To Address Veteran Depression, Disconnect and Reconnect

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After coming home from Iraq in 2009, I spent the next 8 years in what I call a hyper-connected state: professional and personal efforts combined into my being plugged into the world of social media almost continuously during that time. From politics to Ranger Up and now Havok Media, Facebook and other outlets consumed a great deal of my time, so this is more than just advice—it is a deeply personal issue.

In previous articles, I’ve introduced the idea that there are significant numbers in the veteran community who sink into depression upon their return to civilian life due in no small part to the “noise” of modernity. This was addressed with the concept of minimalism—paring down your life to what you really need, lest your material pursuits get the better of you.

But this minimalism takes on different forms and should not be limited to just physical “stuff” you possess. While cleaning out all the clutter and getting rid of the unneeded trappings of our society, understand that there is another component to how we interact with our world that is in serious need of addressing.

Think back once again to your time on the FOB (forward operating base), COB (contingency operating base), or being out on patrol. If one of the guys in your platoon did something outrageous, how did you find out about it? And how did you let him know it was ridiculous (or ridiculously funny)?

You saw it with your own eyes, of course. And when you did, you probably told him he was hilarious/incredibly stupid/fill in your own adjective.

You all bonded over various events such as these, in part because you were all there when it happened. You didn’t just hear about things happening—those camaraderie-building events worked well and carried so much weight because all of you were physically connected.

This is why shared combat experiences build such a tight bond with warfighters. When individuals take part in the same life-threatening event, it creates a connection unlike any other.

Now take a look at the world you came back to. Whereas once you were surrounded by those individuals with whom bonding experiences were created, they are now hundreds or even thousands of miles away. The events of their lives that you “share” are responded to with the proverbial “like” and maybe with a comment on the picture or story they wrote about online.

Their stories are no longer your stories because they are separated from physical connectedness.

This is made all the more problematic because it is the world we all occupy. The trappings of modernity include an excessive virtual connectedness in place of the physical. We communicate, even in our professional lives, by email or text messages; we see our “friends” in an online space that is inherently reliant on a sort of affirmation-as-a-drug dependency; we share the stories of our lives in venues contrived of highly sophisticated algorithms designed to maximize the exposure of one over another.

The modern version of sitting around a campfire involves yelling with a keypad and calling one another nazis.

This hyper-reliance on technological connection, I argue, contributes heavily to an ultimate feeling of disconnectedness. Those who experienced the pure rawness of humanity come back to a world driven by something that is almost anti-human at its very core.

For those who initially joined the combat arms out of a sense of adventure and seeking something much bigger than themselves, this is especially difficult. They sought to fulfill a purpose and fill the void in their soul that compelled them to believe there is “something more” out there—that dark place deep down for many which drives them into profound yet sometimes fatalistic places.

Those same individuals returned to a society far more concerned with clickbait, manufactured protests, and following the latest hyper-materialistic tramp on Instagram (or whatever the coolest social media outlet happens to be this week). The wandering soul is met with an almost non-stop bombardment of emails, texts, and “likes” (or complete lack thereof) in place of carrying what you need on your back, training for and fighting in war, and even choking out your buddy in the nightly grappling match.

What’s more is that this does not happen immediately, so it is difficult to recognize. It is a relief to come home. It is rewarding to go eat good steak with a great wine or get a real burger and a beer. It feels good to drive your own vehicle on a road where people are not trying to blow you up. Slipping back into the comforts of modernity starts on a very positive note.

But then it begins to take over. Social media can, and often does, behave like a drug—getting a few more likes or “winning” an argument about something you know better than anyone feels good for a moment, but ultimately leaves you desperately unsatisfied. You end up in a lower place than when you started, and that can be a decidedly bad spot for a certain class of people.

My suggestion? The easy solution is to disconnect from everything—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like. Get a flip phone, ditch the job that requires you to constantly respond to emails, and live exclusively in the real world.

But that is also not a very realistic solution for a lot of people, and it carries with it certain problems of its own. This is, after all, not an essay about eschewing all of modernity just because it is modern.

Rather, as the title says, it is about disconnecting and re-connecting.

A tremendous amount of business is conducted via the virtual world and, as a result, there are extremely good jobs and money-making opportunities in the online space. These should not be discounted, especially when gainful employment and productivity is a huge component of reintegrating into society for the military veteran. To discount entire job sectors simply because they utilize the most modern forms of communication is problematic for a multitude of reasons that should be apparent to most readers here.

So instead of viewing disconnecting as the end goal, it should be seen as a means to something bigger. It is a method for applying a hard-nosed realignment of priorities.

Take a solid look at your “virtual” life: what is needed and what is not? Do you need to be on social media every day? Do you need to follow all those pages that get you riled up about things that ultimately do not affect your life? How many of the groups you follow and are part of do you actually need to follow and be a part of?

Now go deeper. Do some serious meditation on what this virtual-connectedness does to you. How do you feel and behave on days when you spend a couple hours on social media versus the days when you are not on at all? Observe your mood and be critical. How often do you check your phone the moment you are even slightly bored? Do you really need to scroll through a feed of media every time you have five minutes where nothing is going on (or when you want to be distracted from what is happening)?

After this serious evaluation—and subsequent disconnecting from what is not necessary (or that which directly causes stress)—one needs to search out ways to re­-connect to something inherently physical; something that does not relate to the virtual world. Hunting, fishing, martial arts, horseback riding, woodworking, metal fabrication, welding, painting, learning to play a musical instrument, and numerous sports are all examples of hobbies and job fields that require zero time connected to the virtual, online world. What works for you, personally?

The answers to all of these questions should not be uniform. We are all different and, as a result, what works for one may not be the answer for another. I can tell you that for myself, as someone who has, for 6 straight years, been a major part of the veteran blogging community, I have reached a point where serious limitations are in order—but I do not for a moment believe that is the case for all who are reading this. Just because I am at the point where deleting my Facebook account sounds like barely-short-of-heaven does not mean I recommend this same approach for others. Similarly, what makes me feel connected to the physical world may not be the same for you.

It also should not imply that I am anti-technology or anti-communication. I love the fact that I can fire off an email to people on the other side of the world who I have not spoken to in years and they will have that message almost instantly. I am grateful for the fact that I live in a world where this tech exists, as it profits all of us in numerous ways.

But I also know the downsides and realize that this is a significant issue for more than just me. The feelings of disconnectedness experienced by so many of our nation’s warfighters upon their return to “civilization” are decidedly not assuaged by the faux connections we implement in order to stay connected.

We are physical creatures who, at our core, require being part of the physical world. Whether that be interacting with other human beings or with the very soil upon which we walk, our souls benefit when the connections we make to this world we occupy are as real as the rocks, trees, and iron that surrounds us.

Approach life with that in mind and it will do nothing but benefit you in the long run.


In a time of hyper-specialization, Greg Drobny is an accomplished and educated generalist who understands that knowledge from a multitude of disciplines is necessary for true wisdom. A continuous wanderer and seeker of knowledge, he has worn three different colors of beret for the U.S. Army and worked in everything from metal fabrication, music, and bar tending to politics and publishing while on a constant search for life’s meaning.

This article first appeared in The Havok Journal.

The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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