Best Defense

The reunion as Rx: An underutilized tool for connecting and helping combat vets

One of the problems with medicine today is that it’s so focused on developing the most cutting edge treatments that it often overlooks traditional methods that have been working for centuries.

reunion_Paula Brandfield


By David Morris
Best Defense guest contributor

One of the problems with medicine today is that it’s so focused on developing the most cutting edge treatments that it often overlooks traditional methods that have been working for centuries. For the first half of the 20th century, mothers were told that infant formula was better than breast milk. Since the late-1960s, the pendulum of medical opinion has swung to the opposite position.

Today we face a similar pattern with veterans and post-traumatic stress disorder. Veterans returning from war today find themselves in what some critics — like Ben Shephard, a British military historian — call a “culture of trauma.” World War II veterans were by and large expected to come home, put their uniforms in the closet, join the VFW, and try to put the war behind them as much as possible. Today we assume that all veterans have PTSD and that they need professional treatment for it.

The culture of trauma is based upon a medical model of life that says that people today are incapable of fighting wars without psychological damage. To address this damage, a number of psychiatric and pharmaceutical therapies are prescribed.

One powerful healing tradition that today’s “culture of trauma” overlooks is the old school military reunion. In April of this year, my old Marine battalion held a reunion on Camp Pendleton to commemorate the 2010 battle of Sangin, one of the bloodiest engagements of the Afghanistan War. Organized by a group of Gold and Blue Star families connected to the battalion and its former commander, the event included prayer, singing the Marines’ hymn, a reading of the names of the fallen, and a short speech by Lieutenant Colonel Jason Morris (no relation), the battalion commander during the battle.

After Morris’s speech, the hundred-odd Marines in attendance lined up and were issued traditional “challenge coins” by their former commander, which came with the challenge to “get back in touch with at least one of your comrades from the battalion and to make sure you know where they are mentally, psychologically, and if they’re having challenges, to reach out a hand and help them out.”

The event culminated in veterans of the Sangin battle hiking up a nearby bluff called “First Sergeant’s Hill” where an unofficial memorial for the fallen had been created. Atop the hill, the veterans did twenty-five push-ups to commemorate the twenty-five Marines killed at Sangin.

The reunion served a number of purposes, but the most important, according to Morris, was that fact that the reunion “triggered the personal discussions between warriors that are so important to the healing process.” Included among the names of the fallen that Morris read aloud was a member of the battalion who’d committed suicide since returning home — Farrell Gilliam — a popular Marine who took his life in 2014, after a long series of operations to treat the wounds he’d suffered in Sangin. According to one member of the battalion who attended the event, “The reunion saved my life. I feel completely different now.”

When senior leaders within the Marine Corps, which is struggling to deal with a suicide epidemic, first got word of the volunteer-led reunion back in February, they offered to dispatch a small task force of therapists and VA professionals to help out, including a VA claim-assessment van. Interestingly, Morris turned down these offers of aid, saying, “I didn’t want the event to turn into a pity party, what I call a ‘circus-bazaar’ of do-gooders and psychologists and other local vendors who mean well but can end up making guys feel like they’re broken, when they’re not.” He added, “Psychotropic drugs aren’t what these guys need.”

Most people when they think of military reunions imagine a bunch of drunken old men in funny hats weeping and re-telling old stories. But among the current generation of veterans, a grassroots movement is taking shape, one centered around reunions like the one held by the Darkhorse battalion in April. As these veterans see it, reunions are not merely a way of keeping in touch, they are the best form of medicine available. As one Marine reunion organizer wrote in a recent PowerPoint presentation: “Our warriors are not broken. Our warriors don’t need to be ‘fixed.’ We must give them the opportunity to access the one resource that has gotten them through everything: each other.”

As Dion Brugger, a Marine veteran who recently organized a reunion for the Marines who fought in the 2003 battle of Nasariyah, told me, “Reunions help to heal and provide closure. Vets often feel guilty about events that we think happened and then at the reunions we are finally able to talk to fellow Marines who were there with you and explain that you got the story wrong, twisted in your own mind, that it didn’t happen that way. They reaffirm that you have nothing to be guilty about.”

Brugger is adamant that more needs to be done to help veterans re-connect face-to-face and that the time-honored reunion is one the best ways to help reduce the current spate of suicides. As he told me recently, “The question to ask here is, would our country rather we attend reunions or funerals?”

Oddly, neither the Pentagon nor the VA has a policy on reunions, nor have they ever been studied by trauma researchers to understand what benefits they might provide. Clinicians today are aware that reunions are popular with some veterans, but they seem to be taking as wait-and-see approach. As Harold Kudler, a senior psychiatrist at the VA’s National Center for PTSD explained to me, “I think reunions are a very good idea. There is no body of evidence in the literature to support them, but they are places where you can be yourself and where you aren’t afraid to share because you fear that ‘nobody would understand.’”

The only PTSD researchers with any experience with reunions are Dan and Lynda King, a married psychologist couple who teach at Boston University and have studied veteran issues for more than 30 years. Both of them are Army veterans. Lynda served as a stateside nurse during Vietnam. Dan’s armored cavalry unit was hit hard during the Tet Offensive, in which he was wounded. The two of them have attended the reunions for Dan’s cavalry unit almost every year since the first one was organized in 1988.

As Lynda explains, “We have every rank attending, from private to general, and people who from every lot in life, from homeless people to successful attorneys.” She added, “It’s very supportive and non-judgmental. There was even a transgendered veteran there one year back in the 1990s.”

Of course, military reunions have a long history in the United States. Veterans have long attempted to “come home” by returning with their comrades to the actual fields of battle. Both Union and Confederate veterans participated in a reunion at Gettysburg in 1913. And there is the more recent phenomenon of “friendship” tours to Vietnam made by American veterans. Returning to an old battlefield allows a veteran a kind of imaginative control of old memories. It is a way of retaking the ground in one’s mind.

Psychologists call this sort of reinterpreting of events “cognitive restructuring,” one of the primary goals of modern cognitive therapy. When I read a passage from an email Dion Brugger sent me about how he felt after his Nasariyah reunion, Lynda blurted out, “that’s cognitive restructuring!”

While I think it will be a long time before today’s veterans will be able to visit Sangin or Nasariyah, I think veterans today probably need reunions even more than veterans of previous wars did. It’s not 1913, and as a number of writers like Sebastian Junger, author of Tribe, have argued, America is more fractured and socially-isolated than ever, despite the promises of social media. Social networks matter — real ones. They save lives. As Colonel Morris said at the conclusion of the Darkhorse reunion in April, “We are all together in this world — your battalion, your platoon, your squad from Sangin remain just a phone call or a text or an email away.”

David J. Morris is a former Marine infantry officer and the author of The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (Eamon Dolan/Mariner), which was a selection for “Best Defense’s Top 10 Military Related Books of the Year.”

Photo credit: RICK SUTTER

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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