IFS therapistsNeed for TherapyPracticeTransformationVeterans and Military

Serving veterans with IFS therapy

On March 27th, 2001, at 3 a.m. in the morning, I found myself standing on a set of yellow footprints. My heart raced, and a voice deep within questioned my decision. The young men around me were silent; the only sounds were the harsh drill instructors yelling commands, attempting to break us. These yellow footprints symbolized the countless men and women who had stood there before me, earning the title of United States Marine. I wondered, would I be one of them? Did I possess what it took to earn the right to be called a U.S. Marine? At that moment, I had no idea that my life was about to change in ways I had never imagined, challenging me mentally, physically, and spiritually. Many men and women join this elite group for various reasons. For me, it was about the uniform.

Throughout my life, there has always been a need for a uniform to define who I am. In school, it was a football jersey; in college, a cap and gown; in my career as a therapist, it is holding multiple credentials. And at that pivotal moment in my life, it was those iconic dress blues. I told myself that if I could earn the title of Marine, I would finally have what it took to be somebody.

As days turned into weeks, I began to experience emotions and discover parts of myself I didn’t know existed. I sat beside grown men who wept and cried as the relentless training sought to break us. Some quit, while others pressed on. One particular challenge that stands out in my memory was the gas chamber.

The gas chamber exercise was a brutal yet necessary test. It began with us demonstrating the ability to apply our gas masks in under eight seconds while being exposed to dangerous gas randomly. Once that was proven, we entered the gas chamber, a dark, windowless stone structure designed to retain the gas. In this chamber, we faced tear gas.

We entered with our gas masks on, and once the door sealed shut, Then came the moment we all dreaded – we removed our masks, inhaling the harsh gas. It burned our eyes and made it difficult to breathe. This exercise gave us a taste of what chemical warfare might be like instilling in us the importance of trusting our equipment.

These challenges, among many others, tested our strength, and in the end, we earned the title of U.S. Marine.

Following boot camp, I donned my dress blues and proudly walked through the airport to return home. I felt like I was somebody. I would spend the next few years serving as an infantryman on active duty. However, my military career was abruptly cut short by a seizure brought on by the tremendous stress I had endured. Due to my military occupational specialty, I was discharged for medical reasons.

During that period, as I returned home while my fellow marines faced the challenges of war, a profound sense of guilt lingered despite the support of my buddies. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had somehow fallen short, that their path was one of bravery and sacrifice while I found myself back on familiar soil.

Reflecting on this, I now recognize the enormous burden I carried, grappling with the awareness that my Marine experience didn’t involve the combat encountered by many of my fellow servicemen. The weight of guilt and shame intensified as I wrestled with personal struggles, feeling undeserving of the camaraderie shared by those who had endured the front lines.

This internal conflict evolved into a fierce battle within myself: the unspoken expectations and perceptions entwined with the Marine Corps uniform. Acknowledging this struggle, I understand that every journey, even when not marked by combat, becomes a unique battlefield, leaving scars that demand acknowledgment and healing. The sense of unworthiness, born from the stark contrast between my experience and theirs, became a silent battlefront that required its own form of courage and resilience to navigate.

And that’s why I do what I do today. As a licensed clinical social worker, I make my living helping others who struggle with trauma and life’s adversities. At some point in my career, I was introduced to Internal Family Systems (IFS), which marked another profound turning point in my life. For the first time, I learned that it wasn’t about the uniform I wore but what resided in my heart.

You see, in the Marines, my uniform became more than fabric; it was a shield, hiding parts of me deemed incompatible with the tough exterior expected. I recall someone expressing disbelief at my openness about feelings in a military context. The truth was the uniform concealed a lot. It covered the fear, the belief in the core positivity within everyone, and the struggle of a 21-year-old navigating what it meant to be a man. It forced the suppression of Parts of me that needed acknowledgment, understanding, and expression. The rigidity of the uniform didn’t just define my appearance; it shaped which Parts of me were seen and which were buried beneath the camouflage.

My development into a Marine wasn’t a sudden thing. When I was a child, one game we played regularly was “army.” Dressed in camouflage uniforms, we would dive into the sugar cane fields, playing with toy guns, creating unforgettable moments. On returning from one such mission, I noticed a plaque on my grandfather’s living room wall adorned with medals and ribbons. Two medals, a bronze star and a purple heart, intrigued me the most. Reflecting on it now, it brings me to tears, for when a child, you don’t fully comprehend the significance of such honors. As an adult you realise more, in so many new ways.

Curiosity led me to inquire about those medals. My grandfather, a World War II veteran, didn’t reveal much, suggesting it was a time in his life he preferred to keep private. Over time, as I gained more life experience, I developed a profound respect for the veterans who came before me. World War II veterans, in particular, held an extra layer of significance—they rarely spoke about their experiences. When my grandfather passed away at 72 from cancer, two things remained etched in my memory. First, the response from people viewing his medals beside his casket; we only understood their significance when fellow veterans shared the stories of his heroism. I learned later that he was shot in the line of duty and rescued his platoon from being ambushed by the men they were fighting. Second, the solemn moment of a 21-gun salute and the haunting sounds of taps before folding the flag for my grandmother. At 13, it was my first experience with such profound sadness.

Looking back, I realize there was a growing respect within me for those who faced adversity. I also understood that my grandfather, like many others, got drafted into a war he never asked to fight. Similarly, as an IFS therapist, I work with both veterans and non-veterans whose inner Parts had to battle wars they never chose, leaving behind scars from those battles.

The Marines I served with came from diverse backgrounds, each with their reasons for joining—whether running toward something, or away from it. Not a day goes by without thoughts of my fellow Marines, with promises to stay connected after service. Unfortunately, life’s demands often interfere, a common struggle among veterans adjusting to a different world.

In the aftermath of my Marine Corps service, I encountered a tumultuous struggle that brought me face to face with Parts I had long suppressed. The transition to civilian life was riddled with challenges, leading me down a path of guilt and despair. This internal battle manifested externally in a life entangled with alcohol and drugs, reaching a point where each day became desperate.

As I hit rock bottom, February 24, 2005, became a pivotal moment and a stark turning point. At 25, I returned home to my parents, seeking refuge from the relentless grip of substance abuse. This night, however, was different. Confronted by my wonderful parents at the door, I was forced to confront the reality that I needed help – a moment etched in my memory. Frustration and hopelessness erupted, leading to a confrontation with my mother, where I asserted she couldn’t understand the struggles of being an alcoholic. Her tearful response cut through my anger, revealing a painful truth: “Beau, you don’t know what it’s like to live with one.”

This exchange unearthed a profound realization of the impact my actions had on those around me. It was a stark reconciliation with the neglected Parts of myself and the suppressed struggles that had led to this point. That night marked my entry into the VA Medical Center in New Orleans, the starting point of a journey toward recovery.

In the language of Internal Family Systems (IFS), this moment was an awakening to the existence of wounded and neglected Parts within me. The uniform, both literal and metaphorical, had masked these Parts. My journey to recovery became an internal exploration, a process of acknowledging and integrating these wounded aspects.

 Embracing my own journey of self-reflection and healing, I discovered a newfound purpose in helping others facing similar challenges. This transformative experience led me to become a therapist, driven by a desire to make a positive impact. As therapists, we navigate the delicate terrain of others’ struggles, making daily sacrifices to provide support, understanding, and healing. It’s a commitment born from empathy and a shared understanding of the battles our clients face, a commitment that underscores the profound responsibility we carry in guiding them toward a brighter future.

I underwent training in Internal Family Systems (IFS). A fellow participant articulated a reluctance to return to the challenges of the outside world, proposing the concept of an “IFS island” where everyone shared a common pursuit of healing. This notion sparked a profound realization within me: what if, collectively, we could endeavor to turn the entire world into an IFS island?

The vision is to create a global community where individuals, irrespective of their background, or the uniforms they wear, unite in a shared commitment to healing instead of warfare.

In this IFS-inspired world, the emphasis would be on understanding and compassion, recognizing that each person carries their own internal family system.

The veterans and non-veterans I work with today have endured challenges far surpassing my own. Serving them is not just an honor; it provides me with a profound sense of purpose. In our collective journey to become the best versions of ourselves and shed the heavy burdens from our experiences, I’ve come to appreciate the transformative power of an Internal Family Systems (IFS) perspective.

From an IFS standpoint, being ourselves involves a courageous exploration and embrace of the diverse Parts within. Many of us, veterans and non-veterans alike, carry Parts that have been suppressed, often for reasons rooted in our unique life experiences. These silenced aspects yearn for recognition, understanding, and a chance to be heard. To truly be ourselves, we must embark on the internal journey of helping these Parts find their space and voice.

In working with others, particularly veterans, the key lies in authentic presence. I’ve often been asked about the trick to working with veterans, and my response remains steadfast – be yourself.

So just because you don’t wear the same uniform as us or speak the same language, it doesn’t mean you don’t know what it’s like to make sacrifices. Maybe it’s for your family, your job, or to help the next person who is struggling. I think we all have a uniform to wear.  We all have something we are striving for. The key is learning how to take the uniform off and just be present.

Being present means turning our compassionate attention inward, not only for the sake of others but also for our own well-being. By metaphorically taking off the uniform, we grant ourselves the chance to explore the different facets of our internal world.

Moreover, it means recognizing the Parts that might have been overshadowed or neglected. These overlooked aspects carry their own needs, desires, and vulnerabilities. They need attention.

In essence, the practice of taking off the uniform becomes a journey of self-discovery and self-compassion. The key to being present is not just an external act of empathy for others but an internal commitment to acknowledge the multifaceted nature of our own being, whatsoever role we find ourselves in.

I’ve always said that the best way to get someone to tell you their story is to create an atmosphere where they don’t feel judged. Earlier, I said that the hardest thing I ever did was earn the title of a U.S. Marine, but that’s not entirely accurate. The hardest thing I ever did was make a decision to work on myself. I invite you to do the same.

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Author

  • Beau Laviolette, LCSW

    Beau Laviolette is a certified IFS therapist specializing in PTSD and complex trauma, living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. www.therapyteacher.com www.ifsemdr.com