Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Dan Sheehan's self-published book “Continuing Actions: A Warrior's Guide to Coming Home.”
The challenges of initiation into the military, and subsequent years of specialized training, prepared me extremely well for the external challenges I faced in Iraq. But they neglected to address the internal challenges that are inevitable in combat. It was almost as though the institution of the military decided to “wish” the internal ones out of existence by acting like they weren’t there. This program worked as intended and set me up for success in combat. Afterward, I continued to follow the assumptions of my training and believed the physical act of returning home signaled that my journey was over — even though a strong sense of unfinished business told me it wasn’t.
When I first got home, I viewed my difficulties adjusting to life after combat as black marks on my otherwise respectable record of warrior-ness. I thought the very existence of them made me a poser, a fake, not a real warrior. Who gets overcome by emotions and reactions long after the fact? I viewed those events in my life as history, things I was lucky to have lived through and glad to have in my rearview mirror. That I couldn’t seem to get past them called into question my right to call myself a warrior. But when I read [Joseph] Campbell’s work, I saw it differently. The adjustment challenges I was struggling with were not taking place after my warrior’s journey was complete—they were part of the journey — they are part of the journey. They were the second, inner, set of trials I had to face.
Understanding that the challenges a warrior must overcome are not limited to the physical put my post-combat life in perspective. This perspective showed me that I had more obstacles to overcome, more battles to fight before I could even begin the “return” phase. Just having survived my experiences was not enough — I had to wrest some knowledge, something of value, from them. Only then could I complete my return by sharing it with others.
For the modern military institution, the fundamental components of the ancient warrior’s journey have been lost somewhere in time, buried beneath technological advancements that make spiritual concepts seem antiquated. Like an archaeologist, Campbell dug up these components and saw value in them from a scholar’s standpoint. But their value is not limited to academic discussions. The steps that make up the ancient warrior’s journey highlight what is missing from our own journeys as modern warriors.
The modern warrior’s journey provides a clear path for the warrior to follow into combat — but then it ends. There is no guidance or direction given for how to come back. It’s almost like the creators of our version didn’t know how to come home themselves, so the path they laid out for us just stopped. This leads us to believe our journey as warriors should end when we physically return home — and inserts denial at the head of an already long list of challenges we must overcome.
The ancient version of the warrior’s journey is far more comprehensive. It offers a path that not only leads the warrior into challenges and adventures, but also out of them. When taken in its entirety, the ancient warrior’s journey is a circle. It never really ends, and the valuable treasures gained through adventure are constantly being reinvested by the warrior’s return.
We may not have been trained to complete the warrior’s journey, but, if we take the time to examine how the universal human experiences Campbell identified in mythology apply to our own lives, we can figure out how to do it on our own.
Internal Battles — What’s the Big Deal?
What’s the big deal? Why do I have to do anything else other than survive and come home? Isn’t that enough?
It doesn’t take a particularly astute person to recognize that veterans experience more than their fair share of problems in our society. Are they all based in combat experiences? No, of course not. But there are enough of us who have gone to war and been changed by our experiences in fundamental ways to show that something is obviously going on. It means that the status quo — how we’ve always done things — isn’t working. If we want to improve how veterans re-integrate after combat, then we have to break out of the inaccurate and dangerous assumption that our battles are only external in nature. We must recognize that the inner battles are real — and also choose to face them.
This is a difficult decision to make for several reasons, chief among them is the fact that many of us don’t know the choice even exists, let alone that making it is integral to, not a betrayal of, a warrior’s identity. Instead of choosing to face these inner challenges, most of us ignore their presence and turn away. This forces us to remain on the surface level of emotions and reactions because we can’t trust what might come out if we go deeper. We suppress the unease and make excuses to ourselves when it infiltrates our daily lives. We feel that nobody who wasn’t with us in combat could possibly understand so we clam up, preferring to lock painful experiences away rather than suffer the blank stares of incomprehension. One or two drinks help us relax and have fun — but any more than that and we retreat into ourselves, emerging only when unexpected anger prompts us to lash out.
This is the result of stagnating along the warrior’s journey, and it is dangerously easy to do. We can stop progressing at any time — all we have to do is refuse to face the challenges that come our way. When we avoid the challenges, when we suppress the reactions and emotions of the past instead of dealing with them head on, then we stop moving forward on our journey. This stagnation can last a minute or a lifetime, and, unless we’re really lucky, nobody will ever poke us in the chest and tell us to get moving. We can stay there, held hostage by past events and emotions, for as long as we want. As long as we do, though, we’ll be living half-lives — lives devoid of emotional interactions at meaningful levels, wrought with failed relationships and missed opportunities.
What if you got back a long time ago and have been stationary since? Have you missed your opportunity to successfully return home? Absolutely not. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve stagnated — minutes or decades — the road ahead remains open to you. To begin moving again requires nothing more than the qualities that you have already demonstrated — courage, dedication, and willingness to do what must be done. These warrior traits reside within you now just as they did when you chose to serve. They provided the fortitude that sustained you through the trials of initiation into the military and the external challenges of combat. Now they can help you overcome the inner battles that stand between you and the rest of your life.
What if you’re still on active duty? What if your external battles are not complete yet? If that’s your situation, then you’re lucky. You have the opportunity to expand your understanding of the universal warrior experience in real time — as you go through it. This does not mean that you drop the mental protection of compartmentalization and attempt to absorb everything that comes your way. But reading this book and recognizing the normalcy of your own reactions and emotions will equip you for a smoother return from combat — when that time comes. When it does, the knowledge you’ve gained will help you locate your position along the warrior’s journey and enhance your ability to understand and overcome the particular challenges you face.