There is something about a sunrise that I appreciate more than a sunset. A sunrise illuminates a new day of promise and potential. I’ve seen sunrises all around the world, and when I take the time to appreciate them, I’m able to recognize the joy of a new day.
I’ve seen the golden light of dawn illuminate the fog winding through Arlington National Cemetery, and have seen the sunlight march down a Bosnian hillside outside of my camp. I’ve seen early morning rays hit the Rocky Mountains and the Smoky Mountains, and the liquid gold roll across the North African hillside. Mornings in the Hindu Kush were always meaningful, not just for their beauty, but for the end to the dangerous night. Dawn in Baghdad sometimes provided a glimpse of the beautiful vision that it once was, rather than the war-torn reality that it has become.
None of those sunrises can compare to the sight of seeing the dawning of awareness in a veteran’s eyes. When a veteran realizes why they think and feel the way that they do, and come to understand that they have the ability to make a change, it is as full of promise to me as the dawning of a new day. It’s that moment when something shifts in their mind, when their awareness is heightened.
Veterans are smart, extremely smart. Soldier don’t mean dumb, as an old First Sergeant of mine used to say, and today’s veteran is well educated and capable of understanding extremely complex concepts and ideas. Once the dawn of awareness comes, I have experienced many veterans make some significant changes in their lives. Whatever you call it…the light bulb moment, the AHA moment, it’s that moment of realization that I look for.
Often, that moment occurs, just like the rising of the sun, without any action on my part. I have found that my silence is just as powerful as my speaking, and sometimes more so, when the veteran I’m working with is on the verge of that awareness. That moment when a veteran realizes, for the first time, why they think the way they do, why they act the way they do…that’s a moment that I enjoy.
The dawn of a new day is full of promise and potential, just as is the dawning of awareness. There is the promise, yet to be realized, of a life of wellness and joy ahead for the veteran. It may not happen immediately; just because the sun rises, we still have to get up and get to work. Just because awareness comes, doesn’t mean change will come…that takes effort. But the potential for a more complete life is there; mended relationships, strength derived from growth after trauma, a lessening of the burden of shame or guilt or anger or whatever the veteran has been carrying with them for far too long.
With every dawn, darkness must come. It’s inevitable, and just as the moon follows the sun. There will likely be a time in that veteran’s life when awareness fades and dark falls again. The benefit of having seen the sun rise once, though, is that you can be certain that the sun will rise again. If a veteran returns to old patterns of thinking, and I’m walking with them in a dark place, then I can remind them of that time when the sun rose, and perhaps give them hope that the sun will rise again.
We, as mental health professionals, have the honor and privilege of being able to witness this dawn, this new day. Those who have served, and wish to continue to serve, are in pain, and we have been granted permission to join them in their journey to seek relief from that pain. Not to do it for them, as part of the Warrior soul is one of self-reliance, but to walk this path WITH them. To bear witness not just to that pain, but also to the joy that they had in their brotherhood, to honor their commitment and sacrifice and failures and successes. To treat them as humans, not victims, or villains, or mythic superheroes.
We have the opportunity to be encouraged by those we encourage, to be healed by those we work with to heal. This is the greatest joy that I have found in my work…to make it through the darkness in order to see the dawn.
Duane K. L. France is a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as a counselor working with veterans in Colorado. He is passionate about helping veterans achieve stability and wellness, as well as raising awareness about veteran mental health. Want to join in the conversation? Read more of his insights at www.veteranmentalhealth.com