After Iraq, I returned to New York City life with post-war stressors on my mind. It seems that ‘veteran readjustment’ has many interpretations, coming from external sources like mass media, academia and publishing houses.
The medical and mental worlds have their own interpretations. I am open to them, but I do not want to limit my understanding of my post-war situation by considering too many external interpretations. Many of the interpretations can have an absolutist meaning that’s disconnected from the subjective reality of many veterans.
Recently, the TV show The Affair depicted a veteran and his post-war life, but I wonder how much this blockbuster presentation of a veteran is representative of an actual veteran. I do not want to rely solely on a diagnosis given to me by a medical professional or mental health clinician in order to define myself or my life.
I also do not want to limit my understanding of my experience by relying solely on the Veterans Affairs (VA) medical system. My position is not anti-VA. It is not anti-TV. It is not against CNN. It is not against the anti-medical establishment.
My position seeks to be expansive. I want room to make my own interpretation! I want to critically explore my post-war experiences, and I want my fellow brothers and sisters who have worn a uniform to have that freedom. Our encounters with war are different, and those differences matter when it comes to interpreting the many meanings that come from war.
I want to revisit a combat readjustment tool used by warriors in the 1940s to cope with the stressors of war and military service. During the Second World War, this tool was approved by the U.S. military for D-Day troops. Also, the U.S. Department of the Navy recommended that all naval officers be trained in using this tool to engage sailors.
This tool is not a medical intervention or a counselling method. This highly revered tool trains the individual to make objective examinations of language patterns, thoughts, feelings, behaviour and actions. It was developed by a veteran of the First World War, Alfred Korzybski.
Korzybski’s tool is “General Semantics,” which was introduced to troops during the Second World War by Dr. Douglas Kelley. Here, I’ll explain how I experienced general semantics as a technology of the self in order to manage post-war readjustment issues.
My explanation as a war veteran and psychotherapist
A bright fellow doctoral student, Blake Seidenshaw, introduced me to general semantics during my doctoral studies at the Teachers College of Columbia University. I have also been in dialogue with several members of the Institute of General Semantics in order to help myself apply GS concepts to veteran readjustment and reintegration.
Dr. Martin Levinson, Ph.D., Bruce Kodish and Dr. Corey Anton, Ph.D., are all great GS teachers. I truly appreciate them because their help has helped me better understand the concepts and skills involved in general semantics.
In 1945, The GS system’s originator, Alfred Korzybski, wrote an informative article about using GS for veteran readjustment: “A Veteran’s Readjustment and Extensional Methods.”
It was featured in the journal Etc. in 1946. This is a gift for me, as I have been exposing veterans to general semantics since 2012. Since then, I have shared GS with veterans from diverse military backgrounds.
My understanding of general semantics
General semantics is a system of recognizing the human nervous system’s responses to experiences in reality faced by individuals. Each human experience, the impact of the experience, a critical assessment of the experience and the actions of each individual are all closely examined with the aim of reaching greater objectivity.
General semantics examines how language dynamically engages human experience due to the stimulation of the nervous system, but it’s often misunderstood as a mere study of language.
A wellness tool for veterans
How do I connect GS with veterans? I see general semantics as a wellness tool for veterans that does not require a clinician’s presence. The war veteran can learn basic concepts of GS to improve their post-military or post-war readjustment process.
General semantics promotes an individual’s potential to self-direct his or her own life. It can be used during pre-deployment, deployment and post-deployment periods as a continuous evaluation of the many events that are tied to major military experiences.
General semantics offers a readjusting veteran a system of “abstracting” that enables them to evaluate life’s challenges with an objectivity that does not ignore their subjective experience. Specifically, GS can help a veteran order the chaos from external experiences tied to trauma and depression that are affecting the human nervous system, as opposed to just the brain.
In other words, the readjustment issues experienced by veterans are not just mental health maladies. GS has been claiming mind-body integration since well before the popular book by trauma expert Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, went viral in many trauma care settings.
The complexity of military service that involves things like going on combat patrols, guarding an area near the demilitarized zone (DMZ), running a humanitarian mission in a hostile area, treating the wounded as an aircrewman, being in a nuclear submarine for six months, experiencing sexual trauma from a superior and other complex warrior experiences cannot be dismissed or minimized by a medical diagnosis.
These types of military experiences cause the human nervous system to react in unconventional ways, with distinct linguistic patterns. GS can be used to manage the unconventional reactions tied to military experiences—all of which are unique.
General semantics applied to post-war reality
The sounds of fire truck sirens and helicopters at night, my loud, less-than-romantic neighbours and the sound of large delivery trucks racing down my street are part of my home life. I live near a helipad in the congested midtown Manhattan area of New York City. Thank you, God!
My cortisol levels are high from being in Iraq. My nervous system (not just my brain) was highly stimulated in the war zone, and certain abrupt, loud noises cause me to expect danger.
How can I deal with the frustrating reality of expecting imminent danger as life’s events and happenings unfold in my noisy home setting? My cortisol levels are high from being in Iraq. My nervous system (not just my brain) was highly stimulated in the war zone, and certain abrupt, loud noises cause me to expect danger; specifically, these noises inspire me to be on guard and protect myself, because I expect the end of my life.
This has been one of my challenges since my return from Iraq. How can general semantics help me? The loud noises are annoying on so many levels. My sleep has suffered, and I can find myself guarded—as I would be in Iraq—against any loud, abrupt noise.
I can find myself isolating myself from the world after experiencing these unpleasant, abrupt sounds near my home. I am ready to address the mystery behind the loud noise. What is it?! I am left exhausted and anxious, while anticipating an urgency and emergency. My senses are amped up!
The medical community recognizes the experience I share with you as an example of hypervigilance. The DSM-VI (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is a medical resource that describes hypervigilance as a medical symptom within a diagnosis: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Yet, my experience with loud noises after Iraq is not just a laundry list of symptomatic responses in a medical book.
I try to understand this post-Iraq War readjustment challenge with a practical mind, instead of rushing to a medical explanation. I want to capture important aspects of my actual unfolding and continuous veteran readjustment reality.