When Posttraumatic Flashbacks Turn Into Living Nightmares
Chris Kyle by all accounts was an amazing hero—a Navy Seal who passed his BUD/S training and went on to serve in Iraq distinguishing himself as one of our military’s most lethal snipers, a role in which he often protected his team mates. According to news accounts when Chris decided to return home from the demanding tempo of his job he struggled briefly with all he’d been through but perhaps true to his Seal can-do spirit he overcame his re-entry stress and followed through on his strong desire to bond again with his wife and build his family strong. And like many Navy Seals he continued giving back to society long after his commission was over. After getting his own affairs in order, he began volunteering his time to work with other veterans who were struggling, but not finding the same resilience he had.
Eddie Ray Routh also served his country as a Marine but by preliminary press accounts evidently came home as a wounded warrior—not finding the peace in his soul that he needed to rebuild his life.
Chris Kyle was the type of American hero who not only served his country on the battlefield but once back home began searching for ways that he could help others. Kyle was not a psychologist but apparently intuitively understood a few important things in his volunteer work with other suffering veterans. One was that the camaraderie and bonds forged in military service during active duty are authentic and meaningful—and often deeply missed when a soldier returns home.
And Kyle also understood that if what a soldier coming home from combat has survived is disturbing, and he cannot gracefully find the way to share his painful thoughts and emotions—self-doubt, shame, guilt or trauma with others about what he’s experienced, he will find it hard to come to peace with it himself. And if he’s having flashbacks—sudden full sensory memories of things he saw in combat, or nightmares of the same—he will likely also find his body in a constant state of arousal—jumpy, tense, easily irritated and difficult to concentrate. He may begin to think he’s crazy. And he may choose avoidance, feel alienated and perhaps even self-isolate or turn to drugs or alcohol to cope.
Chris Kyle intuitively understood that he could help by reaching out and providing the same social bonds forged in a warzone to vets that could no longer find them. And he found that he could help vets to face their demons from combat experiences by taking them into settings that mirrored some of the same aspects of what they had experienced in combat. But this time they would experience it in a healing way—Kyle was offering a type of informal yet powerful experiential psychotherapy. He did this by taking mentally suffering vets out into the wild in small groups on hunting trips and it seems also taking Eddie Ray Routh to a shooting range.
In doing so Chris Kyle was reaching out to those who couldn’t give voice to their pain and taking them through some of the same paces of group exercises—support your buddies, work as a team, handle weapons responsibly—no one gets hurt, healing begins to occur. It seems Chris intuitively knew that to induce a partial flashback—to open a memory of a traumatic episode, just a bit, in a manageable manner and to couple that with nurture, attachment, understanding and support can be so very healing.
But perhaps what Chris Kyle overestimated—no one can now know—was his own ability to control those episodes. He was a Navy Seal after-all and had likely banished fear from his own life. He didn’t fear to put a weapon in a suffering man’s hands to help him see that he could handle it again, that he could be safe, supported, accepted back in—that he could reenter the human race again via Chris’s unorthodox—but by all accounts—highly effective and loving methods.
But what Chris maybe didn’t realize is that when someone induces a flashback voluntarily or not—it is an extremely powerful thing and there’s got to be a way to shut it down if it begins to flood the person—making him confused about if he’s back there in the horrible memory, or set of memories—or in the here and now. And if the person is holding a gun when a flashback overtakes him it can be a terrible thing. Chris Kyle was a hero. He trained long and hard and he evidently had a heart of gold. But he maybe didn’t know that sometimes a flashback can become so overwhelming that it becomes a real and living nightmare.
While no one knows yet—and we may never know what really happened out at Rough Creek Lodge—we do know a few things. Chris Kyle worked from the heart. He knew a lot and he was reaching guys, taking them through their paces again, in a highly experiential method of healing their wounds. It seems that Eddie Ray Routh may have been just too wounded to reach in that way. Despite Routh’s crime, my heart goes out to both of them.
Anne Speckhard is the author of Talking to Terrorists