The Lost Moment of Silence

How removing 30 seconds in the Army may negatively impact a soldier at home.

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Like many, I remain saddened at the loss of military lives our country faces abroad.  And as a Sergeant now in a Civil Affairs unit based out of Bristol, Pennsylvania, I mourn for the loss of the three military personnel killed by Lopez, and the 14 injured in Fort Hood, Texas yesterday. Their families should be in every American’s thoughts and prayers as they are in mine.

Since joining The United States Army Reserve 12 years ago, I have been accustomed to the word ‘safety’ as top priority, so much so that I, like others in the Army, will invoke it three times in one sentence as to reiterate the reminder that it is meant to be: “safety, safety, safety.”

Everything in Army training and in our day-to-day operations is cloaked in safety. Our protocols and codes are all established to fulfill this priority of safety, while accomplishing a given mission or task.  A big part of this over emphasis of safety is protecting each other at all times. In the military as a whole, your unit is your extended family and protecting each other is the unwritten law.  Once joining the military, it is our unit that becomes our family: they are the ones with you, who see you through training, combat, and the stresses of life in theatre and back at home adjusting to life stateside.

It is my unit that surrounded me and pulled me through those moments of helplessness and sadness when I was deployed, knowing that my mother at home was so ill that doctors and our central New Jersey community feared for her life. It is this ‘family’ who triumphs and grieves at victories won and losses faced.  But it is especially in the process of us mourning together that we found a way to heal together.  Much of that healing and grieving came through the all too frequent moments of silence together while in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And it will be how we as a nation will soon come to remember those lost at Ft. Hood yesterday.  These moments are powerful, healing, and a necessary way of grieving.

A soldier grieving after the loss of a fellow soldier. Photo courtesy of Aubrey/Flikr.

Moments of silence to remember the fallen is a typical occurrence in the Service…except at my unit. For some time now, this doesn’t happen anymore. Over the years I’ve noticed these rituals of respect decreasing, but it was one moment four years ago that had me believe this was the new normal in the military.

When two Blackhawk helicopter pilots lost their lives in Afghanistan sometime in 2010, I approached my supervisor and asked him if we could have a moment of silence during the afternoon formation.  His response shook me, but it would take me years, in fact until now, to understand it more fully.  “We can’t do that anymore because it might offend someone.”

I realize that it’s not offending, what he meant, but rather triggering.  What it appears he was trying to say was, ‘We can’t do that anymore because it might trigger someone.’

Looking back now, it all makes sense.  A particular soldier in my unit cannot listen to that very traditional (and universal) piece of music played over a trumpet at the end of the night or during a burial of a soldier—TAPS as it is called—because of the reaction that he has from it.  “I just cant’ listen to it” he would say, having a completely physical, negative, visceral reaction to it when it is played.  He, as a super soldier who saw a lot happen in Iraq and witnessed many services for his fallen comrades, was reminded of the loss of his battle buddies when TAPS came on at night in Fort Indiantown Gap or Fort Dix. TAPS, the very mechanism meant to honor those lost, would immediately reopen his wounds to grieve again.  His reaction was so jarring and visible that our guys knew to be sure that TAPS was muffled or he would be distracted if it was heard in a television commercial or a radio turned up loud when he was with us. We we working hard for his safety.

As soldiers, we’ve become so accustomed to witnessing reactions like this by other soldiers when TAPS is played or moments of silences practiced.  And perhaps this is why these traditional parts of decorum are not in practice anymore in some parts of the military.  Perhaps it was considered to be more “safe” to not trigger a soldier in these moments practiced.

We know that no soldier comes back the same after a deployment, all will lose a little something while in theatre. The military as a collective are grizzled, well-experienced people, but still navigating the delicate waters of grief and mourning, loss and trauma. And in the process of recognizing that all soldiers are on their own unique pattern of mental healing post combat, we may have perhaps leaped too far out to accommodate all soldiers by removing some of the most basic mechanisms for grief.

As America now discusses post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, again with respect to soldiers, first responders and civilians alike, it is equally important to address how soldiers deal with loss. We need to figure out  how we as a group find new outlets for healthy healing all around.  Without addressing allowable forms of communication of sadness we lose something much larger and risking so much more. We are human, we need others, and there’s nothing wrong in exhibiting loss with our peers. And it may be in these moments that what is buried deep inside a soldier, in pain and suffering may be exposed early enough to find appropriate help.

In the words of the current chief of staff of the Army, General Ray Odierno: the strength of our nation is our Army; the strength of our Army is our soldiers; the strength of our soldiers is our families.  Mental health afflictions throughout our country and in our Armed Services need the focus and attention it deserves.  The shooting at Fort Hood shows us all, how important PTSD research and treatment really is. A sad reminder from another moment of silence, but a necessary one.

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  • About the autor
    Syed Farhaj Hassan

    Syed Farhaj Hassan is a Sergeant in the 304th Civil Affairs Brigade in Bristol, Pennsylvania. He was deployed to Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. He has been in the United States Army Reserves since September 2001.

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