by L. Chris Cannida, June 7, 2015 –
Resilience. What does it look like? What does it feel like? There are few words to describe the day I witnessed resilience in a most profound way. Whenever I consider the capacity to withstand hardship I recall a young soldier and the moment I’m convinced was my special invitation to a divinely created introduction to what being resilient really means.
While providing counseling on an army post I was asked to offer support to the unit holding wounded warriors that were stationed there. I wasn’t sure how I might serve a group of people who had survived hardships most of us will never see. I’m not frequently intimidated by my work, but on this occasion I approached the task with great uncertainty. What could I possibly offer men and women who were writing new chapters on remaining strong in the face of life’s adversity? I chose to use the best guidance I’d ever received on being a psychotherapist. Just listen.
I decided to attend what the Army calls a “Town Hall” meeting, where service members and their families voice concerns and pose questions toward improving the quality of their ofttimes burdensome lives. For a wounded warrior unit, the answers to the questions and the intensity of the concerns warrant a mindful ear. The auditorium held several hundred people that day, many of them broken to what seemed a point of no repair. Most of them were suspended in that awkward space where they remained recognized as soldiers while no longer able to do all that soldiers do.
Amidst brain injury, post-traumatic stress, and lost limbs were these warriors trying to grasp a “new normal” while withstanding significant loss of self.
That day is when I met a colonel who turned out to be as flexible and compassionate in his commanding role as he was harsh and undaunted in times of war. I’d heard he was quite hardened by multiple deployments, so my curiosity piqued as I readied to observe him lead this most tender mission. The result of the town hall meeting was the suggestion to conduct a series of smaller group processes, whereby soldiers could be heard by their leader on a more intimate level. He invited me to attend and admitted I would be there just as much for him as for his soldiers.
That’s when I met Sgt. Elkins*. Sgt. Elkins had suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him void of fluid muscle movement defined by constant tremors, with significantly slurred speech, and a lifetime of never being the same. He had suffered the harshest of yesterdays and the most uncertain of tomorrows. The Commander clearly braced himself for a cacophony of complaints about delayed healthcare appointments and frustration over an arduous process of medical discharge from the service. He was taken aback at what happened instead. With Sgt. Elkins’ injuries the most visible and debilitating, it was noticeable when he led the pack in manifesting a determination to find dignity and joy in each moment. The discomfort fueled by the Colonel’s survivor’s guilt was palpable. I wondered if my own shame of being, at times, unable to graciously overcome adversity might be visible to the round-table of warriors before me.
To ease our pain, Sgt. Elkins began trying to lighten the mood. He even used his own condition as the source of jest in an effort to maintain positive energy and perspective. Each comment followed by the most charming boyish laughter. I glanced over at the Colonel only to see him caught between not knowing how to respond and lifting his jaw that had dropped as he watched this young man use a pleasurable irreverence to remind himself and all in view of who he was underneath the physical trauma.
The Commander made eye contact with me, the question mark on his face begging an explanation for what he witnessed. The tears streaming down his face were a blessed mixture of humility and amazement. I gave him the only explanation I knew.
“Resilience, Sir. That’s resilience”.
Several weeks later, I saw the Colonel at a unit picnic. He shocked me by running up and throwing his arms out for a hug, gleefully reunited with me by our shared memory of Sgt. Elkins.
I’ll never forget Sgt. Elkins. I’ll never forget the beauty of watching the Colonel meet resilience face-to-face. To see it, hear it, absorb it, and be forever changed by a soldier who could no longer raise his arm to salute.
*Sgt. Elkins – Not the actual name of the soldier in this writing. That is respectfully protected by changing rank, name, and any other identifying information.
To learn more about developing resilience, I recommend the following resources: