“To be a soldier is to dig,” so remarked the Ukrainian commander, only 22-years-old, while we observed the men of his first assault company hard at work with shovels on the front line near Russia this month. It is true, Ukrainian forces are trenching all along the front. Standing there one can hear not only the rhythmic sound of shovel to dirt, then foot to shovel, and finally dirt re-deposited, but also the close range firing of small arms (what turned out to be marksmanship training). The smell of residual gunpowder from an exploded mortar just five days prior still emanated from its crater a few feet from the main bunker. We visited two other positions that afternoon, passing armored trucks and skirting mines that crisscrossed the landscape and tiny villages that civilians still call home.
This world felt familiar to me. I felt connected to the fighters we met that day on a level I cannot fully explain. Also, perhaps ironically, I was quite possibly my most peaceful self and at one with the universe while I was out there. I gained new insight while I was there, and here it is in two parts: 1) those who fight wars are connected by a shared experience that transcends boundaries of nation or conflict and 2) war, recovery, and growth are all processes of world making that can be as messy as conflict itself.
I traveled to Ukraine at the request of my good friend John Boerstler. John is not only assisting veterans in Ukraine develop a hub for military transition services like his very own Combined Arms project in Houston, he is advising elected leaders in the creation of a Ministry of Veteran Affairs. Through his leadership a consortium of experts representing seven countries convened in the capital city of Kyiv at a location just seconds away from Maidan Square, ground zero for the recent revolution. The experience was most impactful, bravo John!
While my mission in Ukraine was to share the lessons we are learning at Bastion regarding transition stress and post traumatic growth, I arrived a few days early to accompany my West Point classmate, Jenn Blatty, to the Donbas region where the armed conflict continues between Ukraine and Pro-Russian Separatists. Jenn is a photojournalist and working on a project to reveal the universality of soldiers in wars across the globe, an ambitious undertaking to say the least but she is the perfect woman for the job. That is how I found myself standing in a fighting position on the front line near Donetsk with one of the last remaining volunteer battalions from the Right Sector movement. It was there that I recognized myself in the eyes of other warfighters, and realized a commonality that extends beyond borders.
Through the work that Jenn and John are doing I also realized unmistakably how war transforms the way we experience the world. The practice of war for the individual soldier is perhaps the most extreme example of world making. World making is a term I first encountered in Zoe Wool’s book, After War, which chronicles the recovery of severely injured warriors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center from 2007-2008. In this blog, I will adapt the definition of world making to capture the personal nature of transformation occurring in the moment. From the soldier’s plight, it is the process of shaping and molding the contours of a land and its people to achieve some desired effect. I was deployed to Iraq as an Infantry officer from 2003-2004 where I participated in the destruction of Ba’ath Party loyalists as well as the rebuilding of Mosul. The world I was making included the first democratic elections in 40 years. As in Ukraine, this effort exacted many casualties. Iraq also transformed me in ways I’m still learning about, as my Ukraine experience illustrates.
In 2005 I thrust my body into the process of world making once again, this time in New Orleans during the aftermath and recovery of Hurricane Katrina. I repeated the process yet again in 2012 when the Bob Woodruff Foundation and Wounded Warrior Project gave me the seed funding to build a Bastion for returning warriors and families. The act of world making itself is exceedingly physical and I have come to understand the physical repercussions of trauma, as well as traumatic growth, because these lessons are recorded in my body. In many ways my mind and spirit have been trying to catch up after each repetitious cycle of pushing my body to a new breaking point. The infantryman inside me will not relent because his survival depends on movement. If he stops, death feels imminent. Of course, this is no longer true off the battlefield. I need him to slow down for the sake of my body, which he will use up completely if unchecked.
The hard lesson that every soldier learns eventually is that while they may give their bodies without reservation to make a world that is safer or more free (which I admit sounds altruistic but soldiers in Ukraine are very much fighting for freedom) they will need their mind and spirit to inhabit it once again. Restoring this connection is vital. I am still learning how to live in my body which helps me understand and inhabit a world that in varying degrees exists beyond my ability to shape and mold it, and many of the veterans I met in Ukraine are beginning the same journey. Similar to the U.S. during the post 9/11 era, young veterans in Ukraine are returning from the front to discover a society that is moving forward with or without them. While I was there, it was reported in the national media that one veteran every day is taking his or her own life in Ukraine. The clash between worlds can be fatal. In one reality the homeland is safer because of the veteran’s individual contribution. In a competing reality the veteran is not safe in the homeland.
Bastion was conceived because I rejected a reality where returning warriors lived in isolation, or under a bridge, or in a facility on the outskirts of society. There is a competing reality in which society still needs us. Bastion is world making, as are many other examples of local initiatives throughout our country where warriors are carving out their place and remaking themselves and yes, always, persistently and imperfectly, remaking the world around them. “Defending the Bastion” means holding the space for warriors and families to heal and continue the tough work of making their world inhabitable, which if you are lucky, may someday be the same world in which you live or at least one that partially overlaps. We can do the work more optimally together because we will always need each other, including our civilian counterparts, to truly belong and reconcile competing realities. The connection we made so long ago as soldiers extends across time and conflicts, beyond physical borders, and into the realm of what is possible when we dare to imagine a world with us still in it.
Our guest blogger is Dylan Tête, the executive director and founder of Bastion Community of Resilience, who recently sojourned to the Ukraine to connect with the global community of members in armed forces and leaders in veteran empowerment and transition.