All Things Soldier: The Science of Celebration And Struggle

By: Ali Elizabeth Turner
Hardly a day goes by without me talking, thinking, or reading about neuroscience, the relatively new and ever-burgeoning study of everything squishy residing between our ears. It has become my passion, along with helping people build every aspect of their health, and the more I learn, the more I understand myself and others, particularly soldiers. It is because of the understanding of neuroplasticity, the fact that we can literally, physically change our brains for the better, that I have more hope than ever for PTSD sufferers, particularly those who have seen combat. And, the great gift is, that if it was the battlefields of Omaha Beach, Korea, Vietnam, the Balkans or the Middle East wars, it doesn’t matter, you can still grow a new brain and recover from whatever you have seen or done. You can also stop apologizing for missing the fellow soldiers with whom you experienced what have come to be called “high-ordeal moments.”

There has been a recent discovery that has added a positive new twist on what makes our “fearfully and wonderfully made” brains all the more so, and it is right on time for the holidays. This understanding has explained some things to me about my own brain, and by extension I am hoping it will help those who have served as well as their families during this holiday season.

By way of explanation, I devoted an entire chapter in my book, A Ballad For Baghdad, to a discussion on celebrating holidays in a combat zone. The chapter is called “Have Yourself A Merry Little…” and in it I clumsily try to explain why the holidays I celebrated in Iraq between 2004-2007 are my all-time favorites. In no way do I mean that I would trade them for holidays with my family, it’s just that now I have learned that there was something extra physically going on in my brain while in-theatre, and beginning to explore it has made me much more comfortable inside my own skin…and brain.

It turns out that there are several factors that go into making memories, and it is the combination of celebration as well as struggle, and the neuro-chemicals of both when combined with the electrical system in our brains that make the most powerful memories and bonds. It is explained in more detail in a book written by Chip and Dan Heath entitled, The Power Of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact. You might want to put this on your wish or gift list.

We all remember things that are peak events, such as our wedding day or the births of our children. We also remember pushing through that last barrier, whether it was the end zone, the long bomb basket with no time on the clock, breaking the tape or hitting “send” as we uploaded our last assignment. What happens is that in a combat zone people are often times intensely experiencing both things at the same time, and the brain is treated to a double dose of chemicals that serve to create the “Band of Brothers.” If spouses and family members can get comfortable with the fact that their loved ones’ brains were bathed in creative juices that were designed by their Maker to help and not harm, to inspire and not isolate, then the jealousy that oftentimes hits those who “weren’t there” can be redirected in to understanding as well as building a whole new and unique set of memories. Eric Barker puts it this way:

“Anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas found that groups that went through “high-ordeals” bonded far more than those that went through “low-ordeals.” Struggling together made people closer. This is why fraternities haze. Why soldiers feel like they are kin.”

I used to feel a little crazy or guilty for wishing I could be teleported for a few hours each holiday back into the Great Sandbox, but not anymore. Now I know that my brain was doing exactly what it was designed to do by the One who loves me the most, and I am grateful to the Heath boys for telling me why. Happy Thanksgiving, and may your holidays and your brains be immersed in healing, gratitude, and true Light.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner