military experience, but they do have an ability to place things in a perspective that suits them and allows them to move forward.

I am not one of those veterans.

On balance, there is a middle ground of veterans whose readjustment issues are characterized as mild to moderate, and an extreme end characterized as severe. Every veteran is different in this respect. There are veterans who experience a shifting around of their ability to readjust depending on the circumstances and issues at hand. I do not know how many veterans fall into this spectrum of readjustment and where they are grounded. I can only comment on how I perceive myself in this regard through the actions and reactions of others.

As murky as all this may sound...well, I can assure you that it actually is that murky for veterans experiencing readjustment. Complicating things further, I am more comfortable working through readjustment issues with other veterans and trusted mental health professionals within the Veterans Administration than in other settings because of long lasting and pervasive trust issues with the civilian world and some other aspects of the U.S. government. The exception to this was my contribution to the POV's Re: Vietnam website 13 or so years ago. I took a significant trust issue risk when I participated in Re: Vietnam and shared my experiences on the internet; it was as profound a trust issue risk as the moment when I walked into a Veterans Administration Medical Center and said that there was something going very wrong in my head. My experience on Re: Vietnam was a turning point for me. As scary as it was to do, I discovered for myself that talking about readjustment issues in the right setting helped a lot. It was painful to participate in Re: Vietnam back then, and when this new opportunity came up to participate in POV's Regarding War, I had the familiar knee jerk protective reaction, but the reaction was somewhat diminished. I look at that as progress.

So how did I get into this readjustment cyclone? The answer is simple. Soldiers are trained to a point where the arts of combat and defense are as automatic as digestion. Their lives, the lives of their comrades in arms and the success of the mission are all that matter. This training, which occurs 24/7 for many months, and then is practiced on the field of war, is what stayed with me and is still alive and well as I write this blog post. The mission is everything along with the true grit experience of combat. In speaking with other veterans with readjustment problems, this is a familiar and recurring fact.

How military training, its philosophy, and its execution mesh with the civilian world is the crux of the matter at hand. There are aspects of military thought and method that are complementary to civilian practices. There are other aspects between military and civilian practices that are diametrically opposed to one another. Based upon my personal experiences with both military practices and civilian practices, and the areas where they meet, I will do my best to sort things out so my experience may be of value to those having readjustment problems.

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