Archive for Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Understanding the mindset of battle

October 10, 2012

I was sitting in the Sage Creek Grill in the Black Hills of South Dakota when I was approached by four young men in dark, blue uniforms, one of whom asked to share the bench where I was sitting.

I asked him what he did for a living; noting that he was a bit dusty and as my dad used to say: “a bit shop worn.” When he responded he was a firefighter, I jokingly responded that he could sit in my lap.

He and his colleagues were firefighters, helicopter pilots, rappellars and EMT’s. I had noted in traveling through the Black Hills that the fire danger was high; travelers were cautioned periodically about the danger of spontaneous outbreaks of fire; four to five fires a day was not unusual.

I noted the age range of this particular group, mid-20s to 40s. I also noted that they all ate salads, vegetables and baked chicken for dinner. I remember thinking “Real men do eat salads.” They were trim, well conditioned, tanned, and engaging.

Their stories were compelling. We don’t give much thought to the men and women who are on the front lines on a daily basis: piloting helicopters, fighting fires, rappelling into danger.

They are people with families and stories; some of which of which I was privileged to hear that night. One young man’s wife is struggling with breast cancer; another pursuing a nursing degree; another, whose story I do not know was quiet and thoughtful-his may have been the deepest story not told.

I respect firefighters; I work with them. I know what they go through; just as I do with police officers and servicemen. There is a new concept about what happens to men and women on the front lines: it is called battle mind; different from the well known PTSD.

In short, it is what happens in the brain to those who find themselves repeatedly in harm’s way. It is a response that calls for survival, at any cost; and the cost may often be to the mental health of the fighter. There is some evidence that the changes may be permanent.

Essentially, in the quest for survival, the emotions of the fighter are blunted. Families often note the lack of emotional responses in the fighter, long before the fighter notices.

We talked that night about battle mind and what it might mean for these men. I was asked if I would consider traveling to Washington State, to the National Forest and work with firefighters, rappellars, and pilots who have found themselves in harm’s way.

I agreed, of course. What these men did not know was that it was a team such as these who rappelled into the deep ravine of Yosemite and brought out the remains of my nephew when he fell from the mountain. And to them, I owe a debt of gratitude.

It is not by accident that we meet on such a night in the Hills of South Dakota.

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