The Doric Idiom: Hesma Phobou; ‘Purging’ or ‘Fear Shedding’

The Doric Idiom: Hesma Phobou; ‘Purging’ or ‘Fear Shedding’
Brave Rifles troopers in Iraq. (DoD photo by Capt. Jason Welch)
Battlefields Staff

I am not a combat veteran. The closest I’ve come to facing the enemy is holding a rifle or sidearm at high ready when approaching a panga full of uncut cocaine and a handful of exhausted smugglers. They were never armed with anything more dangerous than a fishing knife. If they had guns, they tossed them as soon as they saw the blue lights, knowing full well that we were keyed up and ready to kill if they so much as twitched in a threatening way. We came close more than once.

Even so, the day of growing anticipation as the cutter closed in on the target, the gearing up and loading of weapons, the briefing by the captain, and finally being lowered into rough seas at sunset, all of it building on itself to a breaking point—that never comes. Months of doing that over and over, on top of the stress of being enlisted in a service that has tied itself in knots trying to be politically correct and inclusive at the expense of its morality and logic. Trying to make sense of that day-in, day-out reality, trying to understand decision-making processes that waste so much time and resources, takes its toll. You’re told to care about and have pride in your work, to constantly improve, but not to push too hard for change because the nail that sticks up gets the hammer.

Now, add to that stress of actual combat. Waking up at 0237 to the sirens of incoming mortar fire and the C-RAM defense guns roaring as they try to intercept the incoming fire. Being on patrol and having a ten-year-old boy run out into the road to detonate the bomb strapped to his chest under the front tires of your truck. Getting excited for your weekly card game with your buddies, and your support group, only to find out they all died when their helicopter went down. Watching your driver put on her plate carrier and holster her weapon like she does every day, knowing full well that she was raped two weeks ago and refuses to acknowledge it because she has no recourse. Worse, you know who did it and can’t say anything either.

And yet, people wonder why the veteran suicide rate is so high.

(DoD photo by Joshua Seybert)
(DoD photo by Joshua Seybert)

In his book “Gates of Fire,” Steven Pressfield describes the Spartans’ post-battle ritual of claiming their “tickets.” The ticket was one half of a twig or piece of valueless wood carved with a name or personal mark. They were broken in half before battle, with one half left behind in a basket and the other tied to the wrist of the Spartan to be carried into combat. Claiming their tickets after the fighting gave accountability for the dead who couldn’t claim their other half, and it let commanders’ brothers, lovers, and friends know who wasn’t coming home.

The small ritual of claiming their tickets when their names were called, of fitting the two halves together, was a form of release. It signaled the end of fighting for the day. It was time for hesma phobou, the Greek ritual of purging or shedding of fear. The adrenaline, terror, stress, and sheer inhumanity of fighting close enough to have your enemy’s guts spill onto your feet while you watched them die had to have an outlet. The Spartans experienced PTSD in all its horror, but they also had a cultural mechanism for coping with it, and a support structure for surviving it. The purge gave them an outlet before it could metastasize like cancer and consume them.

In the modern era of Hollywood storytelling and empty machismo that plagues the current ideal of masculinity and the modern soldier, we have lost what it means to be tough. If the ancient Spartans could cry and wail and shake uncontrollably while holding one another after fighting, then why are modern veterans shunned for doing the same? Why is it so hard to find help without the quiet unofficial reprimand that comes with seeking out a counselor?

We have lost the support of our leaders, and our official culture no longer offers the support it should.

We have lost the ability to shed our fear, and so we carry it instead.

With no outlet or release, the pressure becomes too much, and the veteran suicide rate stays high.

This article first appeared in The Havok Journal.
The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.
K.C. Aud has made a career of being lucky and has managed to find something positive in nearly every poor decision he’s ever made, even if is only a new perspective on how not to do something. Enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard in 2010, he became an operations specialist (radio and navigation) and did his first tour in Georgia, guarding submarines from drunk fishermen. In 2014, tired of the heat and the bugs, he transferred to a 210-foot medium endurance cutter in Washington state. The cutter then regularly deployed to the hot and buggy west coast of Central America to hunt down drug runners. Aboard the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Active he traveled 94,194 miles and personally handled enough cocaine to keep a small country high for a decade. Somewhere in there, he learned to write, if not spell. Three years later, daunted by the prospect of spending the rest of his career in a windowless command center, he separated from active duty. After 13 different jobs ranging from beer brewer to dairy farmhand to machinist to Navy civilian contractor, he reenlisted in 2020 as a Coast Guard reservist, changing rates to maritime law enforcement specialist. When not helping the Navy assets in the Puget Sound troubleshoot radios, he’s on drill in Seattle doing water cop stuff and or flailing away at his keyboard. Though married and now a father, he misses the mission.
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