By Thomas Faulkenberry

Cowards follow orders blindly. I know those are harsh words, but they are true. Better words would explain that it takes great strength to challenge orders, especially ones that go against the core of what we believe. Denying the heart makes one sick.

On active duty we were trained to follow lawful orders without hesitation: to execute those orders, hoping for the best while expecting the worst. The transition to a different mindset as a civilian, as one who wants peace, has been much more difficult than I imagined. I’m finding that I’m not alone. In fact it seems to be more common than not for our fellow brothers and sisters in arms to share this struggle.

I was a coward. Since I was very young, I have known that you can’t be brave without having fear to face. Many times I have demonstrated my aptitude for bravery in service while being a coward in my personal life. I stayed absent from life in order to avoid conflict and strife.

Military life was easy: Guidelines that are easy to follow and gray areas easy to navigate, especially when your buddy’s precious life is on the line. Orders were given and followed to create unity and safety; to allow effectiveness in some pretty “severe schools.” Home life was far different. If we had a spouse battling from the home front, it is very likely that you had a very strong partner, fighting battles and creating a safe system in your absence. Returning home to that partner only to feel as if you are a disruption to that system, as opposed to being battle buddies, is a bitter pill to swallow. Especially when your family was your motivation for serving well. There is a fine line between absent and meekly present. I can clearly see what a delicate balance that is. I want to know more.

A radical change of heart and mind has helped me to create a new and better reality that fuels a purpose-driven life. My desire to continue to serve my fellow man has not changed; it just looks very different than I had imagined. The ugly word that kept me in cowardice and had to be faced is SHAME. Giving shame a voice removes it from its hiding place and requires accountability.

Regardless of its source, bringing shame into the light requires great strength and humility. We tend to believe that vulnerability has the same meaning as weakness. In my experience it actually takes incredible strength to expose our weaknesses and then to ask for help with them. My desire to be free from the pain that was keeping me stuck finally got me looking for answers to a better way of life.

The critical point for opening up and expressing shame seemed to be able to do so with people you love and trust and place an equal love and trust in you. Call them your TRIBE. If you question who your tribe is, simply open your mouth and reveal your true self; those still standing with you afterward are very likely your tribe. Those who abandon you in your time of need were likely never truly a part of your support system and needed to go.

That can be hard to accept when you have had dreams and desires to live life with certain people, but requiring people to be something they are not able or willing to be is cruel and doesn’t foster healthy, intimate relationships.

For me, life after the military is about struggling well so that true strength can be built and modeled well. True strength is about regulation and using emotion to fuel action. Positive action, even if your initial action doesn’t feel positive. A very dear mentor recently told me, “Be the man I know I am, not the man people say I am.”

Those powerful words helped fuel my resolve to stand up and fight for what I believe. I believe that my family is my first mission and deserves the bulk of my fighting energy. Teaching and training my sons to be strong, compassionate and moral men, has so much less to do with what I SAY and so much more to do with what I DO before them.

Sadly, many veterans struggling to deal with the destructive effects of PTS don’t get the chance to model PTG (post traumatic growth). They might want a better way but don’t have the practices to help them find what they are looking for. This is a tragic loss, especially for those who have stood by them and truly deserve their best.

Their attempts to isolate themselves are typically very effective, and if they can’t find the safety they seek in their dysfunction, then death by their own hands becomes a very viable option. I know, because I have faced that monster more than once.

Knowing that every day we lose more veterans to suicide breaks my heart but also fuels my fire to find better solutions for our families and us. The world typically doesn’t even know the name of a single veteran who takes his or her own life on any given day. The sad truth is that outside of the destructive wake left behind, we have no idea what was truly lost with that precious life. I want to know what we have lost and what is yet to be saved!

Better yet, what is yet to be created? Purpose and passion are seeded within the heart of every human; I want everyone I meet to know that is true for them and point them to the truth they are seeking. Serving yourself first is in contrast to our training, however; until you square yourself away, you can never assist anyone else in finding his or her own path. Illuminate your own path, and those standing with you will also have light to help find their own way as well.

If you won’t serve yourself, will you still complain about being underserved? It is time for the tremendous resources that lay hidden in our veterans to be called upon. The percentage of the population that truly understands DUTY is not being utilized and that is a value our nation needs to tap into. Hopelessness is an epidemic that is not unique to veterans. Veterans have grit that is highly valued in a time of wavering values, and supports the courage needed to stay the course, especially when it’s hard.

Embrace the suck and be the professional who doesn’t get sucked into a gunfight but instead looks for “shit to do”: connect and build community. Reflect your values like a mirror; be who you know you are, not the one they say; don’t betray your nature.

Give shame a voice and watch it disappear and free you from what keeps you stuck. Give it a voice and see who your real tribe is.

Don’t be number 22. Be the one who stands to stop the destruction of hopelessness.

The only sin I know is borne of people who sit by and allow evil to over take the world. Our sphere of influence is our world around us. The night is dark and full of terrors, but leading with love means that YOU can be IN the darkness AND be the light that shines brighter…be the difference.