Saturday, October 01, 2016

The Honor Was Mine: A Look Inside the Struggles of Military Veterans by Elizabeth Heaney: Book Review

The Honor Was Mine: A Look Inside the Struggles of Military VeteransThe Honor Was Mine: A Look Inside the Struggles of Military Veterans by Elizabeth Heaney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the story of a civilian counselor who joined a program to provide off-the-record counseling services at domestic military bases. She spent short term assignments at each base, with the intention that it was part of a portfolio of provided services, attracting members of the military community who would not be willing to engage the more traditional mental health resources that were already available. It is a view of the military that I very much relate to, as I was attached to a deployed unit as a civilian for a similar period of time.

The first chapter starts slow, she talks about the trauma in her life prior to her taking this assignment as a way of resetting her life (and this gets dropped in the rest of the book). But once you get past the first chapter you get into the story. Two themes that permeate are her being a civilian learning her way around the military environment, which sets up the theme of veterans returning from deployment and those around them responding in their different ways.

The first theme is that of a civilian entering the military community and the differences. She tells the story of her first assignment, of encountering military discipline and curtsy first as a shock, but then respect for the stability that it provides. She goes on to what she realizes the purpose of many of attitudes and rhythms of the military. First, the realization that those in the military must be prepared for anything at any time, and military discipline and curtsy is intended to build the attitudes needed to enable that. Second, that there are a range of overall attitudes held by those in the military, with a considerable more diversity than she expected when she was in a civilian life. But one set of values that holds people together is a focus on duty (towards country and each other, not necessarily in that order) and integrity. And the dissonances between those values and what they see in the civilian world (and in what I called Big Army for that matter) causes many of the problems they have in adapting to home.

But what this long discussion of the difficulties she had in getting used to the military culture does is leads to her discussion about the issues that veterans and their families and the problems that veterans who have returned from a combat zone and their families. And she has gone through the same type of struggle in the first chapter with what she dealt with in her life and the reactions of those around her, and dealing with the same culture shift in the other direction. This part is the deepest, she alternates between telling the stories of the people she meets during the course of her assignments and the story of her processing these. Stories of working with the returning soldiers, the transition between combat and their families, soldiers and spouses trying to deal with the uncertainty of life in general and of soldiers returning after a year of combat, spouses worried about infidelity when the returning soldier is still working through the transition between combat and peacetime, of the care that soldiers have of the wounded and fallen brothers (and sisters) in arms.

Through it all, what shows through is her thankfulness that she has seen this part of life, the pride, dedication, and duty to others that permeates the military. And the recognition that this is not the norm in U.S. society at large. In my own experience, I've been told to view the lives of companions as not precious, had offers to refer me to counselors who would tell me that I should have ignored the calls for help from someone in the backcountry. And this contrasting incredibly with being deployed to a combat zone where I was with people who did their duty and tried to do right by those that they were along side. And when I returned, my then girlfriend and I spent a month trying to figure out if I had changed. (and when we were all settled, I figured that I had a good thing going and proposed to her!)

It is a wonderful book. It has a great treatment of PTSD, because it takes the first step of having to experience some of the causes (the need to be constantly aware, the sense that your world and your attitude may have to shift in a heartbeat, and you have to be ready for it, and having to deal with a civilian world that does not generally value duty or integrity) It does not preach, but it gives a set of eyes that had to go through similar experiences and uses that as an analogy into that world.

Note: I received a free electronic copy of this through the Goodreads Giveaways program. The opinions are my own and were not subject to any review.

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