Memorial Day is a time to remember those who have fallen in the service of their country. I have a message for those who remain.
We soldiers tend to imprison ourselves after combat with anger, violence, an inability to connect with others and difficulty forgiving – others ... and ourselves. I know where you're at, brother, because I was there.
I served my country for 18 years as a Special Forces soldier in the South African Defense Force, fighting a guerilla war in 13 African countries. I got captured in Zimbabwe in the early 90s and spent nearly 13 years as a prisoner of war in one of the worst prisons in the world.
I was locked up 24 hours a day in a bare concrete cell with no windows. The space was meant to hold 12 guys, but instead it held 50 of us. We were fed once a day on a half-cup of rice and a half-cup of cabbage leaves. We were beaten most days by the guards as part of our "punishment." There was no running water and no toilet; we had just a hole in the corner of this room. Initially I was allowed no contact with the outside world – no letters, no lawyers, no visits, nothing.
For the first several years in that place, man, was I angry. I spent the majority of my days and nights focused on hatred and thoughts of revenge. Over time, however, I learned some pretty powerful lessons, which today make me grateful for that experience.
I was released seven years ago. If I hadn't taken the lessons I learned there and applied them to my life now, I'd be dead...or worse, I'd still be in prison. In my heart and in my mind. And that is one hell of a prison from which to try to break free.
There are several things I want you in particular to hear, soldier:
You and I, we look at the world in a different way. We are forever changed by our experiences, by what we've seen and what we've done. But don't let anyone, including yourself, tell you you're broken. You're not broken. You're broken open. You see the world in a different way than you did before. It's not right or wrong. It's just different.
It's not an easy place to be. I know. Every morning I have to psyche myself up to step into another day. What I remind myself is that it's not what happens to me that is important, it's how I respond to what happens to me that matters.
It is possible to forgive – yourself and others – and to free yourself from the prison of anger or bitterness or hollowness you might be living in. I'm not saying it's easy. But it is possible.
I get it that there are days you don't want to be here, because it feels so hopeless or scary or doesn't make sense. In that place, I wanted to give up many, many times. And I've wanted to give up sometimes since coming back to "this world," as I call it. But I can tell you with certainty that everything passes. The hell you might be in at this moment or the next moment will pass. I am proof that this is true. Your world can change in the blink of an eye. You never know what's around the very next bend or when the very next door will open for you. Hang on, hang in there. Do not give up.
You are not alone in this. You may think you are, but you're not. You may have no idea who is out there, ready to help you. I didn't. But there were people – total strangers – willing to help me. And there are people willing to help you, too. But you've got to reach out.
When I was released, I had two options – sit down and be a victim, or stand up and be a victor. I much prefer being a victor and I know you do, too. This Memorial Day, remember who you are and that you have the power to choose your life.
You fought for your country's freedom. Now set yourself free.