Recently, my daughter called from Lviv and spoke, in a voice trembling with excitement, about a military man, who fell directly on the street asphalt and started shouting something loud and throwing something that came across his hands. His glasses, bag, small stones flew… And he squeezed into the ground and clamored. The people, who were around, reacted differently. Some were shy, others looked with interest. But no one knew what to do.

A few minutes later, the police officers appeared, who called an ambulance. The doctors together with the police forcefully pacified the guy, packed him in a carriage of medical care and drove away. People around began to disperse. The city continued to live its measured life… The passers-by, who witnessed this episode, probably will tell about it to their close ones and acquaintances, like a scary story, whose main hero was a sick soldier. And then quickly forget. After all, a peaceful society usually pushes such things out of its mind, because everything connected with the war is foreign to them and causes discomfort. But in a country, where fighting continues for the fifth consecutive year, and tens of thousands of veterans return to the peaceful territory from the East, who need adaptation in peaceful conditions. It will be impossible not to notice them.

Flash from the past

So, what happened on the Lviv street with the military? Of course, to draw conclusions in absentia is ungrateful. But from what we know, we can assume that what happened to the veteran was a flashback – a condition, characterized by an imaginary involuntary and unpredictable return of a person to traumatic experience. This is due to extremely vivid memories. Military psychologists have researched and described the flashback after the Vietnam War, so the first name for this post-traumatic state is the Vietnamese syndrome. Then, after the Afghan war, it was called Afghan, even later, after the events in Chechnya – Chechen. In 2015 in Ukraine, when the military from the war zone in the East of the country began returning to the peaceful territory, immersion in the combat past was called the Donbas syndrome. But it did not catch on. Therefore, today Ukrainian psychologists adhere to a neutral name – Flashback, which literally means a flash from the past. Although, this state usually lasts much longer than a flash – from a few seconds to several hours. At this time, it seems to a veteran that the terrible reality from the past is coming back, and traumatic events develop in his modern life, right here and now. The boundaries between “that” reality and the real are erased in the mind of a person. Therefore, during flashbacks, former military personnel hear explosions, caulk their ears with their hands, rush to the floor, trying to hide from imaginary shelling – generally behave as they did, when they were directly on the battlefield. But it happens also in another way when a person experiences a return to war without moving, a person seems to be turned off from “here and now”. A veteran just sits and looks at one point, as if through time and space. American military psychologists call this view “a look two thousand yards away”. This situation people sometimes perceive as deep thoughtfulness. Although, in fact, people, who are nearby, should be vigilant, because in such moments, the numbness of a veteran can turn in a moment into an explosive activity. The veterans themselves, when describing their experience of flashbacks, say: “I had a war in my eyes”, “I was here and not here”, “I fought again”.

Why does the war return?

Usually, the events that occur in the war are so severe and traumatic that they are imprinted on the person’s memory for life. Not surprisingly, from time to time, vivid memories from the military past emerge from the depths of consciousness and fill in the reality. Triggers, as psychologists say, of flashbacks may be anything related to a traumatic event. Flash from the past could be activated by the splash in the palm of your hand, the crying of the child, the crash of the engine, the crackling of the flame in the fire, the smell of roasted meat, even total silence. The famous director, one of the authors of the cult series “Twin Peaks” David Lynch created a minute video about how everyday sounds can return veterans to the war. The first half of this video is a hard battle frame, the second is a peaceful life. But the soundtrack on both halves is the same. The rustle of the fan, the signal of the end of the microwave oven, the clap of the washing machine door, the sound of the ball, bounces off the playground, the ball of the balloon that burst in the child’s hands, the whistle of the pump that pumps the tire, the lock click on the doors – all this sounds are easily superimposed on images of the battle and is transformed into a crash of the helicopter’s propeller flying over the burning city, the click of the bolts, cacophony in the walkie-talkies, the whistling of bullets and explosions. Thus, a flashback can hit the veteran anywhere: on a city street, at home, at a gas station, during a rest.

Separately, it is worth noting the relationship between the emergence of flashbacks and the use of alcohol and psychotropic substances. After all, if it is usually believed that alcohol has the ability to suppress the symptoms of stress, then for people with traumatic combat experience, it reduces the physiological activity of certain areas of the brain and nervous system, increases neurobiological changes in post-traumatic stress disorders. So the probability of occurrence and brightness of flashbacks on the background of the action of alcohol or drugs is increased. There is a kind of vicious circle effect: a veteran drinks a glass to relax, but has a terrible immersion in the war, gets depressed and needs alcohol, drinks again and in most cases once again plunges into traumatic memories. The same situation is common among young men, who returned from the war. It is a terrible thing that not only the veteran suffers from post-traumatic alcohol or drug abuse, but also those people, who are next to him. In this case, you should refer to experienced professionals: a psychologist, an expert in narcology, a chaplain. Ideally, when a team of professionals works in a comprehensive and coordinated manner. Only such work, multiplied by the support of relatives and friends, can give a positive result.

What should someone, who has witnessed flashbacks, do?

If you are near a person, who has a flashback, first of all, you should take care of your own security. The main rule is never approaching the veteran from the back and not to make sharp movements next to him, because the reaction can be instantaneous and with sad consequences for careless associates. But do not treat people with combat experience as an aggressive killer machine. After all, an instant response to a threat on the frontline saves lives, so it gets very quickly and steadily rooted in the human psyche. This makes veterans not worse and not better, but simply different. And it is worth remembering about this otherness. Veteran of the Vietnamese war, military psychologist and developer of the system of rehabilitation of military conflicts veterans in the US, Frank Pucelik, often tells the story in his lectures of an American combatant, who accidentally killed his little son, when he approached the dad from behind with the intention to show him a new car that is starting. But, unfortunately, the sound of the mechanism of the toy was very similar to the click of the automatic trigger. A refined movement, aimed at protecting against death in the war, led to a tragedy in the peaceful territory. That veteran, according to Frank, went to the police himself and asked to be imprisoned…

The next rule is if you are near a person, who has had a flashback: you should remove all stabbing, cutting and heavy items that one can throw. So that the veteran does not damage himself or others.

The third rule: during flashbacks – you should not touch the person. The reaction can be the same as with a child’s toy in the story of Frank Pucelik. An exception can be a native person, if the veteran is already beginning to realize that he is not at war, but here and now. How to help him with this? Military psychologists advise being at a safe distance from a person and repeating in a confident, but not loud voice where he is and that it is safe here. You can also start describing the objects around you, and in the same calm monotonous voice to ask the veteran whether he sees the same. Thus, it is necessary to continue until the person does not get into contact and begins to communicate consciously.

The fourth rule: if you see that the behavior of a veteran can pose a threat to you and others, it is worth urgently to go to a safe distance and call the police and ambulance.

And the last, very important rule: in whatever condition a veteran was, he has the right to be respected and treated with dignity. The case that Marta Pivovarenko, a psychologist, head of the Mental Health Specialists of the Development Foundation, told about in an interview, strikes: in a train that was going to Zaporizhzhya, people, who witnessed the veteran’s incomprehensible behavior, without a long thought, just beat him up. And the guy just “went into battle” so he fell to the floor and began to crawl, hiding from imaginary shelling under the table. One can only imagine his condition after he got over it…

During the four years of the war, the Ukrainian peaceful society persistently tries to convince itself that the war is somewhere far away. Somehow, it is difficult to realize that the zone of operation of the United forces is just a night journey on Kyiv-Konstyantyniovka train. We absolutely do not want to adapt to the other people, those, who have seen the war. But despite this, they are increasingly appearing in our lives. And if we analyze the sad statistics of criminal misunderstandings and terrible tragedies involving former military personnel, it turns out that a peaceful society cannot be on the sidelines of this problem. It also has to adapt more and more. Therefore, to learn to live in the conditions of war that is near becoming a vital necessity of the present day. And it is also worth remembering tolerance and respect for people, who had to take up arms and risk their lives for our future.

For example, in the United States on terminals at airports, large letters of gratitude to the US military “Thank you for your service” flaunt. Before the take-off of the plane, if there are military men on board, the flight attendant will certainly inform “Today our defenders are flying with us, thank you for your service, guys”. And if there are vacant seats in the class above, they will necessarily be offered to them. American soldiers can hear “thank you” anywhere: in a supermarket, from a taxi driver, in a hairdresser, just on the street… In our country – it’s different. Therefore, we should change our country. Let’s say to our veterans: “Thank you for the service, guys”. Believe me, they are worth it, and for them, it is very important.

Text: Yuliya Vovkodav

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