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The Cat that Helped Heal a Combat Veteran After His Time at War

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
February 2, 2024 3:01 am

The Cat that Helped Heal a Combat Veteran After His Time at War

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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February 2, 2024 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Combat Veteran Benjamin Sledge shares some of his experiences before and after his deployment.

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C terms and conditions 18 plus. This is Our American Stories and on our show we like to share the experiences of our soldiers in order to help heal the citizen-soldier divide and there's a big one in this country. One of our regular contributors is Ben Sledge. Ben's a wounded combat veteran with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan where he spent time in the United States Army serving a portion of it under the Special Ops Command before leaving the military after 11 years of service. He's the recipient of the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and two Army combination medals.

Ben now works within the music industry for Heart Support, a non-profit that helps millennials battling addiction, suicide ideation, depression, sexual abuse, loneliness, broken relationships and a host of other issues. Here he tells the story of his friend Casey, someone who helped him transition back to normal everyday life after his deployment. It was raining the day Casey died. 14 years earlier you hunched covering your face as sun-bleached gravel whipped through your hair and pelted your cheek. The incoming helicopters kicked gravel and sand into those stupid of us enough to wait, more curious enough to discover more. Men ran frantically while pointing and yelling. Some had black smudges across their face you could only assume was tar or gunpowder.

Then they hauled them off the helicopter while yelling to clear a path. Most people remember the first time they've watched someone die. Grandma in the hospital bed whose hand goes slack, the friend in the accident who exhales one last time while his eyes go wide. Yours involved blood and gurgling noises, the bleached earth turning a dark crimson while the stretcher drizzled the nearby ground like light rain. You always remember the gasping noises. It's that noise that sticks out the most. Everything else after that moment is blocked out.

It's like trying to open a portion of your mind where you buried a key but the key is in a safe whose combination you don't know and you toss that safe to the bottom of the ocean. Never mind the fact you can't remember where you tossed the safe or what ocean it's in. Years later it's the gurgling gasping noise you remember and then a rifle, two boots, a helmet, and dog tags. That's what you remember. Casey was there when he had those dreams. The ones about men dying. The ones where you remembered you were all alone in this big green earth. The ones where you felt like you were all alone in abandoned and misunderstood.

She would cradle your face and whisper, they're there. Our soul often remembers the darkest days of the moments that permanently changed us. As Casey was dying, these were the memories that flooded my stream of consciousness. Coming home from war, facing divorce, feelings of abandonment and loneliness, and the morbid death dreams. Why are you dwelling on some of the most horrific life moments now? I pondered. It wasn't until after her passing that I realized the same lessons she always taught me.

She was now teaching me in death. For much of my life I believe the trauma I endured would affect everything I touched, would last forever, and that some of it was my fault. I helped blow up my marriage being gone all the time. I couldn't stop thinking about how alone I feel. I had no one, and I deserve that. You wonder how to go on with life and whether you'll ever be okay. It'll get better as the platitude you hear offered by others, but they don't know what to say either. Casey was different.

The word she spoke over and over again was a simple one. Endure. It was as if Casey was my personal butler, Alfred, and I was Batman. In the movie The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne seemed stuck in an impossible dilemma and asked his butler for personal advice, whereas others might have given him a pat on the back and said, Buck up, kiddo. You're the Batman, and you're rich. Alfred instead delivers one of the most powerful lines in the movie.

He tells him, Endure, Master Wayne. Take it. You can make the choice that no one else can make.

The right choice. People these days fall apart over seemingly nothing. They didn't get the job they wanted. Life isn't going according to their five-year plan. They're not married or in a relationship. They feel they lack purpose or direction.

Their waiter got their order wrong. Much of the Western world seems to lack resiliency and the ability to endure hardship, it would seem. We don't know how to process grief, let alone the crises life throws at us. But sorting through our disappointment, grief, and trauma is paramount to becoming a whole and resilient person. In their book, Option B, Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg explain, we plant the seeds of resilience in ways we process negative events. After spending decades studying how people deal with setbacks, psychologist Martin Siegelman found that three P's can stunt recovery. One, personalization, the belief that we are at fault. Two, pervasiveness, the belief that an event will affect all areas of our life. And three, permanence, the belief that the aftershocks of the event will last forever.

The three P's play like the flip side of the pop song. Everything is awesome. Everything is awful. The loop in your head repeats, it's my fault this is awful. My whole life is awful.

And it's always going to be awful. As Casey went blind and could no longer walk up the stairs at my house, I knew it was time to endure grief and pain once more. So I gently laid her in the back of my car and drove to the veterinarian. I guess I forgot to mention Casey was my 16 year old cat. I never wanted to be the guy who gets overly attached to an animal, let alone falls to pieces when they die. To some degree it's unhealthy.

There are children dying in Syria we need to be more concerned with than fluffier Fido. However, when I shared this sentiment in the midst of my grief with my best friend, he reminded me of something. It scares me how attached I am to my dog sometimes.

I think the reason why is that with him it's a different relationship. With my dog I never have to wonder where I stand with him or if I've let him down. That's a lesson I'm taking to heart to love my wife and friends better.

What lesson did Casey teach you? Before I got remarried I lived with a close friend who played football for Dartmouth. He too had a cat he was obsessed with.

We always laugh about an evening we invited two girls over who made fun of us for looking like professional athletes that had an uncanny affection for cats. My older roommate's cat named Gus died tragically about a year ago. When he shared what he learned I realized his lesson was the same as mine.

Resilience. His cat was an anchor when he moved to another state, found himself in a job he hated, lived alone and wanted to kill himself. That cat kept me from killing myself. Who the hell was going to feed him if I was gone? Then over time I realized he was weathering the changes better than I was.

If my cat could make it so could I. When Gus passed away despite his grief he took that lesson to heart and endured. He continues to do so in the midst of some of the hardest situations and decisions he's faced. Perhaps that's the great joy we often miss and the animals we love. The lessons they teach us that help us grow stronger. Whether that's loving someone when they don't deserve it, resilience, patience or even suffering well, animals seem to endure suffering better than humans.

Whereas we ask why they crawl off to be alone. When I arrived at the vet to put Casey down I tried not to cry in front of the tech. When it came time to put her down the vet asked me are you ready for this? That's when the memories I described in the beginning flooded back. There was Casey cuddling my face when I felt sad and teaching me to endure. I was in Afghanistan and Iraq I say through a knowing smile.

I've seen worse. An hour later I buried Casey in my backyard while it rained. I buried her in the spot where there was no grass growing and most of the vegetation was dead. I figured it was appropriate because even in her death where she's buried reminds me that where there's no grass there's always an opportunity for some to grow.

And great job on that faith and thank you Ben. Ben Sledge's story. His cat story Casey. Here on Our American Stories. office more than once actually. Do I have to say?

Yes you do. In the car before my kids PTA meeting. Really?

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-02-08 10:34:50 / 2024-02-08 10:39:08 / 4

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