"Sharing can be a way of healing. Grief and loss can isolate,
anger even alienate. Shared with others, emotions unite
as we see we aren't alone. We realize others weep with us."
~Susan Wittig Albert

Through our writing, we walk out of the darkness into the light
together, one small step at a time, recording history, educating
America, and we are healing.
~CJ/Todd Dierdorff

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Psychological Experience of Combat

Sebastian Junger, veteran war filmmaker
The psychological experience of combat is so unique that it can only be fully understood by those who have endured it.

A new documentary offers its audience a more intimate understanding of the complicated mix of emotions – ranging from fear to an adrenaline rush – that soldiers face on the front lines.

In the new documentary “Korengal,” a sequel to the Oscar-nominated film “Restrepo,” veteran war filmmaker Sebastian Junger takes his audience to the front lines of the war in Afghanistan as seen through the eyes of a platoon of U.S. infantry soldiers in the Korengal Valley.

In his exploration into the psychological impact of deployment, Junger finds that fear is the most pervasive emotion the soldiers confront.

“They're all scared in combat. I was, everyone was,” Junger said. “The question is: Can you overcome that fear and function?”

While most outsiders view death as the ultimate fear in war, it was fear of failing fellow soldiers in the line of duty that weighed most heavily on the platoon serving in the Korengal Valley.

“Foremost in their minds, I think for most of them, was that they would let their buddies down and that somehow inadvertently or through a mistake or a failure of nerve…that someone else would get killed and they'd have to live with that guilt for the rest of their lives,” Junger said.

While most of the soldiers were able to overcome the fear to perform in combat, Junger recalled one soldier telling him that some are paralyzed by the powerful emotion and are rendered useless.

Producing the documentary took Junger and his filmmaking partner Tim Hetherington, who later died while covering the civil war in Libya, to the front lines of combat in the Korengal Valley off and on for a year. Junger confided that while in Afghanistan he faced his own battle against fear.

“I've learned that I'm very susceptible to fear,” Junger said. “People say, ‘Oh you know, you're a risk taker, you're an adrenaline junkie,’ and … actually the feeling of being scared for your life, it's like having poison injected in your vein. It's absolutely a terrible feeling and I hate it.”

And he also got a taste of the intense emotional bond that grows between soldiers.

“You get very, very close to those guys and something about that experience, being in danger with guys I really cared about … when I came out of there, it just opened me up emotionally. I just became a very emotional person.”

It turns out, Junger discovered, that his newfound emotional side was not a unique side effect of war.

“I talked to some of the soldiers about it and they were all like, ‘Oh my god, that's happening to us too.’” Junger said. “And one of them actually said, ‘You know, we're worried we're turning into girls,’ is how they put it. But I think it's a good thing, because there is sort of a deepening, an emotional deepening that comes from that kind of experience that I think is very, very good.”

In coming back from war, Junger said one of the biggest challenges soldiers face in their transition is the disconnect that exists between the all-volunteer force and civilians at home, who don’t feel any ownership over the war.

“The big obstacle is the sense soldiers get that civilians feel that the war … was the soldiers' war,” Junger said. “And it couldn't be more incorrect. I mean, we chose it, we paid for it, we okayed it, we voted in the government that carried out these wars. … The wars belong to the entire nation.”

Another complicated element of the transition back to civilian life, he said, is the “alienating” experience of being separated from the very soldiers with whom they’ve developed a brotherhood.

“They come home, and suddenly they are not in a group anymore, and I think that's very, very alienating, even though they're safer at home physically, they feel more in danger because they are not in a group,” he said. “They'd rather be back out there in this group that they cared about even though they're getting shot at.”

[By Martha Raddatz, Richard Coolidge, Jordyn Phelps & Alexandra Dukakis, "On The Radar" , with veteran war filmmaker Sebastian Junger.  ABC News and Yahoo News]

“I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do, and by the grace of God, I will.” ~Everett Hale

Do you have an opinion, or a comment, you would like to share about this post? We welcome all comments.


  1. Mr. Junger is spot on with this. I don't recall one time flying in Vietnam that I feared for my life. I remember many times being fearful that I would not be able to perform my duty when other men relied on me to be available and competent. The feeling had nothing to do with so called 'bravery,' and everything to do with wanting and needing to be there for colleagues. I remember, too, the alienation I felt returning home from Vietnam, when the unspoken message was to not discuss the war, because the country had moved past it.

  2. It is well established that soldiers don't fight for countries, causes, flags. Soldiers fight for the buddy next to him in a foxhole, or next to him in a fire fight.
    I applaud Mr. Junger for his attempt to capture the fear experienced by everyone ever exposed to hostile fire, and, as he discovered, it is impossible. To try to film it, to try to put into words, regardless of how compassionate, descriptive, you might be, the feelings experienced in combat can only be understood by someone else with the same experience. A combat veteran, or someone like Mr. Junger, can never fully describe, explain, or verbally duplicate the experience. Being under fire simply must be experienced to understand what happens physiologically and psychologically.
    Mr. Junger was correct that the survival can depend on the ability to control (I hesitate to say overcome) your fear and be able to rapidly function (react).
    The people back home go about their everyday life, and few are affected by wars. Being welcomed back probably eases the alienation, not hatred or even anger, just the feeling that no one you are now around can even begin to understand. That feeling of alienation can linger for an extended period of time. Vietnam was worse because those of us returning were the enemy.
    For many who were able to work their way through the alienation, depression, the PTSD, they were able to be more emotional, caring and compassionate toward others because of their experiences.
    CJ, you are one of the few, because of your heartbreaking experience, who can even begin to understand what some of us are saying and have experienced.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful and caring comments. Thank you, too, for your service and Welcome Home.

  3. The statement: [ “alienating” experience of being separated from the very soldiers with whom they’ve developed a brotherhood.] is very true in my case.

    By all means in coming home - I would have most assuredly.....rather have been back out there in my group of comrades that I cared about even though getting shot at.

    The "friends" I had prior to going to Vietnam were all of a sudden "distant" from me and I never was comfortable in making any meaningful relationships with anyone. The exclusion was my "girl friend" whom a year after coming home became my wife.

    I only become "friends" with other Vietnam Combat Veterans and their families whom also paid the price with a loved one over there back then in harms way - other people I meet I refer to as "acquaintances".

    My closest "Nam" friend past away in December 2012. He was a fellow door gunner from Detroit. We were in one another's bridal parties - went to some Ohio State - Michigan games - and maintained a special bond ever since Nam. He became diabetic and his weight soared - and he finally succumbed to the health issues. With his passing - my "link" with a friend whom was THERE - Where I was - and shared the SAME day to day "actions" with me was severed.

    Been a very difficult time the last year and a half adjusting to his passing - but have the memories of him and am blessed that he and I had been so close in Nam and afterwards. Without my wife - and him - my path down life would likely have not been a pleasant one.

  4. Note to Anonymous: Thank you for your service and Welcome Home. I'm so very sorry for the loss of your friend.

    What you have shared here is something I see in so many writings from the veterans here on the blog. The disconnect from old friends is common, and the tight bond between Brothers who fought by your side in country is written about by all veterans.

    I hope you have been to The Wall. If you haven't and you do go, you will find so many veterans there who will be supportive to you, many who have also lost friends who came home with them, but are now gone. The Wall is healing. When you touch it, it touches you back.

    Thank you once again for your comments. If you would like to also contribute something for Memoirs From Nam, please know you are welcome to. It would be an honor to post it.


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