By Suzanne OvelApril 16, 2014
Watch a buddy barely survive an accidental vehicle rollover. Put that emotional rock in the rucksack. Live through yet another improvised explosive device on a route clearance. Another one goes in. Attend one too many memorial services for brothers in arms. Push that emotional boulder in too.
The emotional burdens of war can pile up quickly. Chaplain (Capt.) Jonathan Entrekin likens these stressful experiences as rocks that Soldiers put into imaginary rucksacks. When Soldiers come home those emotional rucksacks often stay on, however, and can create emotional distance with friends and family.
"You need somebody else to come (and) take it from you. You need to be given permission to take it off," said Entrekin, the Warrior Transition Battalion's chaplain.
The key to taking off the emotional rucksack? Vulnerability.
That can be a tall order for many Soldiers, who are taught from basic training on to celebrate toughness. Although vulnerability can be seen as a weakness, it is also the key to intimacy with others.
When most people hear speakers open up with personal stories, though, "Typically, you think, 'Wow, that was really pretty brave for that person to do. It took a lot of courage for that person to say this'," Entrekin said.
"Vulnerability is actually the most courageous thing that we can do," he said.
The destroyer of vulnerability is isolation, which is what many Soldiers gravitate toward after stressful experiences.
"People tend to isolate because they struggle to trust others, to trust that it's safe. In a lot of ways it's trust they can reveal whatever it is, the deep dark secret that they're struggling with, and still be accepted or acceptable," said Entrekin.
Soldiers sometimes grapple with how to reconcile the negative things they've seen or experienced with their image or desire of being a "good person." Those struggling to deal with negative experiences may believe, "If I isolate, it's almost like quarantine, at least no more of the 'badness' can spread out."
But this idea of isolation as the solution is too narrowly focused on oneself, said Entrekin.
"They don't recognize that by isolating myself, I'm causing hurt and pain for my kids, I'm causing hurt and pain for my spouse," he said.
"I hear from the spouses, 'What's killing our relationship is he won't be vulnerable with me. He won't open up to me," Entrekin said.
What some Soldiers struggle with is the idea that they can't open up or accept a loved one's help in lifting the weight of the emotional rucksack without letting loved ones open it up and see all the hidden details inside it. Some Soldiers are afraid to share their stories with loved ones because they are afraid of their reactions. Will loved ones be afraid of them? Will they leave?
Because of these fears, he encourages loved ones not to hound Soldiers' secrets, but to address their feelings and to simply be present. A friend or family member can ask, "Does it feel risky to share that with me?" "Do you worry about this a lot?"
"We can take (off the rucksack) by you sharing how it feels wearing it, and you can tell me how it feels wearing it without telling me everything that's inside," said Entrekin. He said that's what loved ones really want anyway, is to have their Soldiers share their emotions with them. While it is important for Soldiers to share the details with someone eventually, perhaps a counselor, they can connect with loved ones simply by sharing that they are confused, or anxious, or unsettled.
When Soldiers feel they can be vulnerable, it draws them closer to people in their lives. Vulnerability operates like a magnet, Entrekin said; when one person opens up, other people feel more comfortable doing so. This is why another tool to support returning Soldiers is for loved ones to be emotionally open themselves.
"Vulnerability is an attractive feature, even to the one that is isolated," Entrekin said. "Vulnerability draws people together more than it ever pushes people apart."