Advice From a 92-Year-Old Veteran of WWII on Getting Out of a Dark Place

by A Manly Guest Contributor on November 12, 2012 · 44 comments

in A Man's Life

Editor’s note: This is guest post from Marcus Brotherton. It originally ran on Men Who Lead Well (www.marcusbrotherton.com).

I recently interviewed T.I. Miller, a 92-year-old WWII vet who fought on Guadalcanal and New Britain.

When it came to war, Mr. Miller had seen it all. Charging banzai attacks. Severed heads. Bloody arms, legs, and torsos. The works.

After he came home, a man doesn’t forget these things instantly, he said.

I asked him what helped. This was his answer:

“What helped? My wife and family were a big help, especially my wife, Recie. At the same time, it’s something you gotta just do yourself. The secret, I found out, is just to stay busy. There were no government programs to help back then. No therapists to see. Nothing like that.

I was born and raised out in the country. So after I came back from the war, I built me and Recie a house out there close to where I’d grown up. I got out there and roamed around in the mountains. That’s what helped.

One time they closed the mines down for three months. Someone said, “Where you gonna go look for a job.” I said, “I ain’t. I’m gonna spend the summer out in the sunshine.”

And I did. I took a two pound double bladed axe, walked a half mile up above where I lived. We had a field there, and I cut down big trees and cut them into fence posts. All I had was that axe. I made my own mallet and split those trees myself.

I got me a half acre of ground, plowed it up, and had a field. That same summer I grew potatoes, corn, and beans. The whole summer I spent growing things I wanted to. I’d be out in the woods at daylight. I just worked like that and built myself back up.”

Notice three key actions in Mr. Miller’s plan to heal. I’m no therapist, but I’d consider these important components to helping anybody out of a hard spot.

1. He busied himself with straightforward, non-emotional work.

The war had taxed Mr. Miller’s ability to cope. During those years of horror, he had experienced too many events larger than himself. Splitting wood helped him connect with a simpler world.

2. He got active, outside.

Fresh air, sunshine, nature, and physical exercise helped him regain a sense of security and peacefulness. Notice he didn’t turn to alcohol, drugs, or any such trappings that only result in harm.

3. He could see what he accomplished each day.

Plenty of beneficial activities have non-identifiable benchmarks, but it’s much harder for a man doing this kind of work to feel good about what he’s done. By splitting wood and growing a garden, Mr. Miller could see clear progress on a regular basis. At the end of each day he could point to a pile of fence posts and say, “There it is. I did that.”

If you know a returning veteran, or anyone for that matter struggling with a dark place, please consider passing this article along.

The advice doesn’t come from me. It comes from someone who was there, survived, healed, and went on to thrive with the rest of his life.

Are you a vet who struggled after coming home from war, or have been in another kind of dark place? What did you do to help heal?


 

{ 44 comments… read them below or add one }

1 João Cavaleiro November 12, 2012 at 2:52 pm

Excellent peace of text.

2 J.T. November 12, 2012 at 3:22 pm

I’ve also been in a dark place and I sought therapy for it. What my therapist told me is that there are 3 things that fend off depression: social support, mastery, and pleasure. I see all of them in this piece. Social support – “My wife and family were a big help.” Mastery and feelings of accomplishment – “I made my own mallet and split those trees myself.” Pleasure – “I got out there and roamed around in the mountains.”

3 cmt November 12, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Amazing article. Short and to the point, but well organized and very deep.

4 Mark November 12, 2012 at 4:15 pm

Congrats on hitting 92. My father is 87 and has perfect mental clarity on every aspect of the war.

5 Ivan Nogueira November 12, 2012 at 4:22 pm

(sorry for my poor english in advance, i’m brazilian!)

I’m actually graduating in psychology and going through some dark times myself.
The end of a almost 7 years relationship made me focus all my willpower on myself, but not everyone is able to. I can do that because I’m only 24 and a student, but that kind of advice is exacly what is helping to keep myself happy.

It’s time to lose some weight, grow that long beard you wanted, and do whatever brings you self-satisfaction. (in my case, me and some friends are building our own cabin to pratice some blacksmithing).

From my degree’s point of view, a therapist can help a lot, specially when it comes to knowing yourself. Just take your time to find the one you feel best with (try professionals from different psychology theories/schools).

I hope this can be useful!

6 Bryce November 12, 2012 at 4:55 pm

Your post reminded me of my now-deceased grandpa (“Pappy” to his grandkids), a WW2 Marine Corps veteran who saw combat at Iwo Jima (He saw the flag go up from the bottom of the hill).

I talked to Pappy about his time in the Corps. When he was talking about Iwo Jima, all he said was “It was really gruesome…there were dead people everywhere…” and he had to stop at that.

Pappy came home, went back to his previous civilian job at the steel mill, and bought the grocery store where my grandma was working the year after he got back. Since I knew him, he always kept himself busy. He never could just sit around and do nothing…now I know why.

7 David Y November 12, 2012 at 5:33 pm

Excellent article.

It shows that we can get out of that dark place with positive things. Retreating into drugs, booze, or isolation wont’t help, they just make things worse.

My dad was a Marine in WW2. Wounded at Peleliu. If he talks about the war or his time in the Marines, it it the lighter side of things that happened during the down time. Fortuneatly, he had a good family to come home to.

8 Marcus November 12, 2012 at 5:56 pm

I love reading these comments, thanks.

J.T. — excellent summary and thoughts.

9 Theodora November 12, 2012 at 6:49 pm

As someone who is in a dark place herself, this advice rings true. While, yes, I have my medication to help me, I find I’m happiest when I’m working with my hands — simple things, like beadwork, or digital painting, or cooking — helps me to feel happier, more able to cope. Between that, and the support of my family and friends, I feel I’ve been able to have a fighting chance at coping with my own dark place.

10 dannyb278 November 12, 2012 at 8:58 pm

When I got back from from oversea with th with the army i in 2003 I fell I fell into a rut an and depression and bet and lots tha that only made things worse . The solution was leaving my home in Minnesota and move to Wyoming in hopes of losing the madness over the mountains as the great author Jim Harrison put it. I did it by finding a job working on potentia wind farms in oil pipel wind farms in oil pipeline projects hiking up to 10 miles today through deserts and mountains. I think it was Teddy Roosevelt heal the hear of a youn of a young man the the best is to to remov is to remove him from t the problem can a physically demanding job

11 dannyb278 November 12, 2012 at 11:31 pm

wow my phone sucks. sorry about all the typos/mistakes. wish i could edit the above post.

12 Joey November 12, 2012 at 11:36 pm

I could not agree more.

We’re so coddled in this age. We expect help from everyone else, and although their help is needed and indeed encouraging, eventually we have to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.

My wife passed away last year, leaving me with a college education to finish and a daughter to raise. I rely on my family (Mom and Dad) every day to help manage life (babysitting, school, work). I rely on God, too. But at the end of the day, I have to make the decision to carry on.

And he’s right; the best way to do carry on is to just stay busy. I threw myself into fatherhood, school, and work. It’s paying off.

The occasional glass of whiskey helps, however. It’s the little pleasures in life that make the best pleasures, I think.

13 Clevertrousers November 13, 2012 at 3:09 am

Excellent article. All the points that Mr. Miller touches on are great for dealing with coming from a dark place. Also it should be noted that there isn’t anything wrong with going to a therapist or a counselor to talk things out. Quite the contrary, as you will find that many in the mental health field will make many of the suggestions that Mr. Miller did. Things like keeping busy, having a routine, and getting exercise all lead to better mental health.
I say this because I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for a very long time and only over the past few years have I been able to progress in a healthy direction.
I’ve seen a lot of stories with unhappy endings and a lot of those endings could be prevented by seeking out a mental health professional. Mental health therapy is a relatively new thing but I can’t stress enough the idea that seeking out help isn’t a sign of weakness or being a sissy.
Again I really appreciate the article because too often in this day and age men are increasingly closed off when it comes to addressing issues of mental health.

14 Andrew V November 13, 2012 at 6:44 am

I disagree strongly with the notion in this article that vets today are coddled, and that when they come home from combat they should just suck it up and make a farm in the woods. I’m glad it worked for Mr. Miller, but some veterans come back and have nightmares, and problems reintegrating into society or problems interacting with others, and it is hardly fair to say it is their fault for not manning up. I do think that our culture does too much coddling, but the problems our returning military veterans face are often ignored.

15 Conner November 13, 2012 at 7:15 am

Artofmanliness needs more like this.

16 Dan M November 13, 2012 at 10:21 am

There’s nothing wrong with going to a therapist sure, but it also isn’t for everyone. I think that it’s encouraged too much in our collectivist american society to see a therapist about your mental issues. There are a lot of people like me (or maybe there aren’t, I don’t know) who believe that the only person who can bring you true happiness is yourself. I was never able to solve, in any permanent way, my issues by talking to a therapist or anyone else for that matter. Doing exactly what this man did seems to me more therapeutic than talking to any therapist. Simplify, seek solace in your own mind, feed it with positive actions and knowledge, feed your soul as well, and you will find happiness.

17 Mike November 13, 2012 at 10:24 am

Great piece. I was wondering if anyone had suggestions for vets that don’t have access to the kind of nature that Miller did. More and more of us live in urban areas these days (I believe I read that it’s more than 50% of the U.S. population now). I know I’d feel pretty lost if I came home from war and returned to my hometown of Baltimore. Listing a few suggestions here might really help some vets that find this article.

18 claude November 13, 2012 at 12:27 pm

A wise man. Im lucky to have learned this lesson at a young age.

19 Andrew November 13, 2012 at 1:12 pm

I think that main difference, between Mr. Miller and current vets is that in the case of Mr. Miller his fellows genuinely acknowledged, that despite he did bloody job there in Pacific, it was for the good of nation (because do not fool ourselves, somebody had to kill the poor Japanese in banzai charges, and sever that heads, arms, legs and torsos). Now when you return from Afghanistan nobody cares…

20 jared November 13, 2012 at 3:06 pm

i hope that any vet that reads this looking for help gets in contact with the VA if they are in deeper than what they can handle on their own. while this worked for this man it is not going to work for everyone. the ugly secret about the current military is the high rate of suicide of returning vets. god bless and get help wherever you can find it.

21 Hilton Henderson November 13, 2012 at 6:09 pm

I was hit by an uninsured driver and lost my leg below the knee, so I’ve been in a dark place at times. Please read my story here: http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/boycott_fedex_20100222/

” Facing it, always facing it, that’s the way to get through. Face it.”
Joseph Conrad

22 J. Crouch November 14, 2012 at 3:52 am

Hi. Im glad Mr Miller found the answer to his dark place. Vets deserve all the help they need and should get it without any stigma being attached. Not everyone can get to the countryside, walk or even use their hands to make things. If the problems are of the mind and physical, other options have to be looked for to help.

23 Bear November 14, 2012 at 3:54 am

Thank you for the great and timely article!

I honestly don’t know how my grandfather coped, as an officer in the US Army Infantry, he was captured by the Nazi’s during the battle of Anzio (during the Italian campaign) and spent the rest of the war in the prison camps. To prevent any rescue operations by the Allies, his group was moved every few months by foot giving him a horrific tour of Dachau, Treblinka, and other facilities. As an officer, he should have been theoretically treated somewhat better, but he was a very dark skinned Chickasaw; malnutrition during his imprisonment cost him all of his teeth. He never said much to anyone about his experiences, but after the war, he found work as a carpenter, and did two decades in the Army Reserves, serving his one weekend a month/two weeks a year. Perhaps that gave him the support or community he needed. He did however hold a lifelong hatred of german shepherds.

Obviously in our post 9/11 world, the Guard or Reserves isn’t a part time gig anymore. I did over 6 years in the Guard with tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, over 3 and a half of the years I was in I was gone on missions. I was discharged two years ago when the stop loss from my last deployment ended; I was done. I had seen enough.

I’m still working things through. I did some counseling for a while, simply being able to talk about my experiences with someone who wouldn’t freak out was helpful to an extent (the counselor I was seeing retired, I haven’t sought out anyone else since). I learned some good relaxation exercises from him that have been useful too.

I’m am also so very fortunate to have an amazing wife who has stood by me through the whole military experience; not just the hassles of deployments and army bureaucracy, but my emotional struggles too. Too many I know lost their marriages to deployment. I am more blessed than I deserve here.

I agree that being in the outdoors is helpful. Even if you live in an urban area, there are still parks or green spaces where you can go and listen to the nature that is there. It’s a different rhythm or pace than our artificial and modernized world, but it’s much more closer to how we are wired as humans; taking time to slow down, stop, and listen, to absorb the wonders around us can help a lot. At least for me when I’m in the woods, the sights, sounds, smells, and beauty of creation can help make the darkness in my memories seem more distant.

Lots have been written about the mental/physical/emotional benefits of consistent exercise; while I have found that running and kettlebells have been good for blunting the edge off anger or depression, I am ultimately responsible for whatever emotional or mental state I’m in. I know that this (taking back control of my mind and spirit) can take a lot of time and patience, I don’t think PTSD is a fight that a man can win in a day. In the end, I don’t believe that you can make peace with your demons, you have to face them.

24 Philip November 14, 2012 at 8:21 am

I’m an Iraq vet and every day I want to escape to the woods, build a house, grow a garden, see my life unfold in real-time rather than work a f’d up meaningless office job.

Seeing death up close and personal really takes the pleasure out of “later”, which is when most occupations promise you your reward.

I just want to live “now”.

25 Father Muskrat November 14, 2012 at 8:37 am

Loved this. Wish I’d done this when I got back from Iraq in 2003 instead of drinking a bunch and wrecking a car!

26 Gene November 14, 2012 at 2:58 pm

I trully enjoyed the article. I am currently in the Guard, I’ve have been back and forth to the the “desert” since ’03, six deployments so far.
During this time I lost the three most important men in my life, both Grandfathers and my Dad. During that time I Iost focus as a husband and father, I isolated myself away from my loved ones. In Feb. of ’10 I had a huge wake up call, almost lost it all through stuppidity on my part.
I agree with the comments, I had to deal with my demons. I’ve had anger issues. As a kid I always heard about “working off a mad” I honestly believe a sense of true accomplishment helps immensely.
I am a runner, 4 to 7 miles daily, gives me time to think things through (like how to effectively deal with the demons).
The being outside is just good for my soul! If I remember correctly, this sight has spoken about some pretty influential fella’s that advocate getting out of doors on a daily basis to clear their heads.
Thanks for listening…it’s been good to get this off of my mind.

27 Marcus November 14, 2012 at 3:06 pm

Again–thanks so much for these comments. You men are living through this adjustment process today. Thank you for your service to our country.

28 Jake November 14, 2012 at 5:17 pm

Excellent article. Just the right length and sensible analysis. This is just the sort of writing that makes this a great site. I like to bounce from here to straightdope.

29 Pat S. November 14, 2012 at 7:43 pm

Excellent advice from Mr. Miller. Sadly, many WW II vets, like my Dad, really started to face their demons mentally / emotionally when they stopped being busy with their work. I read an article somewhere that upon retirement many seemingly well adjusted WW II vets started to have nightmares etc., something to do with having the time to think after a long, busy working life. Our family saw this with my Dad after his retirement.

30 Mel November 16, 2012 at 12:58 am

Thank you for that kind article.

31 Erica November 17, 2012 at 11:09 am

I am a therapist, and I can say that this strategy works well for a lot of people dealing with trauma or depression/anxiety. It’s solid advice. However, it does not work for everyone. If you’ve been struggling with mental illness and healthy activities like the one described in the this article aren’t working for you then please get yourself to a mental health care provider.

32 Joe Rubio November 17, 2012 at 4:29 pm

Good article and I agree with much of it. But it pays to be careful not to romanticize those days. My parents had me late in life. So they, my relatives were all of the immigrant WWII generation. My uncle was a hero and he struggled horribly with PTSD. If he had some the tools we had now and less of a social stigma about talking about things he would’ve been way better off. In some ways people in those days had more freedoms. Their time wasn’t taken up as much and things moved slower. What we can learn from this story is to get out of the “social incubator” many of us live in and go do what you believe in. Take the wonderful freedoms we have now and look to the past to learn some “new ideas”

33 jt November 21, 2012 at 11:14 pm

“Invisible Heroes” is a book on PTSD I’d highly recommend.

Therapy is a good thing. Seeking help is a good thing. Just because some method happened to seem to work for one person in retrospect by no means indicates it actually worked, or will work for anybody else.

The timeline in this elderly person’s head as to his “recovery” may be quite skewed.

Essentially, everything about this article is flawed. The first thing to do is to seek professional help, not try to self-treat.

34 John T. November 22, 2012 at 11:21 am

I feel that the article, while good, missed two essential points. Most of the commenters missed them too. They are (1) connection with God to seek His help and influence. I firmly believe in God. I firmly believe a close relationship with Him is fundamental. Anyone has the right to pray, to tell Him you troubles and ask his advice. He can help.
(2) Get your mind off yourself and look for opportunites to help other people, to lift their burdens and bring them some joy. That advice came from Jesus in the New Testament, and I think it helps quite a lot.
Yes, the other advice in the article is good, but I think these two things I mentioned are really big in getting out of dark places.

35 Oddball November 24, 2012 at 6:37 am

Physical labor is not just for returning vets – it is also good for frustrated office jockeys, the kind of people who wouldn’t know a hard day’s work if it bit them in the cock. It teaches them what real work is like and that there is more to life than massaging a keyboard or dodging paper cuts.

I have done my time in the wars and done my time doing hard labor. I did and still do trips to the wars, but between those trips spend time in unforgiving construction jobs. It’s tough and nasty, but so is life. It keeps me ahead of the pack when it comes to doing the office jockey jobs.

36 SailorRob November 26, 2012 at 11:57 am

I’m a Navy Vet and I find that splitting wood helps more than anything. It gets you out doors. It helps to take out aggression and it is an activity you have complete control over. It helps center me.I totally agree with this article. Get back to nature. It helps.

37 A R November 26, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Read “With the Old Breed” by Eugene Sledge. His father worked with shell shocked vets from WW1. When Gene came home, he got the same advice from his dad: don’t drink, keep busy, spend time outdoors. He had PTSD like I’ve never heard of. His wife couldn’t wake him without a fight until a buddy told her to just whisper his nickname ‘Sledgehammer’. He’d pop awake ready for action but quiet and calm. His dad’s advice kept him functional in society. He also wrote down his nightmares and that gave him relief as well.

When I was in college the last time, I was married, 2 kids, in a place that ran about 15-20% unemployed. I was a full time student and worked 3 part time jobs to make ends meet. My wife didn’t work.
I bought a frontier tomahawk kit, found some old pine tree sections and setup a throwing “range” near the house.

When stuff started to close in, I’d practice throwing that ‘hawk. Outside, cool nights, the steady beat of throw, retrieve, setup, throw was like medicine.

Sometimes it’s the simplest thing that helps.

38 Andrew November 28, 2012 at 12:55 am

This article was great. After a year at war in Iraq, 5 years later I am still trying to move on with my life. VA helps, but one step at a time

39 Alex K December 6, 2012 at 9:26 am

This article is valuable.

One thing, though. If a man is sidelined by injuries that prevent him from ‘keeping busy’ or later, in life, incurs illnesses in old age or an accident that forces him to in activity, the darkness formerly kept at bay through activity can then return.

And today’s veterans of the Iraq/Afghanistan war, have been cycled through very many more tours of duty than veterans in earlier wars. Many are returning home with brain and body injuries that veterans of earlier wars would not have survived.

And as noted above, the Iraq/Afghanistan wars have not affected civilian life over here. No sense of shared purpose or ‘home front’ as we had in World War II.

40 Sean January 23, 2013 at 8:01 pm

I have a difficult time reading stories like these. Not because of the content but because I have served in the U.S. Army for 14 years and have been on 7 different combat deployments. I have my share of demons and am still currently working through them. There is no one size fits all answer for “shell shock” “PTSD” or the “thousand yard stare”. Each man’s story and experience is different and his life is what leads him to interpret those experiences. No one way is right or wrong but the one common denominator is that man needs to want to get help and admit to himself he does in fact have a problem. That my friends is far easier said than done. Sharing your stories is a highly personal and hard thing to do. So sharing how you worked through things is a good thing because your methods may help another brother in arms but in such a macho setting as combat arms the stigma is an added obstacle So the fact that this man worked outside and grew some veg is great and I’m happy it worked for him, but, offering it up as a try this cause it’s a manly fix is irresponsible. I know you meant well but try not to attach a try this cause it worked for him to something as serious as PTSD. for combat or not men come here for manly advice and some men may think them self’s less than manly if this does not in fact work for them. Which may do more harm than good. Just my opinion, I know it was not your intention good sir but simple things like this on such a touchy subject can cause strife. But I applaud the fact that you are showing this is not an issue which makes one less of a man for having the problem. Thank you from me and all my brothers in arms.

41 Nick January 29, 2013 at 6:08 pm

Combat Medic here, I loved every aspect of my job, even the bad parts. My biggest advice to cherry medics is to know that men will die, you will see things you won’t ever forget. If you loose a soldier, do everything you possibly can to help him, then you can go home and look his parents in the eye and say “sir, ma’am, I’m the medic that worked on your son before he died. I did absolutely everything I could, but I couldn’t save him.” Give them specifics and don’t let any man die alone.

Myself, I threw my whole being into work. Returning to civilian life was an awkward transition. Mostly I threw myself into my work. I lived and continue to live to honor the lives of those that I lost, in addition to staying tight with their families. As I continue in my career field as a Fireman, I hang on to the code of “do more good than harm”.

42 jerry February 11, 2013 at 6:40 pm

The bravado that one uses when saying they came back and just got on with life makes me suspect of them. 45 years later I process my combat experiences at some point daily. It is part of our life and we deal with it the best way at the moment it bites you. It is who you are and you control it because the real you can be a very bad man.

43 jerry February 11, 2013 at 6:44 pm

Andrew..better that they don’t care than that they despise you. rvn

44 Gilbert P. December 4, 2013 at 2:49 pm

Great post. My Father was also a 92 year old WWII Vet. Before the war he was abused and fatherless. Long after the war, he watched my mother die from cancer and at the same time lost his Calligraphy business trying to save her. He since raised my brother and I. He was 76 when she died, and I was 5. I’m turning 22 this Friday, and I watched him die a little over a month ago. I never asked him how he coped with anything, but I knew him extremely well. From my point of view, it seems two things really helped him. First, he definitely stayed busy. Even in his last years while I was nursing him he always offered his assistance with anything I was doing. Second, he loved watching his descendants grow. He had four children, two grandchildren, and one great grand daughter. He stuck around for so long to make sure I’d be okay, and he was so happy to meet his Great Grandaughter. So, after he went though all that, now I’m of course in a dark place having spent the last 6 years nursing him, and then literally watching him die. I’ve noticed unintentionally on my off days I just keep cleaning and rearranging the apartment. I play my guitar and bass, and I shoot my pistols at the range. The healthiest and most helpful thing to do when in a dark place is most definitely keeping busy and productive. Family is also important, but he was the only family I could rely on. Like him, I’ll take it alone from here.

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