Rafael Stoneman: How to Listen When the Story Is Hard to Tell

My friend, a post-9/11 veteran, constantly suspects someone is trying to kill him. Afraid to start his car, he fears an improvised explosive device is wired into the ignition. Walking on the streets, he fixates on his paranoia that “the enemy” is following him so they can shoot him.

Given the intense combat he faced, his behavior is not surprising. He saw friends get blown up, and he was in constant kill-orbe killed mode as he drove tanks through Iraq.

Mikey Simpson, Army VeteranThis is a longtime friend I lived with when in the Army. He has a big heart and a great sense of humor, but he understandably struggles with feelings of betrayal at the hands of the Army, which demoted and ultimately discharged him for his behavior after Iraq. This is especially painful because he was awarded for his exceptional service while in Iraq.

Is it any wonder that he is having difficulty re-adapting to mainstream society and being labeled an “off-track veteran?” Is it possible that the military is off-track?

I lived with him, his wife and their kids on base for three months. I saw firsthand how he started drinking heavily in order to escape the agony of the death and destruction that he experienced in Iraq.

How to Listen to a Veteran

The other day on the phone, my friend and I discussed how his two teenage sons don’t want to see or talk to him because of how they suffered over the years. He was hurt that they won’t answer his calls or texts.

I recommended that he initiate the healing process through phone, email or social media— even if they don’t reply. I suggested it is his job as a father to keep trying to reach them and let them know that he will hear their pain and not defend himself or make excuses for his past behavior.

When I started to sense that he might have been feeling like I was pushing my advice on him, I backed off. Instead, I conveyed that I understood the sense of impossibility he was feeling.

Hearing about this, a colleague asked the question: What does one who is not a trained listener do when a vet or someone who has gone through a stressful experience opens up and becomes emotional and starts going to that deep, dark place?

My first thought is there are no fast and easy solutions. It is not your job to fix anyone. But it is possible that just listening and offering a sense of understanding will allow the person to discover how to help themselves.

If you are uncomfortable with listening to intense negative emotions, it may be best to tactfully and honestly mention that you are not equipped to help the person process such strong feelings. You might recommend that the person speak to a professional or a close friend.

From talking to my friend, I’ve learned that there is a balance between seriousness and humor that is natural and effective. We honored and respected the depth of our life challenges, but we also poked fun at each other like we did in the Army.

For example, he called me a “POG,” which means Personnel Other than Grunt—anyone who did not go to combat or, more specifically, did not go into combat as an infantryman. That gave him a sense that I wasn’t trying to talk about things I don’t really know about, like the horrors of combat.

But I also let him know that I have been dealing with my own anger all my life and that I know about violence. I wanted him to be aware that I can I relate somewhat to the feelings he is having, though on a different scale.

One factor that has helped me most during my dark times is having friends that can “hold space” for my darker emotions and energies.

Holding space means being there, not being afraid to look right into the eyes of darkness and knowing that the true light of awareness is more powerful than any thought or feeling that presents itself.

A true friend listens in a way where I don’t feel he or she is judging me— or has anything but acceptance of what I am expressing.

Sometimes “off-track vets” don’t need you to lend a hand— just an ear.

Rafael Stoneman, a former Ventura County homeless veteran, now volunteers for the Camarillo-based Gold Coast Veterans Foundation, a nonprofit organization. For more details, visit gcvf.org.

Source: The Camarillo Acorn – July 20, 2018 edition