What happens when a soldier returns from the battlefield? How does a combat veteran transition from the chaos and intense camaraderie that occurs in war to the more placid rhythms of civilian life? How does our society help these individuals make that transition?
In his book The Return: A Field Manual for Life After Combat, Marine combat veteran David Danelo argues that our returning soldiers have “a power that must be discovered, honored, and treasured.” The Return offers some big picture ideas on how our military and civilian cultures can protect and nurture this potent gift.
Today on the podcast, we discuss how warriors can make the return to civilian life and what civilians can do to help.
- What caused David to question our assumptions about how to best help soldiers with PTSD based on his own experience with it
- How the Hero’s Journey can serve as a archetype to help returning combat soldiers
- Why returning combat soldiers sometimes feel worse when they come home to family and friends than when they were in the battlefield getting shot at
- How returning combat soldiers can defeat what David calls “Exile”
- How PTSD can be an asset and not a liability
- Why civilians need to move beyond saying “Thank for your service.”
- Why war can be beautiful
- What civilians can do to help returning combat soldiers
- How civilians can apply the principles in The Return in their own life
- And much more!
Even though I’m not a combat veteran, I got a lot out of reading The Return. First, it provided me some insight on what I can do to help our returning combat soldiers. And second, several of the points David makes are just as applicable to dealing with the stress, trauma, and setbacks that come with regular life. The style is very reminiscent of Stephen Pressfield’s work like The Warrior Ethos and Do the Work, so if you enjoyed those books, you’ll enjoy The Return.
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Listen to the episode on a separate page.
Brett: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Since 9/11 and before, American warriors have faced combat in difficult and adverse theaters with dedication, courage, remarkable in their fortitude, and our nation supports them during their time in the fight, and we say thank you for your service. It’s become a common civilian affirmation, but what happens to these men and women when they return from the battlefield. What’s waiting for them at home? How do we assimilate these individuals who have seen some of the worst things in the world, who have faced being faced with life and death, who have had this intense camaraderie with their fellow soldiers. They come back, and they don’t have that anymore. How do we assimilate them in society?
Our guest today is a Marine combat veteran. His name is David Danelo, and he wrote a book called The Return: A Field Manual for Life After Combat. It’s specifically geared towards soldiers who are returning from combat back into civilian life, and how to make that adjustment, whether they’re suffering from PTSD or not, because there’s a lot of guys who they experience a letdown when they come back from combat to just regular life, and they get in a funk. It’s geared towards them, but it’s, also, a great book for civilians to read. If you want to know how to help and reach out to your friends, your family, who are combat veterans, and what you can say to them, besides saying, “Thank you for your service,” this book is for you. It’s, also, a great book for civilians even if you haven’t seen combat, because the principles in it are applicable to anyone who is making a transition in their life, and they’re feeling sort of confused and down in the dumps about it.
Anyway, David and I discuss The Return, and what we can do to help our combat veterans, and what combat veterans can do to help themselves to make that adjustment back to civilian life.
David Danelo, welcome to the show.
David: Thank you. It’s good to be here, Brett.
Brett: Your book is called The Return: A Field Manual for Life After Combat. What’s the back story of this book? Why did you feel like you needed to write a book for soldiers returning from combat?
David: It’s interesting that we decided to make the subtitle A Field Manual, because it’s actually in many ways the opposite of a field manual, and it was a little bit of a play on it, just to say that there isn’t really a guide or a how to, and returning is something we all experience individually. Like many writers, and I think that the true back story of most books has something to do with this. I wrote it for myself really, to try to make sense of my own experience, and sort of as a compass of sorts. There’s times where I’ve looked back on it, and feel like I’m a drunk trying to give sobriety advice, because I read it, and I need it. It means a lot of me to try to use it as a compass of sorts to put my own experience in context, because it’s not like I have this figured out. I know what has been useful for me and what I gain utility from, and my intention was to share that, and to hopefully help others along the way.
Brett: You are a combat veteran, correct?
David: I am, yes.
Brett: When you were making your transition from soldier back to civilian life, you brought up in the book that you began to question conventional wisdom of making that return, right? There’s a lot of advice out there, what we should do with our soldiers when they’re coming home. They need this. They need that. Even questioning the idea of PTSD is actually a thing. That’s in the news a lot, or if therapy is helpful, or counseling is helpful for returning soldiers. What was it that caused you to raise those questions? Was it just your experience was incongruous with what was going on? What was going on there?
David: I think first and foremost, it is the lawyer disclaimer up front. I need to acknowledge and definitely validate that there are many, many veterans who return from combat with very, very significant and very powerful emotional and psychological trauma that can only be dealt with professionally or medically, and I’m thinking specifically and particularly of traumatic brain injury. TBI is really powerful, and it’s pretty difficult to deal with that outside of the power of twenty-first century modern medicine. I think it’s important to state that up front.
That being said, I returned from combat with some shrapnel in my jaw, and with the experience of a seven month deployment in Iraq, but not with traumatic brain injury certainly. Consequently, there was some emotional conditions that I felt and continue to feel about having been in a combat environment, and then actually continuing to return to combat environments as a writer and researcher, or unstable environments at the very least, and I couldn’t reconcile my own experience with a lot of what people were saying, because the social stereotype of post traumatic stress disorder is basically that veterans come back all screwed up, and that everybody universally, we’re going to thank you for your service while you’re in, and then once you come back, we’re really scared to hire you, even though we know we should, because we know that we’ve got to find a way to transition you, but we’re concerned about your psychological condition.
There’s more about that, too, in terms of how previous generations in US history came back from combat. In World War II, there was a different type of combat transition that the entire generation experienced, and the rates of PTSD declarations are really, really high right now, relative to even the past hundred years in data collection.
It seemed to me that, in part, a lot of veterans were saying that the emotional condition that they were having was post traumatic stress disorder, but maybe it was something else, and so I tried to come up with a way to describe that.
Brett: Got you. You mentioned World War II soldiers had a process that was different. What was different?
David: There were a couple of things that were different in World War II. The 1946 movie, The Best Years of Our Lives, about returning veterans was an Oscar winner at the time, and it’s a powerful film, and I think that that characterizes a certain sense of exile that those three men felt returning from combat, but then the whole society was returning from combat. There was a universality to we’re glad we’re done with this, and it’s time to move onto the good times. That’s not possible in today’s military environment, and whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, people can debate. That’s a separate debate about whether everybody should go to war together, the whole society should be involved.
I think that the reality though is that soldiers and warriors … I tend to use the term warrior rather than soldier, just because it’s more universally encompassing to anyone who identifies as Marine, or a sailor, or an airman, who has been in a combat environment. Any warrior who is returning to civilian life is coming back to a culture with completely different value sets, even in a positive way. The positive values are very difficult than the warrior culture.
Brett: We’ll get into those differences, the dichotomy. You mentioned a little while ago, this word exile, and that was a reference to Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey.
Brett: You called the warriors’ return to civilian life exile. How is it exile, when you’re going home to friends, to family, the people you love, but it’s still exile. Why is that?
David: The reason why I reference Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, and I think that the mythological aspect of Campbell, who wrote a lot of what he wrote from Carl Jung’s archetypes as well, and then was pulled into this … George Lucas studied Joseph Campbell before Star Wars, and it’s become part of the way that we understand our mythologies and our stories of our own lives, is you have this calling initially, where you go off somewhere, and then you have this adventure that changes you, and then you come back from it, and then Campbell called the last stage of that hero’s journey, and he depicted it in I think six or seven steps as the return. The first step of the return of any hero, in thinking of Luke Skywalker standing around a campfire at the end of Return of the Jedi, after he’s slain his father, and it’s kind of like, “Okay, what do I do now? Where do I fit in?”
One’s identity as a warrior is very, very clear. We are thanked for our service, and we are asked to defend society, and go wherever it is that we’re sent, but then trying to capture that and pull that back into identity as a civilian, even with friends and family along, unless you have a clear vision of what gives you meaning and purpose as a civilian, it’s a difficult thing to do, and then the exile experience is that war creates such a powerful sense of meaning and purpose, that when you’re there, you know exactly what to do and how you belong, and that sense of meaning and belonging is very difficult to transfer in a civilian context.
Brett: Yeah. Is that what makes it so difficult for soldiers to explain to friends and family. I think a lot of civilian friends and family, they might get frustrated, and say, “Why aren’t you happy? You’re back here with us. It’s safe,” and I guess a lot of soldiers say they miss being with their buddies. There’s that excitement, that sense of urgency. Is that what makes transitioning so hard?
David: I think everything is different for every person, for what it is that they’re transitioning to or from on the one thing, and so there’s some universal themes, but, again, lawyer’s caveat. I don’t want to try to make a blanket statement for every single veteran coming home.
I think that it’s difficult for civilians always to understand, yeah, you’re safe, you’re coming back home to friends and family, but when you have your sense of identity invested in, not just your brothers, your comrades, your fellow warriors, but the personal power that’s drawn from being successful in a combat environment is a professional euphoria that can’t be captured coming back and forth from the office. It’s a very difficult thing to capture professionally, absent a sense of professional ambition.
For men, it’s self-esteem. You know from your own work on your blog and your deep study of manhood, much of our self-esteem as men revolves around our work, and it revolves the identity that’s associated with our work. Getting paid to kill people and break things, or to prevent others from killing people and breaking things, has some limited value in a civilian context. Yes, you can point to security guards or police officers or any sort of protective agency, but maybe that’s not what everybody wants to do for the rest of their life who is returning from war.
Many people go to war, many men in particular go to war, seeking validation of their manhood and their own sense of masculinity, and returning from war and finding a useful application for that sense of masculinity derived from being successful in combat, that’s what everybody’s got to do differently, especially in the American masculine culture.
Brett: What does a warrior’s exile look like? Granted everyone’s going to be different, but what are some common … Is it depression? Is it just being in a funk? Is it just sort of existential angst? How would you describe exile?
David: You know, Brett, I think this is something where I do think that are a lot of parallels to civilian life, because I think that whether you’re a warrior or a civilian, I think we all go through emotional conditions of not knowing exactly where to belong, where we come back, and when you’re in combat, yeah, you want to get back home, and you want to be safe, and you want to be able to see your family and your friends and people you care about that aren’t there, but then when you get there, everything that you were doing, you remember it, and you remember the feelings that you had that were so powerful, and the sense of meaning and purpose that you had that was so powerful, and you can’t replicate that, so your world doesn’t make sense.
I think that exile, as I describe it, is just that emotional condition of not knowing where to belong.
Brett: That’s really frustrating.
Brett: It’s a frustrating feeling. What do you do to go about getting out of exile? The entire book’s devoted to that, but highlight some things that have worked for you, and that you’ve seen work in other returning warriors’ lives.
David: One of the things that … I almost said we talk about, because you end up talking a lot in your work as well, is this acceptance of duality, and there’s a whole chapter on accepting duality. By duality, I mean the sense that contradictory things can be reconciled in your mind, the yin and the yang of our lives.
A warrior has to be able to find a way to capture whatever their own experience is in war, and I mentioned it in the book, but it’s important for civilians who meet combat veterans to understand that every warrior’s experience is different. I mean my experience as a combat veteran was pretty limited, relative to a lot of the warriors returning today, in the sense that I didn’t do multiple deployments. Many people coming back from combat, especially from my era in the Marine Corps. Four or five combat deployments is pretty common. The record I know of is thirteen. I know a special forces veteran, thirteen combat deployments. When that’s your life, that’s your day at the office, that becomes a more normal condition for you to understand the world than driving along on the interstate back and forth to the office every day, and just putting in your time doing your emails or being part of the organization that you’re part of.
That being said, I call out warriors pretty strongly in the book, if you just want to be back to war, then you can find the route back. There’s plenty of work out there for warriors, and if that’s what you want to do with your life, you can find a path to doing that. If you want to be back in a civilian environment, and find meaning in the civilian environment, the way to defeating exile is through accepting and finding that peace can be just as powerful as war, only in a different way.
Brett: Let’s talk about the duality, trying to figure out to have this idea of war coexist with the idea of peace. You had this whole chapter with these great redefine war, and then a counter definition of peace. There’s what you expect to see, war is masculine and peace is feminine. There were some things that you were like … Particularly for civilians to be like, “Wow, that’s kind of a weird definition.” For example, war is beautiful. Most civilians would be like, “No, war is ugly. I see it on the news. There’s bodies everywhere. There’s destruction.” How is war beautiful? What is the experience for a warrior that makes it beautiful and noble and the like?
David: A couple of things on that that are interesting. The way that I started that chapter and the research process, was I actually just kept looking up the definitions of war in other languages. I tried to look it up particularly in western civilization languages, that it had influenced the definition of war in English, derives from Middle German, and where these words come from. I stumbled upon bellicus and bellum, as the Latin war, and it means beautiful. The root of bellum is bello. I mean the Romans defined war in the same way that they defined beauty, and I thought, “Wow, that’s interesting,” so then I just tried to go inside that and say is that true? Has that been true to my experience, and the answer is yes.
The experience of being a combat veteran, and it’s more than the band of brothers thing. It’s more than the adrenaline rush even of surviving a fire fight or a fierce engagement, or even a random mortar round that lands too close. The sense of self-awareness that you have in moving through fear on not just a daily basis, but a momentary basis, because the fear of death is a powerful thing in any human soul, and so moving beyond that fear of death, and into this psychological space of where you’re beyond that, and you’re just living and working, and very much in the moment. As I wrote about it, it’s kind of this new age experience, where you don’t have to read books telling you to stay in the moment, because you’re right there.
That’s a beautiful place to be in emotionally and psychologically. Getting to that place as a warrior, makes you want to stay there, and that’s one of the reasons why warriors often keep going back. Many of the people I know who have done four or five deployments, continue volunteering because being at war is paradoxically a safe place, and being in civilian life can be threatening.
The flip side of that is peace is, also, beautiful and meaningful. Anybody who has stood in a dessert and watched the sun set, and just listened to the stillness of silence in the mountains, and seen the calm peace of nature, knows that nature can be very calming, but nature can, also, be very violent. You see tornadoes, and there’s a certain beauty to a tornado, as much as there is a fierceness and a threat.
Brett: Who was it that said it’s a good thing that war’s so horrible, or we’d learn to like it too much?
David: Robert E. Lee. Yeah, Robert E. Lee’s quote. It is well that war is so terrible, least we should grow too fond of it. Yeah.
Brett: That’s interesting. Is that important for civilians to know, like the draw of war to warriors?
David: I think so, in the sense that … You’re a Hemingway reader, and it’s interesting. Papa never killed a man, except for himself. He hunted, but he understood some things that were true about the nature of war and the nature of combat from his own observation and experience. He describes the beauty of it pretty well in his work. I reference that as well, because our culture devours action movies, and we watch a lot of … I’ve been intrigued by the response to American Sniper, as this defining film of the Iraq War. I didn’t see it right when it came out. I ended up watching it on an airplane recently, and I was kind of like it was one guy’s world. For me, it wasn’t like, “Oh, wow, yeah. That’s the way it was.”
It was an interesting point of discussion, but I think that for civilians to be able to acknowledge that there is a beauty to war might help get past those uncomfortable questions that combat veterans encounter of, “Did you kill anybody?” When people ask a combat veteran what it was like, they usually go in with a preconceived expectation. In other words, somebody who hasn’t been to war, wants you to tell him a war story or some glory story, or the inverse of, “Well, it was so horrible and it’s awful, and I’m so happy to be back.” The truth is always much more complicated than that. War can often be very boring, and, also, very terrifying, and all those other things that I wrote about.
Brett: What can civilians do to help a returning warrior, help them along in the exile process? Is there anything they can really do, or is it something that the warrior has to do themselves, or only another comrade can understand and actually help them with?
David: You know from your read of the book that civilians and anybody who hasn’t been to war, makes a huge contribution to moving a warrior or returning soldier or a returning combat veteran back from the combat environment. I think the most important thing is a capacity to dialogue in a way that a warrior can understand and relate to. There’s become, again, this American cultural universality of thank you for your service. It’s almost like the catechism before communion.
Brett: Yeah. As soon as you see someone’s … sort of thank you for your service. It happens right away.
David: It’s become this almost Pavlovian trigger of what somebody says that you have to say to a veteran … Actually, in my view, it obscures conversation, because it’s like now you have performed your genuflecting ritual to me, and now I can’t talk to you like a normal person. You’re distancing yourself from me in some way, because you know that that’s the right thing to say. It’s almost become something that you have to then get past in conversation, so that we can just be like, “Hey, look, I’m no better or worse than you. It’s an all volunteer military, and I volunteered for a number of reasons, and I’m just as interested in your life as you are in mine, and I appreciate that you respect my choices, but I’d like to respect yours, too.”
I think veterans who have a need for that adulation, for that keep glorifying me because I’m better than you, because I’m more willing to take it on the chin, because you want me on that wall, and you need me on that wall.
Brett: Just watched that movie the other day.
David: Right. That becomes something where that is just as much of a barrier in conversation, so, to me, the first thing that civilians can do to help returning warriors come back to a civilian life, is respect what it is that they’ve endured, and gone through, and chosen as a combat environment, and seek to understand it in the same way that we try to understand anyone’s life experience.
To me, part of the importance is understanding beyond the politics of war. I’ve had this experience a lot of times, where basic geography just obscures empathy. It’s not like I expect everybody to know where Fallujah is on a map, but I do maybe perhaps wrongly expect people to know that Fallujah is in the country of Iraq. That’s just in the same way as I think that it’s important for any American who is trying to understand the black American experience right now to know where Ferguson is, or Charleston is, or Baltimore is, and to understand what’s going on in those communities, because those are things that are happening in our country, and that affect our civic life.
To me, part of what affects our civic life as a society is that a decision to go war, it’s wasn’t my decision in the Marine Corp whether we were going to go to war or not. I’m just a guy executing. The decision rests collectively with all of us, and is exercised through our representatives and through their votes.
Brett: Know something about what’s going on, educate yourself.
David: I think it’s useful, or, if you don’t know, acknowledge it, just like you do with anybody. When I meet somebody who from a profession that I’ve never had any experience with, I don’t know what it’s like to own a restaurant, or be an insurance agent, or do neurological surgery, or run the Art of Manliness blog, but I’m certainly interested in the tools of your trade, and what’s a day in and day out life for you, and what’s your ongoing experience, and I think that’s how we relate to things that we don’t understand in a civilian context.
To me, it doesn’t have to be any different in a warrior context. Combat veterans are like all of us. They like talking about our work.
Brett: One of the great lines you wrote in your book that stood out to me, talking about how oftentimes civilians don’t really understand the experience, and it’s related to thank you for your service. When people find out that you had a Purple Heart, “Oh, wow, you were super brave.” You’re like, “Well, it’s just part of the job.” Telling me that I’m brave for my Purple Heart was like telling Mohammad Ali is brave because he got punched in the face.
David: Right, exactly. That’s definitely been one where there’s this deification of, “Oh, wow, he’s been awarded a Purple Heart.” It’s like, hey, yeah. I’m certainly not ashamed of the fact that I was wounded in combat, and, yes, it plays a role in my life experience, but I don’t think that that’s a characterization of bravery. It’s just not to me. I know and have seen and am aware of many, many brave acts that have never been recorded in decorations or medals. Bravery and courage is something I think that when we encounter it, and observe it, and experience it in somebody else, we know it. I think that that’s a much more powerful thing than anything that anybody wears on their chest.
Brett: Sure. You call in your book, post traumatic stress disorder, you call it post traumatic stress asset. How is post traumatic stress disorder, whatever you want to call it, how’s that an asset in a warrior’s life, returning into civilian life?
David: I think that’s a terrific question. That whole third of the book is really just trying to explore this thing of you’re going through exile, and you reconcile this duality, at some point this condition that we’re describing as post traumatic stress … The reason why I’m really, really big on relabeling the term, disorder, is because disorder is a very … Think about the number of disorders that we have in our society now, and how we treat them. We’ve got attention deficit disorder. We’ve got conversation disorder. We’ve labeled everything a disorder, and let’s talk about attention deficit disorder. I’m sure you’ve read about this. I don’t know if you’ve written about it on the blog. You’ve probably done some work on it. That so many boys today are being labeled with attention deficit disorder, for what’s basically just normal behavior in boys, and it’s like really they fight in class. I mean homo sapiens have been going through this process for a good number of years now, and it’s part of the development of male youth.
The idea of post traumatic stress being something that’s pretty normal … The idea that, okay, we’re coming back from this environment where we had all this meaning, and now we don’t, or we’ve experienced trauma, and any civilian can understand what it’s like to … Most adult civilians could understand what it’s like to go through a major car accident, or lose a family member, or have some major trauma that you’ve gone through that you’re trying to move through, that you know is going to change you on the back end of it, and what we tell ourselves, and that is, “Okay, that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” That we find our meaning in this, that we find our purpose in this.
For me, wanting to relabel post traumatic stress, I’m not trying to redefine this as a psychological condition, and, again, kind of a lawyer disclaimer, every case is different, and there are definitely cases where there is some utility and value in medication and in proscription for post traumatic stress, but I tend to think of post traumatic stress as a condition that you can leverage. That that feeling of my own combat experience, if I label my combat experience for the rest of my life as a disorder, then I’m never going to be able to do draw any positive value from it, and so for me, labeling post traumatic stress as an asset is saying what you did in combat has meaning and purpose, and it can make you into a civilian that in a way that not being in combat can’t. In a way that anybody’s life experience that they go through brings means and purpose to them.
Brett: Got you. One of the things I love about the book, is even though it’s directed towards returning warriors, even as someone, for me, who has never fought, who has never been in the military, I found a lot of the principles very applicable to my own life. Have you found civilians using your book to help them with some sort of problem, like transitioning from one period of their life to another?
David: I have actually, and that’s been a positive validation of the book is that I’ve had a number of people who have gone through different types of emotional trauma, have reached out to me and said, “Yeah, this is really good. This makes sense to me.” My intention actually was to be able to offer something that could connect a veteran’s experience to a civilian’s own experience, so that you could read it and say, “Yeah, I’ve been through something like that.” Whatever it is, coming back from something, whether it was traumatic or beautiful, that impacted you powerfully in a way that’s enduring for the rest of your life, and then being able to draw meaning and purpose from that.
Yeah, I definitely wanted to offer something and share something that civilians could read and feel an emotional connection with and say, “Oh, yeah, I get it now. I get what it’s like,” because, like I said, I think that part of the danger of returning veterans is that emotional distancing of the civilian world that comes from thank you for your service, is, also, sort of like, “Yeah, but we don’t want to get too close to you. We want to make sure that you’re happy, because we don’t want you to be pissed off, but when you come back from war, now you’re pissed off and broken and disordered, and now you’re messed up, and we don’t know if we can trust you with normal stuff. We don’t know if we can trust you with normal life.”
I think you can, and I think that, again, as a combat veteran, my life choices aren’t any better or worse than anybody else’s choices, and I don’t think I’m a better or worse person, just a different person, and my life experience is different than the norm of civilian life, but we’re all different, right? Especially in America, our culture is so powerfully and beautifully individualistic, that being able to understand each of our own individuality just helps us connect, helps us connect with other warriors and other civilians.
Brett: David, where can other people learn about your work and the book?
David: My website is Danelo.com, and the books are available, The Return is available on BlackIrishBooks.com is the best way to purchase it. You’ll get the best deal there. I’ve written a couple of books, other books as well, and all of my work is available on Amazon.com.
Brett: Awesome. Well, David Danelo, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
David: Thank you so much, Brett, and congratulations on your work as well.
Brett: Thank you. Our guest today was David Danelo. He’s the author of The Return: A Field Manual for Life After Combat. You can find that on Amazon.com. Go pick it up. It’s a quick read, but it’s really impactful, the things he writes in there. Check it out. You can find more about David’s work at Danelo.com, that’s D-A-N-E-L-O.com.
That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at ArtofManliness.com, and if you enjoy this podcast and feel like you’re getting something out of it, please, please, please, give us a review on iTunes, or Stitch, or whatever it is you use to listen to your podcasts. That will help get the word out. Also, share us with a friend. That would be the best compliment you could give me, if you would share the podcast and tell your friends to check it out.
Anyway, until next time, this is Brett McKay, telling you to stay manly.