Veterans, Trauma & Carrying a Permanent Combat Load

Brian M. Murray, MS

What does it mean to be a combat veteran? Often the answer can be found in training and learning how to fight in a combat situation. A combat load in the military is regarded as a full load of everything needed to fight, whether it’s a tank or a rucksack. What goes in a tank or ruck gets hauled, whether it weighs 64 tons on a track or 120 pounds on a back. As prior Infantry, I remember my first real combat load and couldn’t believe what was being handed to me to carry. My usual training combat load varied anywhere from 35-75 pounds depending on the mission. Not this time. Before deploying, I weighed it in disbelief - it was approaching 120 lbs! By some standards and units this is still considered low. This is crazy; how can anyone carry this much weight and still be effective? It was cliché for the cadence call referencing “I used to drive a Cadillac, now I carry it on my back.”

Point number one is that a combat load is heavy. It’s everything you need and then some. If something in it ends up not being needed, then so be it, but for now, it goes in the load. That brings me to point number 2. In training, the mind gets conditioned in this way:

“Yes, it’s heavy, suck it up and get over it.”

“Don’t worry about your feet, knees or back, it’s all skin and bone.”

“Pain is temporary.”

“It grows back if it gets worn out.”

These are the types of messages many of the veterans hear to teach them how to push through pain and suffering. They learn how to suck things up and keep moving. One thing to remember is if you are pushing hard, so is the enemy, so push harder and make them miserable. In the end it makes the guy on the other side want to quit fighting so it makes sense to learn pain management.

Conditioning the mind works great if someone is struggling to carry a rucksack that is equivalent to almost 70% of their body weight. The problem with this theory is what happens to the veteran after they return from war and still have the mindset to keep “sucking it up.” They carry the wounds of war back to their families and communities and try to re-adjust to a sense of normalcy. The combat load they are now carrying is in their mind and the images of their experiences dealing with life-threatening situations. They may have PTSD or depression. They turn to substance abuse and in a worst case scenario they may take their own life to end the pain they feel that they can no longer “suck up.” Military suicides over the past few years outnumbers combat deaths.

The weight of their experience becomes too heavy and difficult to carry anymore. They struggle to “just get over it.” The difficulty of trying to get over it often leads to misinterpreted feelings of guilt, shame and trying to shed painful memories. Trying to adjust, they may experience feeling abandoned, rejected, nervous, having trouble sleeping, nightmares and helplessness. This is the combat load they struggle with. This is the part where they try to continue to suck it up or go it alone, which becomes an overwhelmingly daunting task.

So what can be done about it? First and foremost is teamwork. If you know a veteran who is struggling, do not be afraid to approach them. They may feel a little bit like a failure, or have some guilt and try to shrug it off - after all, they are supposed to be tough and able to handle it. There is a little known secret out there in addition to the Veterans Administration called The Vet Center. There are many of these located in communities across the country and often have great counseling resources available. They are funded by the VA yet they operate independently. Another option is to find private veteran-related support groups and church ministries geared toward veterans. Most communities have these and one might have to do a little digging to find them but they are out there. In Orlando, one of those organizations is called The Camaraderie Foundation.

One of the greatest assets to healing is getting plugged into a social setting with other veterans. It gives them a place of connection with others who can relate to their experience and lets them see that they are not alone. In these environments, talking about their experiences can help relieve some of the load and burden they have been carrying around.  There is healing in relationships and the transformation can begin to build resiliency in the veteran. Encouragement and appreciation can go a long way as it helps to normalize their experience.

The military doesn’t teach people to take the easy way out; it teaches people that when things get tough then it’s time to get tougher. The problem with this theory is everyone has a limit to how much they can carry. When the combat load is too heavy to carry alone, it’s time to ask others for help.

About the author- Brian M Murray is a devoted professional helping to empower people and overcoming difficult obstacles in life. He is a Registered Mental Health Counselor Intern located in Orlando and Winter Park, Florida working as a counselor in a private practice setting at The LifeWorks Group.

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