Veterans and civilians need each other. Familiar verbal stop signs like, “you can’t understand” or “I don’t dare ask” are too costly for everyone. We need to find a way to have a dialogue about what is like to return from war, and what it is like to be a son, a parent, a sibling, a spouse of someone who has been to war. As of 2013, over 2.2 million servicemen and women have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Overall, there are over 22 million veterans in this country, 8% of which are female.[i] The "degrees of separation" game tells us that almost everyone in this country is related to a veteran in some way. Yet so much of what veterans and those who love them experience remains unspoken, part of the price paid for the way our country segregates war out from civilian life. "My father is a Vietnam vet, and I was born after he returned, but he never talks about what happened to him there," one woman told me. She wishes he would open up more because she can see he's been effected by his experiences and she feels painfully excluded from something so important.
Don't talk about that.
A memory from my childhood: a picture of my father taken in his Army Air Corp uniform during WW 2, displayed on a bookshelf in the den of our home. He looked so handsome and confident, standing there at an airfield in Memphis, a staff Sgt who taught navigation to pilots sent to win the war in Europe, in the Pacific. He felt good about what he did in the service. "I helped men survive. I taught them how to get home even if they lost all navigation equipment." One of his proudest stories was the day a former student, now piloting a B-29, appeared with a box of fine cigars-- a thank you to my father, after the man had guided his almost mortally wounded plane to safety in England by navigating with the stars as my father had showed him, "just in case."
Yet the man in the photograph was not the man I knew for long periods of my childhood. In the 1950s my father struggled to save his business, and perhaps his marriage, through trying times and financial reverses. He was depressed and preoccupied. In my adolescence, I'd go into the den and take the photograph down and stare at it, wondering: where did that man go? My father eventually straightened things out and we had a deep and loving relationship to the end of his life, but that picture still evokes a yearning for the confident, trustworthy man he seemed. An Odysseus who never came back, one who got lost in the difficult transition from service to home.
On the other hand, two relatives were in combat in WW 2. One uncle was in the Seabees, an engineer, part of that group of brave men who had to bulldoze airstrips on atolls across the Pacific, often while under fire. He was part of one of the first contingents into ruined Tokyo. He may have also seen Hiroshima while it still bled radiation. Another relative was a tail gunner in a B- 17 or B- 29, taking flak on bombing missions over Germany.
One reason I don't know which type of plane he flew in, or whether my other uncle ever saw Hiroshima, is because I was told gently and repeatedly to never ask either man about their experiences. And neither man ever spoke about them. Whatever happened to them was surrounded by silence and anxiety: don't go there. Often I would wonder what terrible things they had seen that were beyond words. Did it haunt them still?
Creating the Missing Narratives
So much of what happens to men in combat is very difficult for them to put into a narrative, to make sense of. Vets wonder about how to make sense of it all. Will you listen to me? Can you understand? They fear alienating the very people who express interest, as happened to one Vietnam vet at a family dinner after he responded to his father-in-law’s invitation to “tell us what it was like over there”: “…I told them. And…within five minutes the room was empty. They were all gone, except my wife. After that, I didn’t tell anyone I had been in Vietnam.” [ii]
And so much of our feelings about what happened to them is difficult for us-- the parents, children, spouses of vets--to put into words. We want to be supportive, but we often don’t know what to say or how to say it. And when you don't go into the service, you have to deal with your feelings about NOT being a vet. How come they went and I didn't? So, before we ever meet a vet we don't know, lots of feelings are generated. Feelings that can be difficult to share.
Civilian and veteran alike, we all are beleaguered by a shroud of silence. The narratives that could bring veterans, their families and those who did not serve closer to understanding one another are missing.
Soldiers are so young when they are sent into combat. We send those who are barely young adults into experiences that will influence them for years, at a time when their life narratives are still unformed and they are so impressionable. The rigors of military training and combat—as well as combat trauma—can ingrain ways of coping and surviving in a war zone into one’s mind and soul. Vets can carry these mechanisms home into the peaceful civilian world, their families and their workplaces. I remember when I was first starting out in my internship at a VA hospital, I had a supervisor who would bulldoze his way through a conversation. Did he actually listen to me? I'd wonder. When I mentioned this to a staff member who'd been around for awhile, he said: "Oh, Dr. X was a tank commander in World War 2 and he never got over it." For some men, the service is the high point of their life. Dr. X didn’t have a narrative to put his war experiences into some context; all he could do was order people around.
And here is one more missing narrative. In my research on the adult development of men, I interviewed men who had been born during WW 2 or Korea when their fathers were away in combat. Some of these men were five years or older before they ever met their fathers. It was clear that this interruption in their relationship influenced what happened as they aged. What I have recently wondered is what it was like for soldiers to try and develop their identity as a father after missing years of their child's life. Many of the men I interviewed were grateful for the chance to talk about the absence of their fathers; often the interview was the first time they had put that experience into words, and created a story line about their family that began to make sense of their relationship.
Veterans have important—essential—stories to tell. So do their parents, spouses, children, and friends. We all need to hear them. In my next post, I will discuss how veterans and those who love them are starting to talk together—and what is involved.
I welcome your thoughts and comments.
[i] “US Veterans: By The Numbers,” http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/us-veterans-numbers/story?id=14928136#2
[ii] Quoted in Shay, J., Achilles In Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1995, p. xxxiii