Retired Marine General Jim Mattis, the most beloved and feared military leader in modern history, is not happy with the state of the nation. Last Wednesday night, at San Francisco's Salute to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans, he explained why.
Standing in front of an uproarious crowd in San Francisco, General Mattis spoke from the heart about his country, his Corps, and his fellow veterans. He covered two main topics: the need for America to stay engaged with the rest of the world; and the role of our shrinking military in the 21st century.
There were no wasted words, per usual. General Mattis' sharp mind and quick tongue were on full display. He tore apart the cowards who swell the ranks of Al Qaeda and fund Hezbollah (we're all looking at you, Iran). He described the dedication of our Middle Eastern allies in the fight against extremism, and how we cannot leave them stranded as we finish the drawdown. He lamented the growing national debt that will "enslave future generations." He even stopped long enough during the Q&A to slap down any notion that he supported women in the infantry.
And then he got controversial.
The appropriately nicknamed Mad Dog took aim at a dangerous moving target: Post-Traumatic Stress. "You've been told that you're broken," said Mattis, "That you're damaged goods" and should be labeled victims of two unjust and poorly executed wars. The truth, instead, is that we are the only folks with the skills, determination, and values to ensure American dominance in this chaotic world.
To a now-silent theater full of combat vets he explained how the nation has a "disease orientation" toward combat stress. Mad Dog's death blow was swift: "In America, victimhood is exalted."
So what's the problem? We fought, we got a little screwed-up, and now civilians try to get us to talk about it a lot. Big deal.
Except that it matters to General Mattis, and we should probably care what he thinks because chances are he's right. The problem, he contends, is that eventually we start believing it. We start seeing ourselves as broken. We buy into the myth.
The alternative is something so obvious that it is pathetic we don't talk about it more. "There is also Post-Traumatic Growth," Mattis told the crowd. "You come back from war stronger and more sure of who you are."
This concept resonates strongly with me, and several other combat vets with whom I spoke/mumbled late into the evening over drinks. After all, it's a process we've all been through many times in the military. Growth after trauma is how we train to become physically fit and mentally capable of working together as a combat-effective team.
Break down, repair, break down, repair, break down, repair. It's a natural cycle, which offers a well-trod path to progressive improvement.
So why do we think that the story of our personal development ends when we go to war? The myth of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder tells us that we are now broken and cannot be repaired. We are a threat to ourselves and others. We need medication to be stable. We will be constantly challenged by the civilian world as we stumble along, out of phase with the safe and boring environment back home.
What if instead we could look forward to rapid growth as we heal from our wounds stronger than ever before? What if we could rebuild ourselves, and all we needed was the loving support of those around us and a little bit of time? Progress, evolution, healing, restoration - these are watchwords of Post-Traumatic Growth.
You have not heard the last of this, from General Mattis or others. A new domestic front is opening up for the veteran community even as the final combat operations feebly draw to a close.
We are now fighting to take control of the narrative that will define the collective military and veteran community. Americans who have never served and lack any empathy for us sit on the sidelines, labeling us "heroes" or "broken" or both, depending on their mood or the latest news reports.
Veterans know that we are neither of these things. Leaders like General Mattis are challenging us to find a voice, and tell America who we really are - proud of our service, not defined by it.