Combat Loss and PTSD – Part 6: Memorials and Healing

This is a paper about how infantrymen in the United States Marine Corps handle combat deaths. It was researched and written by Stephen Smith, Th.M., in partial fulfillment for a seminary course on Death and Dying. While Steve has never experienced the dark side of man, his twin brother – me – has. Together, we offer this paper in eight parts. Footnotes follow at the end of each section. Click on the links below to read the previous posts.

This post, Part 6, describes the immediate after effects of combat deaths for individuals and the unit.

Part 1: Post 9-11 CasualtiesPart 2: The Link Between Combat and PTSDPart 3: Learning to Kill – Part 4: Preparing for DeathPart 5: When the Metal Hits the Meat – Part 6: Memorials and Unit Healing – Part 7: When the War Continues – PTSD – Part 8: Conclusion and Bibliography

Care of Casualties, Contextualizing, Storytelling,
and Paying Respects at Memorial Services

Yet even in up-tempo combat operations, Marines endeavor to show respect to their dead. How they treat dead Marines, how they find meaning in their death, and the importance of  memorial services soon after casualties are incurred are all factors which can help Marines come to terms with the death of a fellow Marine and help integrate their feelings of grief and loss.

Care of Casualties

Part of the Marine code is to never leave another Marine behind on the field of battle, whether dead or wounded. Danny Craft recalls an incident in Sangin, Afghanistan which sums up this ethos. His unit had been in-country for only three weeks and had already been involved in over a hundred firefights. The Marines had suffered nine deaths and sixty casualties as a result of the extreme combat. During a patrol, Craft’s unit came under heavy Taliban attack. One of Craft’s best friends, Braggs, was killed by small arms fire. The squad remained pinned down under heavy fire for several hours until friendly aircraft could come and bomb the Taliban fighters. Craft recalls:

Soon after all the “fireworks” [bombs dropped on the Taliban] we cleared the area from which we received fire and the other platoons secured our route so we could get Braggs back home. I can remember putting his limp body on our pole-less litter and seeing him there made me realize how short my life could be. I will always remember carrying him back and how much respect we had for him after his death. Despite being in a firefight for hours and being physically and mentally exhausted, we never let his body touch the water in the five water canals we crossed. Not even when the water was up to our chests and the six of us carrying him were slipping in the mud, we made sure he didn’t touch the water.[1]

Treating a fallen Marine with respect and honor may help fellow Marines cope with the death and exert a measure of control over an out-of-control situation.

Contextualizing Death

Contextualization is also important. Nathan Smith learned that as an officer he had to take responsibility to create time to help his young Marines make sense of the death of a friend.[2] When one of his squads was hit by an IED and a Marine was killed, Smith had the surviving squad members evacuated to a rear area. That night he gave a talk about why the Marines were there in that particular village, the meaning and purpose of the Marine’s death, and the greater context of the operation. “We’ve eviscerated the insurgents in this town,” he said, “and we only suffered one KIA.” The Marines just stared at him, still in shock.[3] Smith recognized that while it was important for him to contextualize the Marine’s death, probably most healing would take place when the Marines processed the death together. “The Marines just stared at me. And they didn’t want to listen to the chaplain. They wanted to talk to each other. Most healing takes place when they are grilling steaks over a 55-gallon drum, talking and smoking. That’s organic and natural.”[4] Whether done by officers or fellow Marines, Marines need to contextualize the death of a friend in order to help find meaning in it.

Storytelling

Perhaps the most important aspect of integration related to combat death is to practice storytelling—for Marines to recall the life of the dead Marine and to express their thoughts and feelings.[5] It is important for Marines to share with somebody who will listen and affirm that their thoughts and feelings are normal. Lt. Col. Benjamin Busch remembers that there was no time for this during combat. After one of his Marines was shot by a sniper in southern Iraq, Busch tried to comfort the remaining Marines, but found that his speech was inadequate: “I could not think of what else to say to them, though I should have. Storytelling was what they needed most.”[6]

The power of story to heal trauma is well documented. Doctor Charles Hoge sees an important connection between storytelling and integration of combat trauma. By integrating the emotions with the memories, Marines can help reduce their risk of PTSD:

Why does narration help? There are no clear answers to this question, but there are a lot of things that are associated with narration that seem to be important; for instance, connecting emotions and feelings with events. When warriors wall off their emotions, it can negatively affect other things in their lives. An important component of narration is recognizing that you’re not alone in your experiences. Even if the person you’re sharing with has no experience with the military, they may have had other life experiences that can help them to relate to yours. Wartime experiences are some of the most profound that humans can endure. War evokes both what is most terrible and most divine about being human. War brings out the best and worst in us. Sharing stories and feelings that are painful is a very personal experience and can bring you close to the person you share them with. Narration helps you to live with your experiences and move forward with them as part of you…. We need feedback from others. We need to struggle to come up with the right words to express our feelings, and it’s very difficult or impossible to do this alone.[7]

In his blog, The Soldier’s Load, former Marine Captain Nathan Smith has written numerous posts describing situations he encountered in combat during two tours in Iraq. Many of the incidents involve traumatic events or decisions. While the blog is a cathartic way for Smith to process his own experiences in combat, frequently fellow Marines comment that Smith has described their own experiences in a helpful way. In response to one article on PTSD, a Marine named Michael said, “I have read this article at least once a day. It give[s] us all hope and inspiration [sic]. Keep up the good work boss.”[8] In regard to a different article, Marine Zachary Robbins writes, “Semper Fi….you put to words what this Devil Dog could only feel.”[9] Storytelling helps Marines make sense of previously inexplicable experiences, provides a sense of community, and thus helps them integrate their feelings.

Memorial Services

One thing that the Marine Corps does to help Marines in combat process the death of their friends is to hold memorial services shortly after Marines are killed.[10] Since the bodies of dead Marines are quickly removed from their units and returned to family members in the States, Marines have devised a simple but effective replacement for a casket. Combat units build small physical memorials using the dead Marine’s combat boots, upside-down rifle, dog tags, Kevlar helmet, and a large black and white photo of the Marine. Ideally, fellow Marines from the dead Marine’s unit should be involved in planning the memorial service, to give them a sense of control and kinesthetic catharsis, since Marines are action-oriented.[11]

neverforgotten

Memorial service at Camp Al Qa’im for the 9 Marines killed in action during Operation MATADOR. May 2005.

Nathan Smith recalls that after nine Marines in his unit were killed in western Iraq, the battalion held a memorial service at the base for all nine Marines. The battalion commander and chaplain each gave a speech, and then the entire battalion filed by the row of empty boots and helmets. Smith stopped in front of the photo of his dead Marine. “I got down on one knee in front of Larry’s memorial and cried,” he says. “It was very emotional for me. I felt a couple hands on my shoulders, but the other Marines just remained quiet and let me have my moment of grief.”[12] That evening, Smith pulled his platoon together and said a few words. “I told them that Larry was a warrior. He died in combat as a warrior should, and now he’s moved on.” The whole event was cathartic.

Months later, when the battalion returned to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, the leadership held a much more elaborate memorial service which also involved family members and the entire battalion. But by that point the battalion had already experienced a large churn in personnel who had transferred to other units or who had left the military, and the service did not feel nearly as cathartic for Smith. “It was business as usual,” he said. “A mere formality. The real memorial service for the Marines happened back in Iraq with my brothers.”[13] However, the battalion also built a stone and bronze memorial to

Memorial for members of 3rd Battalion 2nd Marines who were killed in action during fighting in Iraq.

Memorial for members of 3rd Battalion 2nd Marines who were killed in action during fighting in Iraq.

fallen Marines, placed near the battalion headquarters at Camp Lejeune. This serves as a physical place for Marines to pay their respects to fallen comrades. In addition, a number of Marines are buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC.  Fellow Marines can go and visit their graves, not far from the Marine Corps War Memorial. Such institutional and societal honoring of dead Marines can prove healing for surviving Marines.[14]


[1] From The Soldier’s Load, August 30, 2012. https://thesoldiersload.com/2012/08/30/fallen-angel/

[2] A Critical Incident Debriefing or a “hot-wash” after-action discussion is now standard operating procedure for Marine officers. The Marine Corps has constructed a Leader’s Guide for officers to know how to react when a member of their unit has been killed. The guide reads, in part, “There is no simple way to deal with the death of a unit member. Leaders should enlist help from a variety of sources such as the Chaplain, Mental Health, Marine and Family Services, Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Team, and Casualty Assistance as needed. Unit members will look to leadership for answers as to why the unit member died. Survivors are especially sensitive to comments or suggestions that imply responsibility. It is important for leaders to avoid passing judgment, avoid providing simplistic explanations of the death or suicide, and avoid publicly placing blame. It is important to keep rumors from spreading by keeping people adequately informed while protecting privacy.” http://www.usmc-mccs.org/LeadersGuide/Deployments/CombatOpsStress/deathunitmember.htm Accessed 11/15/12.

[3] From a personal interview with the author, 11/16/12.

[4] From a personal interview with the author, 11/16/12.

[5] Karl Marlantes writes: “A large part of treating PTSD is simply getting the veteran to remember and talk about what happened to him. The more psychic structure or framing that is brought to the experience of combat, the easier it will be to cope with the experience afterward. It can help provide a bit of meaning in an often meaningless situation.” What it is Like to Go to War, p.17.

[6] Busch, Benjamin (2012-03-20). Dust to Dust: A Memoir (p. 250). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[7] Charles W. Hoge M.D.. Once a Warrior–Always a Warrior: Navigating the Transition from Combat to Home–Including Combat Stress, PTSD, and mTBI (Kindle Location 1581). Kindle Edition.

[10] Karl Marlantes says that ritual ceremonies and burials for both friend and foe can help warriors process death, un-jam their circuits, ask for forgiveness and blessing, and restore compassion and equilibrium. But it must be intentional, time must be carved out, and officers must lead. What it is Like to Go to War, pp.78-79.

[11] The Marine Corps currently recommends that Marines be allowed to participate in planning memorial services for dead comrades: “Hold a memorial service for unit members who are unable to attend the funeral. Offer unit members closest to the deceased key roles in planning and carrying out the memorial service.” http://www.usmc-mccs.org/LeadersGuide/Deployments/CombatOpsStress/deathunitmember.htm Accessed 11/15/12

[12] From an interview with the author, 11/16/12.

[13] Interview with the author, 11/16/12.

[14] Former Marine Captain Nathan Smith ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC in 2011. The course ends near Arlington National Cemetery and finishes at the Marine Corps War Memorial. Smith recalls, “I cried as I finished. Running past where some of my Marines are buried, and then seeing the Iwo Jima Memorial was very powerful for me.” From a conversation with the author, October 29, 2011.

About Nate

A 2003 graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and former Marine infantry officer, Nate is the Chief Operating Officer of Hire Heroes USA, a nonprofit organization that helps veterans get jobs. He holds a Master's in Public Administration from the University of Georgia. Nate lives with his wife and dog in Alpharetta, Georgia.
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2 Responses to Combat Loss and PTSD – Part 6: Memorials and Healing

  1. Jerry says:

    Nate,
    As usual your ability to utilize the English language to put in to words the deepest and most personal feelings have come across successfully. Thanks for sharing this, I only hope that this along with a bust butt work schedule has helped you to move forward in your very positive current life. To date, the story telling is a very useful tool for the STAR method-people can relate to it. God Bless and keep up the good work.

  2. Pingback: Combat Loss and PTSD – Part 7: When the War Continues – PTSD | The Soldier's Load

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