by Adam Pattantyus
After completing four years as a nuclear weapons officer in West Germany during the height of the Cold War, Adam Pattantyus was, in his words, “toast.” Depleted, empty, worn out. In 1987, he returned to the U.S. completely drained—physically, emotionally and spiritually. He says he had lost some core human qualities, including optimism, empathy, and the ability to relate. “I returned less human and had a mechanical approach to life.” Recovering his humanity—his ability to relate with warmth and sensitivity to himself and others—became a lifelong task.
When I was back in the world, my wife and family wondered what had happened to the Adam they used to know. Though I was “back” I looked like hell. All I wanted to do was sleep. I knew what everyone was thinking: “Why can’t he just get over it and enjoy life?” I had the same questions but no answers. I returned home changed; I had no framework to process and move through my experience. I was flying blind.
My job as a nuclear weapons officer had taken quite a toll on me. The job ranks number two on the list of the most intense, rigorous, and stressful of all jobs in the military. It is second only to direct combat. For almost four years, I was responsible for stewarding our country’s defensive weapons of mass destruction. I worked 70-to-80 hour weeks in a “no mistakes” environment and went through dozens of external inspections every year. The pressure and stress were relentless.
In addition to my full-time operational job, I had to meet all US Army and NATO training standards, a full-time job in itself. To prepare, I had five years of leadership training including ROTC, continual on-the-job training, a training community (my unit), and a manual for every military task. By contrast, preparing for my return to civilian life, I had no training, no guides, no community, and no manual. There was no map. As a result, my “return” took more than 25 years. But I’m one of the lucky ones—I made it.
Although I made it, my 25-year marriage didn’t, and I think my service was a significant contributor to my divorce. I saw around 75 percent of the officers who had the same role as me getting divorced—a sad statistic. I can’t speak for how others coped, but I emotionally dissociated in order to fulfill my duty. I became emotionally distant from my wife and had trouble telling her what was going on with me. It eroded my marriage at its very start, and created some rifts we were never able to heal.
When I think back to that difficult time, I realize how valuable Dr. Edward Tick’s book Warrior’s Return: Restoring the Soul After War (Sounds True, 2014) would have been for me, my family and my fellow soldiers. It could have reduced my suffering and my loved ones’ sufferings and helped me to achieve a healthy return.
Warrior’s Return explores the warrior archetype throughout history and examines how war wounds the soul. It challenges us to view healing in the context of how our nation handles its conflicts and veterans. The book breaks down the journey home—what Tick calls the “Necessary Steps of Warrior’s Return”—into six distinct phases. Because I didn’t have any knowledge or understanding of these steps, I muddled through my own return, guided only by my own intuition. As difficult as it was, I was fortunate enough to have my loving family and numerous friends by my side.
What follows are Dr. Tick’s six steps, his explanation of them, and my own personal experience with each of them:
- Isolation and Tending
When warriors return from war emotionally polluted, they are isolated from the community and are tended to by elder warriors and holy people.
After returning, I had a year of graduate school which allowed me to work on my own and sleep for twelve hours a day for the first six months. I had a vague sense of longing to be in the presence of elders and holy people, but they weren’t in my realm. During this year, even though I was with my wife and young daughter, my daily experience was one of profound emptiness and dissatisfaction. This strained my marriage to its core.
- Affirmation and Destiny
Returnees remain separated until they can accept their destiny as warriors on a lifelong path.
After finishing graduate school, I had a growing family and a successful corporate career. Yet there was an emptiness at the center of my life. My “mission” felt hollow. In 2000, after a decade of intensive seeking, my purpose and destiny started slowly coming into focus. Elders and holy people started showing up in my life, and I began studying the spiritual warriorship teachings of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. His teachings about creating an “enlightened society” from our basic goodness deeply resonated with me.
- Purification and Cleansing
Warrior cultures had intensive means for purifying the warrior of emotional toxins accumulated during war.
The work with nuclear weapons was poison to my being. It made me question my fundamental goodness. I also felt I had betrayed my extended family because I had relatives living behind the Iron Curtain during my assignment. A deep, existential cynicism took root in my being and cast a pall over my life. It took many years of Buddhist practice and body work (cranial-sacral therapy, Reiki, etc.) to rewire myself into my true, good me.
Through storytelling, we transform the narratives of our experience, allowing the poison to be released and redemption to enter.
For me, this has been a lifelong challenge. My voice has been “locked up” since childhood. I’m just recently finding it and becoming able to express myself emotionally and with sensitivity. Because I wasn’t allowed to speak about my military assignment, I could not tell my family and community what I did in the service. This caused problems in my marriage because there was a significant part of my life I wasn’t able to share with my wife. I became more shut down, dissociated, and emotionally “mute” during my service, and long afterward. I held this “emotional poison” inside for the majority of my adult life with the attendant consequences to me, my family and relations. Only in the past five years have I begun to articulate my experiences.
- Restitution in Community
After war, the broken social contract must be healed and the damage to the world addressed.
I am a very mission-focused person, which is one of the reasons I chose to serve in the military. Yet I had to face the reality that my service was connected with such existential ugliness—namely mass destruction. Since 2000, I’ve been able to shift my work to more purposeful, meaningful work. This has been deeply healing.
The book quotes combat veteran John Fisher: “A veteran does not become a warrior simply by going to war. A veteran becomes a warrior when he or she has been set right with life.” I had the great privilege to be able to set my life right. Now, I am the man and warrior who I want to be: a loving father to my three children; a loving family member; a sought-out friend; and a valuable contributor in work and positive force in society.
I feel deep gratitude to Dr. Tick for expertly articulating this complex process and for providing me with a map, and a framework, through which to hold my warrior experience. Although my life has been existentially challenging at times, I’m grateful for the journey and the help I have received along the way.
Adam Pattantyus is committed to his ongoing self-renewal and healing. He works as an entrepreneur and engineering consultant. He enjoys his children, family and friends, and recreates through cycling, hiking and painting. He can be reached at email@example.com.