By Gregory Kotonias
Recently I saw a young man, a double amputee, in a wheelchair in a supermarket. I assumed his current physical reality started someplace in Afghanistan or Iraq. Whether or not my assumption was accurate in his case was irrelevant, as there are so many like him who did lose their limbs in the recent and current wars. As I watched him negotiate the crowded aisles and deal with out of reach items one word kept resonating in my head, the word courage.
I don't mean the courage that took him to Iraq or Afghanistan, but the courage that takes him every day outside his loss and keeps him going. I felt awed by his courage. I have disabling, painful and incurable medical problems. People tell me that I am courageous in that I continue to live life fully without getting bogged down in hopelessness or inactivity. Perhaps I am courageous, yet that evening in those aisles in the supermarket I felt that my courage was minimal compared to that young man's aura of fortitude and determination.
We talk about the sufferings of wounded war veterans, about their physical and psychological wounds. We also talk about the treatment and support they deserve and need. Of course we should talk about these things, as we need to remain constantly aware of the immediate and ongoing costs of war. We also talk about the courage of veterans in their willingness to have placed themselves in harm's way. However, do we talk enough about the courage that the injured and disabled exemplify every day they choose to continue to make the most of their lives?
Living with chronic pain, disabilities, PTSD or any of the innumerable ravages of war is very difficult and challenging, every single day, day after day. One must cope with not only the evident challenges of the injured mind or body; one must also cope with the myriad associated psychological and physical consequences. I am referring to phenomena such as the social and psychological feelings of isolation that often accompany disability, the despair and depression that often accompany chronic pain, the challenges to self-esteem and identity if one is unable to work, financial difficulties and worries due to extended or permanent unemployment — the list is very, very long. Overcoming and adapting to such realities requires considerable daily courage and fortitude. The alternative in the absence of this courage is despair and hopelessness.
Therefore, I suggest that we psychologically re-frame what we mean by courage when referring to injured and scarred vets. Our respect and admiration should not be limited to the courage they displayed by placing themselves in harm's way. We should remain aware of and respectful of the "everyday courage" that they summon in living their lives after having paid heavily for the cost of war. Their daily courage is not just admirable, it's inspirational and in many situations extraordinary.
Dr. Gregory Kotonias is a retired professor of psychiatry and Lay Minister in the Unitarian Universalist Church. Prior to his retirement he taught medical students and residents at Tufts, Harvard and Boston University's medical schools and he was an adjunct faculty member at the Berklee College of Music and Skidmore College. He served for many years as a psychiatric consultant to the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston and the Massachusetts Bar Association.