A web of relationships back home—parents, children, spouses, communities—are impacted when we send men into combat. We are learning, too, that the wounds of war can ripple through families even decades after veterans return. Longitudinal research on veterans presented at the recent APA convention indicated this is true particularly among veterans who had enlisted before graduating from high school, those involved in close-quarter killing, and among minority veterans.[i] The cost of sending men and women to war does not just “go away,” and in fact may only surface years after returning home.
As discussed in my previous post, there is a great deal of personal pain and lost social history in the silence that surrounds the experience of veterans and those who love them. Veterans often feel that “you wouldn’t understand” and civilians may feel that it’s better not to ask. We all pay a price for this silence.
Beginning to find words
So, when I recently participated in a panel event on Veteran-Civilian connections at the University where I teach—invited to represent the civilian perspective on working with vets—I was eager but anxious as well. Did I really belong? Would anyone listen to what I had to say? I was experiencing in microcosm what many civilians feel around vets.
What I encountered at the event was people—vets and civilians—eager to talk. I heard an older Vietnam vet talk about how different it was then from now, the indifference and anger he encountered when he returned. I heard an ex-marine talk about trying to leave his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan behind, studying now for a new life at the university. “I want to find a new life, and I don’t quite know what that is yet. I’m scared of staying stuck back there, in the old one.” I heard active duty soldiers talking about pride in what they do and a desire to help comrades in combat. Fathers, mothers, spouses talked about wanting to be helpful. Often parents of soldiers suffer most of all. We talked of PTSD and Moral Injury. This interchange among vets, non vets and military family members is a positive step forward, a step toward each participant finding the words and creating their own narratives.
Parenthetically, I was also astonished that so many of the vets in our student body did not attend the event; many were shy about having their veteran status revealed. Think of all the knowledge, all the social history that is being lost when vets do not talk of their experience, do not bring back into our society the stories of what has happened to them.
As you age, stuff comes up.
I was a psychology intern in a VA hospital at age 23 working with men both way older than me, and even more painfully, some much younger, their lives already blown apart. I never served, instead receiving a draft deferment for graduate study. Then the draft lottery was instituted and my number was high enough that I was "safe." In this day of an all- volunteer army, it may be hard to realize, but how we dealt with the draft—evading it, accepting it, finding ways around it—has shaped the lives of my entire generation. My VA clinical internship affected me profoundly. Yet it was only forty years later that I became determined to unravel what happened to me there, how it affected my career and my sense of self. Listening to vets, hearing their stories, talking about mine, helps me sort out the confused layers of time and loss and hope and shame that is woven around the experience of war in my own life. And I’ve heard many vets say that it was only years after getting out of the service that they began to think about what had happened.
The misleading veteran-civilian dichotomy
Our society segments war and military service from the rest of our life, so it can seem easy to just go about your life as if our wars are not happening, even though they are going on now, as I write. The distinction between "civilian" and "military" is misleading. I think more now of "those who go to war" and "those who witness war." Those of us who are "civilians" are still affected by what we see, everyday around us, in the media, on the street. We may try to distance ourselves, perhaps, but it effects us in hidden, silent ways.
The truth is that vets and civilians need each other. We need to be in dialogue in order to begin to understand our shared and different experience. Life presents us all, over and over again, with an "overwhelmingness": experiences greater than we can initially make sense of. The difficulty is compounded when we retreat into an isolated silence. That's the essence of a veteran’s trauma—overwhelmed and alone and unable to make sense of what happened. I believe that there's often an unspoken reciprocal trauma for civilians that comes from our long distance experience of war happening to those we love.
For those who have experienced trauma, constructing a narrative and sharing it with those who respectfully listen and seriously respond is an act of validation and healing. This is what psychiatrist Johnathan Shay refers to as the “communalization of trauma.”[ii]
Finding a common language
How do we find a common language? By listening, and responding to what we hear, civilians can help vets make sense of what's happened to them. By listening and responding, vets can help us civilians make sense of what's happened to us. Listening does not come easily, nor does responding. It means suspending judgment, it means tolerating the anxiety, sorrow, anger, even shame, that may come. It means realizing that war inevitably brings suffering to us all, a suffering that needs to be both comprehended and grieved in order to rebuild and claim the life that awaits vets when they return, a life that can embrace the opportunities and strengths that vets bring back into our society.
So, where do we go from here? I welcome comments and suggestions from readers regarding strategies for generating more vet-non vet dialogue and shared narratives.
Sam Osherson is the author of The Stethoscope Cure, a novel about psychotherapy and the Vietnam war. He is a Professor of Psychology at the Fielding Graduate University.
[i] Carey, B. “Combat Stress Among Veterans is Found to Persist Since Vietnam,” The New York Times, Aug, 7, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/08/us/combat-stress-found-to-persist-since-vietnam.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar%2C%7B%221%22%3A%22RI%3A8%22%7D.
[ii] Shay, J., Achilles In Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1995; See also Herman, J. Trauma and Recovery—The Aftermath of Violence, NY: Basic, 1997 and Lifton, Robert Jay, Home From the War, NY: Other Press, 2005