My late father, Jerome Arnold Caplan, was a gentle, gracious, loving, smart, hardworking man who was happiest when doing things for others. He was drafted and sent to fight in World War II, where he and his artillery battery were completely surrounded by the enemy in blinding snow in the terrifying and crucial Battle of the Bulge. He was Captain, and his men were Black soldiers, nearly all from the Deep South and thus poorly educated and prevented from exercising their right to cast votes in elections. Only after he died in 2009 did I learn from his First Sergeant, Isaac Pope, that when my father -- knowing that his battery was about to be sent to war -- learned that the men had been deprived of the right to vote, in Sgt. Pope's words, "It just about made him crazy" (something never before or since said about my father), and, according to Sgt. Pope, my father "wrote to Washington, D.C., to General Eisenhower," demanding that they be allowed to vote before risking their lives for their country. They got to vote. Not even my mother knew that story, so utterly unassuming was my father.
Wanting to understand his experiences at war -- how his gentle soul survived those horrors -- was the first force that drove me to begin listening to veterans' stories and urging others to do the same. This project of having a nonveteran simply listen with respect and without judgment to the story of a a veteran from any war has become The Welcome Johnny and Jane Home Project and is spreading throughout the country. (see whenjohnnyandjanecomemarching.weebly.com for information, and contact me through that site)
From my childhood years, I remember every December, my father would tell the stories of the December of the Battle of the Bulge. And every December, I asked myself why, though he told the same stories every year, I could never remember them in between his tellings. In 1995, I sat alone in my room, watching the video my friend Caroline Kinsbourne had made of him relating those same stories. As I watched, I heard a sentence that he must have spoken annually but that had never truly reached me. That time, when I heard him say, "I was a Forward Observer," it reached me. It broke through, and I broke down. I hit the "Stop" button, and I wept. Somehow, I knew that a Forward Observer goes out, alone, closer to the enemy than anyone else, to locate them and radio that information back to his comrades. That, I think, was what had kept me from taking in his stories of war: I adored my father and could not bear to think of him in such danger and alone.
At that moment, I began to want to understand how war -- and coming home -- had been for him and how it had been for veterans from every war. This in part led me to write both my book, When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans (whenjohnnyandjanecomemarching.weebly.com), and my play, SHADES, which just had its world premiere at Los Angeles Theatre Center.
In the leadup to Memorial Day this year, I had the honor and privilege of doing two events about listening to veterans. They were hosted and attended by very different people, but all grasped the importance of these listening sessions as an essential way to eliminate what Col. (Ret.) David Sutherland has called the "epidemic of disconnection" between American veterans and nonveterans. The disconnection leaves too many veterans in soul-crushing isolation while, regardless of their politics and how they feel about war in general or particular wars, they bear the burdens of the effects of war. On May 18, I delivered the keynote address and participated in a panel discussion with wonderful colleagues in Portland, Maine, sponsored by the local chapter of Veterans for Peace. By the end of the day, one-third of those attending had volunteered to be listeners, and the VFP chapter is organizing to provide space for the sessions and put listeners in touch with veterans.
On Friday, May 24, I spoke in the breathtakingly beautiful Governor's State Room in the Rhode Island Statehouse for an event sponsored by Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, Family Service of Rhode Island (FSRI), and Psychological Centers (PC). In a room with silken, red wallpaper and furnished with plush red seating, the audience facing me could see just behind and above me a portrait of George Washington, whom someone yesterday called "the first American veteran." By the end of the morning, more than half of those attending had put their names on the sign-up sheet for volunteer listeners, and both FSRI and PC had offered to provide space for listening sessions and to coordinate the contacts between listeners and veterans.
Nothing could move me more than this...and as I write this essay, I remember vividly what a great listener my father was, the intensity of his focus reflected in his eyes as he concentrated on what others said to him.
After When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home was published two years ago, I heard from Viet Nam veteran Ted Engelman. He had read the book, loved the listening session idea, and said he thought there should be a National Day of Listening to Veterans. I have been trying to persuade the U.S. Congress to pass such a resolution -- perhaps for Days, in the plural, to include Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Veterans Day, though the idea would of course be not to limit listening sessions to those days. Although this has not yet happened, Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee took a groundbreaking step on Friday, the day I spoke at the RI Statehouse. He declared that day Veterans' Listening Day, referred to Col. Sutherland's concern about the epidemic of disconnection and to the high rates of suicide among veterans, and said that on the three abovenamed holidays, nonveterans should listen with respect and without judgment to veterans' stories. The proclamation with the Governor's signature and gold seal was read by Lt. Governor Elizabeth Roberts, and Psychological Centers Director Dr. Paul Block later informed me that the plan from the Governor's office is to issue a press release each year on each of these holidays to remind citizens of the listening sessions.
I hope that many other Governors and the U.S. Congress will follow suit.
As I remember my late father on Memorial Day and always, and as I work to inspire others to do the listening sessions with living veterans, I think also of people in three other categories. One is of certain homeless veterans. Whenever I hear the latest statistics about the alarmingly high rates of homelessness among veterans, it saddens me to know that these are underestimates. One reason is that so many veterans have fled into the mountains or the woods and live away from their communities, wrestling in complete isolation with the ways that war haunts them. There is simply no way to count these veterans, but we must not forget that they are out there.
Another category of people I think of, who live not in the mountains and the woods but somewhere closer to the rest of us, are those who, like a dear friend who is a Viet Nam veteran, live in tragically partial existence, so heavily drugged with usually many psychotropic pills that they sleep their days away, can barely walk, and have become so detached from their feelings and even their ability to think clearly that they are disconnected from even those closest to them and cannot begin to heal.
A third category of people are those who have been much in the news lately and whose horrible stories are finally beginning to be more widely believed than before. These are the victims of military sexual trauma. They include a great many men, since men still make up the vast majority of the military and of veterans, but women are vastly more likely, proportionally, to be victimized in this way. All of these victims merit our attention, support, and outrage. Any given woman in the military knows she is extremely likely to be assaulted -- and if not assaulted, then sexually harassed, an all the more intolerable burden as women are pressured to prove that they "deserve" to be allowed in the military. And any man who is sexually assaulted has the added burden of feeling that part of the humiliation is having been treated "like a woman," because throughout our country, women are far more likely to be rape victims than are men, and the perpetrators often feel they have a right to commit sexual assault precisely because their victims are women or are men they see as "less than real men." Appallingly often, the victims are told that their upset is not understandably caused by having been assaulted but rather by their alleged "mental illnesses," and they are given diagnoses that convey the notion that they were terribly mentally ill even before the assault took place; then their credibility in reporting the assault is challenged on the basis of their supposed disorders. (see http://www.paulajcaplan.net/files/Military_Sexual_Trauma_article_in_Women_s_Policy_Journal_of_Harvard_2013.pdf_ )
For the sake of our country and of all these servicemembers past and present, living and dead, let us search for the common humanity that we share with them, find ways to reach out and connect, whether we can do so actually because they are still alive or whether we can do so only in sacred memory.
©Copyright 2013 by Paula J. Caplan All rights reserved