To be Atlas

The ancient myth goes, As the crest of the Atlas mountains dug into his shoulders he stood and strained to maintain the world upon his shoulders. Sentenced by Zeus to stand there for all eternity keeping the heavens from the earth and vice versa. Atlas at one point met Hercules, hercules possessed the strength to hold the heavens and earth apart. For just a little while Hercules agreed to take Atlas’ burden from him. In the myth it was a series of tricks. For us as veterans its part of how we cope.

People ask a lot times why veterans prefer to talk to other veterans. Most of the time and based off of common sense we reply that its because they get it. Veterans understand veterans they have seen the same things, chewed the same dirt, walked the same miles. We can readily speak with each other with no preface, no explanation, just speak and let the words stand for themselves rather than being something that is murky and lost on contact. With all of those great reasons of why veterans speak to other veterans, I feel it comes down to one simple thing: Atlas could only lend his burden to someone who had the strength to hold it. Veterans are no different, we can not simply just hand off our burdens from combat to someone who has never known it, never understood it.

When a veteran leans on another vet, for a moment, he takes the world off his shoulders and lets it rest on his chosen comrade. The unburdened party for a moment, can find easy air, clear thoughts, and a free conscience. They most importantly can find clarity, if not from themselves then from the insight of the friend. It is such an incredible burden we bear. We bear it for so long and bury it deep that we forget just how heavy it weighs on our souls. Continuing the myth analogy, no mere mortal could bear that weight. Atlas couldn’t just hand the world and the heavens off to joe schmo walking by. It had to be someone that could bear the weight, that knew the cost, and could stand without crumbling. That is why veterans talk to veterans, to be atlas, to understand atlas, you must possess his strength, herculean strength. Even Atlas got tired.

We have always found our strength in numbers. We have found strength in our brothers strength found, our will in theirs, why should learning to cope be any different. Why do we treat learning to deal any differently than going to war. We condemn ourselves to suffer alone and quietly because of pride, because we were told that this is what is strong. These things were decided by men who don’t bear our burdens. These decisions about what is strong and tough when it comes to dealing with life after combat, were made mostly by men that neither saw combat or hid on the base. They don’t know the taste of blood, the smell of burnt flesh, they don’t know adrenaline, yet they are deemed fit to tell us that we are somehow weak for speaking out or reaching out. Tell Atlas that he is weak for wishing for a break from the world, and he just might crush your head with it.

So what’s this all mean? By speaking with others and using their insight or just their time to listen to you is critical to how you will deal with all of this. For those nay-sayers, just remember most of the time they have never seen what you have. They say all these things to cover their own ass or because they have drank so much kool-aid that they actually believe that you should be able to go to war and come back totally fine. Send them my way, I will give them a taste of combat and we will see how well off they are after. Don’t ever keep it to yourself. It will Kill you. You wouldn’t go on mission alone, why would you go into mental and emotional combat by yourself?

One version of the myth goes that Atlas handed off his burden to Hercules. Hercules realized how much holding the heaven and the earth apart sucked, that he gave the burden back to Atlas just long enough for him to build 2 pillars. The 2 pillars stood in Atlas’ stead, freeing him from his burden. That would be nice wouldn’t it. To perhaps find solace and peace of mind all by finding someone who can bear your burden if only long enough for you to build your pillars, your defenses.

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One response to “To be Atlas

  • Domenica

    Once again you have offered up a wonderful analogous explanation. It makes perfect sense, I know my husband prefers to talk with other vets about his experiences over a psychologist stuck behind a desk who’s only ever done battle with text books.

    When I go to the VA with him, sometimes they only have to exchange a look between each other and you can see the understanding in their eyes… it’s amazing to me.

    Thank you again, for your wonderful writing and you continued service beyond the battlefield.
    Domenica

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