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By Joe Petzel
I had many difficult experiences in Vietnam. I had very little emotional reaction to any of them. I may have had a brief moment of fear, anger or sadness, but it quickly disappeared. Years later, some of those emotions expressed themselves, unexpectedly.
A fellow soldier died in my arms as the Huey helicopter we were in raced to a field hospital. We were alone, the door gunners preoccupied with our taking off. He was unconscious and as the helicopter veered to one side, he started to roll out. I had some initial fear as I grabbed him, stopping him from being ejected, but all emotion quickly left. After landing, the medics took him away. I returned to my armored infantry unit, in the boonies of I Corp. I never thought much about it, thinking it was no big deal. I never mentioned it to any of my friends, as they carried their own stories from the previous days, weeks and months in Nam. We just didn't talk about things like that.
14 years later I was lying in bed with my wife, telling her some stories about Vietnam. As I started mentioning the soldier's red hair, the parts of his fatigues that had been blown off showing his freckled arms, I began to cry, then sob. I had never felt these feelings about this incident. My sadness overwhelmed me. I had only sobbed once or twice as a boy. I began to feel guilt. I had not tried using artificial respiration. Maybe I could have saved him. I realized that as that incident began on that helicopter, I was terrified, holding him with my stiff arms. I was so distanced from that fear.
I'm grateful she held me, listened, asked questions, comforted me, telling me I was just 19 years old and had done the best I could do. I had no idea what to do as the sobbing continued. She knew how important it was that this was revealing itself. I sobbed for about two hours. The next night I sobbed again. I was not used to this much crying or any crying for that matter. I know that expressing those emotions was very helpful, relieving and of great assistance in my "coming home" from the war.
A "simple" explanation was that I had been suffering from PTSD. But the truth of the matter was that I had stopped feeling sadness, fear and vulnerability long before I went into the Army. I had learned to not talk about those emotions years before my draft notice appeared. As I stopped talking about emotions, they receded deep inside me.
It had been an ugly day in the field. We had 2 prisoners. I was on my way to the chow line, walking into an area with a creek, surrounded by large bushes. I heard splashing and came upon a scene like no other. A Green Beret and another soldier were drowning a prisoner. I didn't have any emotional reaction. I looked on the bank of the creek and another prisoner was "secured". I remember seeing his belongings next to him. There were rubber sandals, his rifle, a bandolier carrying ammunition, his pith helmet, and a supply belt with rice, spread out on the dirt. I remember thinking how ill equipped, how little he carried compared to me and fellow soldiers. Our eyes met and I saw his fear which quickly turned to hatred towards me, I could feel it. At that moment, I had the thought that I was involved in a truly evil enterprise. That reaction quickly left as I continued on my way to chow. I rarely thought about this incident in the following years, having virtually no emotional relationship with it.
9 years later, I was involved in a summer camp for youth. This camp centered on peace, justice and progressive ideals. I was giving a talk on the war, describing this foe and the fate that awaited him. I began to cry, feeling tremendous guilt, sadness and shame. It overwhelmed me. I had to leave the building, overcome with feelings that seemed new to me. Months passed and I processed this memory. I realized I had guilt over not doing anything about this horrifying activity. I did have my my weapon at my side. I just walked past the drowning. Our eyes meeting created a human connection. He became, at that moment, a real human being to me, no longer a blurry, dangerous figure in the distance. I felt his fear and than his disgust at me for, I believe, being an invader in his country. I was hit with the big realization that I had allowed myself to be part of an evil enterprise.
All those feelings must have happened at the initial event, but I somehow didn't feel them till many years later. Before the war I had already distanced from feelings of fear, sadness, sensitivity and compassion. This isn't a conscious choice a young man makes but the culture I lived in modeled and demanded that I lose connection with these supposedly non masculine emotions.
Years later, my sons were born. Of course it was life changing. One of the things I noticed, from the beginning of their lives, was their relationship to their emotions. They both, from birth, had sadness, fear, joy, love, anger, etc. They didn't have to learn these. They were hardwired in their bodies and minds. Their expression of their emotions was part of their birthright. I call this birthright the Emotional Connection. This made me question, what happened to my relationship with my emotions? I knew they were hardwired in me like my sons. Again the question: Why were many of them missing, blunted or repressed by the time I was drafted?
My sons, like me, also seemed to have another set of hardwired behaviors from birth I call Alpha qualities. I believe many of us men are born with these Alpha qualities. Most of my fellow soldiers, most of my friends and teammates, I believe, were born with this also.
These Alpha behavioral approaches to life situations were in stark contrast to some of the boys and most of the girls in my environment. There is an aggression that was often channeled in sports, verbal bantering and many other ways, sometimes leading to violence. This aggression would often be expressed with competitive behavior. Competition being an important part of our lives. Competition with other males in a wide variety of ways. There was a hierarchical order that seemed to arise from these aggressive/competitive instincts. We compared ourselves to other boys in a variety of venues. These behaviors were accompanied by an outward focus. We didn't check in or use our emotions as guides, we stayed focused outside ourselves. I call these behaviors the Outer Focus.
I believe these behaviors were inherited from our ancient male ancestors. These behaviors were necessary for the survival of our species. Females inherited their own set of behaviors that were also necessary for the survival of our species. Of course, the Emotional Connection was also inherited from our ancestors.
Why were so many of us boys so disconnected from our Emotional Connection? Why did our Outward Focus take on so much more importance as we became teens?
As I look back at my childhood, I see an absence of male role models who were emotionally connected. I just didn't experience men who expressed their many natural emotions. I remember getting from adults and other boys powerful feedback, with the message to not act weak, "like a girl," "like a sissy," or other warnings. By the time I was 7, I rarely cried. By age 12, I hid my fear, sadness, sensitivity and vulnerability. I expressed anger, rage and hardness in the place of fear, sadness, sensitivity and vulnerability. Most of my friends, teammates and other boys did the same.
As my Emotional Connection lessened, the Outward Focus took on a bigger role in my life, as, I believe, it had with most of my fellow Soldiers in Vietnam.
Our culture, and many other cultures, teach and model this kind of man, who is then prepared for war. I believe that down through the centuries, as wars and organized violence have been so important in human history, a kind of natural evolution occurred, creating the qualities in men that would create the optimal warrior, a person ready for combat. Being in the Emotional Connection would create a far less effective warrior. We were molded into the most effective warrior possible. I don't believe this was consciously created. It just evolved. The societies that stressed the Outward Focus and shrunk the Emotional Connection were more successful in organized violence, war, and defense.
I believe the Emotional Connection cannot be completely destroyed or denied. It will attempt to resurface, one way or another. The triggered responses we have as part of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are examples of this attempt to resurface. Because so many veterans have a compromised Emotional Connection, when we are triggered and our initial emotional reactions from the trauma(s) surface, we have such a hard time. We are often left between a rock and a hard place with our trauma based emotions. We just don't have the emotional practice to make sense out of it.
Qualities of compassion, empathy, vulnerability and sensitivity are the cornerstones of the healing process. Healing PTSD usually requires reclaiming, to some extent, these qualities. These are the qualities that so many of us learned to distance from as boys and teens. Without an active relationship with our Emotional Connection, these important qualities atrophy. Veterans attempting to heal from trauma usually involves a reconnection to one's Emotional Center while increasing one's compassion, empathy, vulnerability and sensitivity. These qualities go hand in hand.
So many of the world's problems are caused by men who have been distanced from their Emotional Center, men who have lost their compassion, empathy, vulnerability and sensitivity. Powerful and powerless men create so many hardships, calamities and suffering, adding to traumas of the world. We wonder why they lack compassion, sensitivity, empathy and vulnerability? How can they be so callous to the suffering they create in so many? Where does their selfishness come from?
I believe it arises from the same process I've described. When Alpha boys are modeled healthy emotional expression, compassionate behavior and the importance of talking about their vulnerability, a different sort of Outward Focus emerges. Competition, aggression and the other aspects of the Outer Focus are channeled into a cooperative style of expression for the most part. Compassion modifies aggression and competition. Men can find healthier ways of expressing the Outward Focus.
If we could, as a nation, create a national conversation about this problem, provide modeling, and make it safe for boys to be vulnerable the results, I believe, could be revolutionary, so very important to our families, communities as well as the world. I do not believe that this alone is a universal cure all. Racism, economic inequity, sexism and a host of other dynamics are at play. But how many of them are associated with what I have talked about in the above ideas?
There is a documentary, The Mask You Live In, by Jennifer Newsom, on Netflix, that directly addresses this issue. If you have male children, work with boys or male teens, or are interested in this issue, see this movie.
There is another documentary, Miss Representation, also by Jennifer Newsom, that addresses the problems faced by girls of distancing from their natural selves.
Many men are learning how to reclaim their Emotional Connection, modeling and teaching boys, teens and other men the importance of this life altering journey. A new kind of Alpha behavior is taking hold. A new kind of male warrior is waging a new campaign of compassion, vulnerability, cooperation and peace.
Joe Petzel is a Vietnam Veteran, who served as Regional Coordinator for Northern Illinois and Iowa VVAW, after returning from the war. He was a teacher and psychotherapist. He still teaches and lectures about men's issues.