14 November 2011

Sounding Off and Listening Up

Think of it as a mix between "Why We Fight" and "Why We Write": Veterans Day 2011 proved not only a time to reflect upon military service, but to consider sharing memories and experiences with others.

Alex Horton, a U.S. Army veteran and now a blogger for the Department of Veterans Affairs, wrote "Oh, the (War) Stories You'll Hear" for Time magazine's "Battleland" blog, cheekily evoking the title of a Dr. Suess book before telling a story about when he and his Army buddies literally found themselves in the s---.
I can't quite place why I'm willing to share so many of my war stories with civilians. Some of my friends keep their service hidden and move on, like the Army and the war were scenes from a long forgotten movie. Not me, though. Perhaps I'd rather think of myself in a moment in time where I didn't quite know how those stories would shape my life after the war. Or why I stumble madly in the dead of night to double check the locks that keep out enemies without form or figure.

In a fractured existence of countless stories, I still watch the Stryker labor in the muck under its own weight; I see gunships in the distance burp heavy fire and hear the delayed chatter of the guns; I feel the savage fury overtake me as a friend is stuffed into a body bag. I can't escape the grinding machinery of the present, no matter how bafflingly unpredictable and scary and bizarre it is compared to war. But each story I tell puts those moments to rest. If we come home in fragments, it's the stories that make us whole again.
Reporter Carl Prine is a former Marine and Army National Guard soldier, and a Kaybar-sharp analyst of current events at home and downrange. In a Veterans Day post titled "Fathers and Sons," he writes:
Perhaps because the war in Iraq is coming to an end, many of our most conscientiously bright and articulate combat veterans have been mulling what their service there meant. [...] They’re campaigns deep into the soul nevertheless, and I suspect Few and West shall keep marching behind the caissons of regret and pride, courage and pain for decades, with no flag to capture or hill to hold, but that really doesn’t matter, does it?

It’s the march that counts.
And later: "[...] I know a truth, a truth you also know, even if most civilians don’t. Time makes our memories, and changes them, and we don’t know yet what they shall mean."

In his essay, Prine mentions the Nov. 4 reflections of Phillip Carter in the Washington Post, regarding the latter's struggle and reconciliation with the drive-by sentiment, "Thank you for your service." Here are Carter's words:
[...] I began to understand the sincerity underlying most gestures of gratitude toward the troops. I also began to empathize with those who had no personal connection to the military, but who still wanted to say something or do something to support those who served on their behalf. There is genuine respect behind those thank yous, and after a while, I came to accept that.

I also believe that this collective gratitude may serve a deeper purpose. Whether civilians fully realize it or not, the simple message of thanks sends a powerful message to veterans—that the nation will take responsibility for our actions in her service. In some small way, this collective acceptance of responsibility helps veterans to transfer some of the psychological burdens of wartime service to society. Such gratitude will not eradicate combat stress nor address every veteran’s experience. However, these small gestures do make a difference.
Psychologist Paula J. Caplan, author of "When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans", wrote an opinion article urging members of the public to consider actively—and non-judgmentally—listening to veterans' stories:
Civilians tend not to ask veterans if they want to talk, because they fear that they won’t know what to do. In our profoundly psychiatrized society, many people mistakenly believe that only therapists know how to heal those veterans who are experiencing grief, fear, shame, anxiety, loss of innocence or moral anguish. Nothing could be further from the truth. The mere act of listening is often deeply healing.

There are three reasons that veterans don’t offer up their tales from the front lines: They don’t want to upset civilians by telling us what they have seen and done; they are afraid we will think they are mentally ill; and they fear that if they tell us, we might not understand—and that the chasm between them and the rest of the community will become even greater. [...]

The veterans said that just being given a chance to tell their stories and be listened to intently made it possible for them to speak, to feel respected and sometimes to say things they had never told anyone. Such listening makes the environment safe: Veterans know they will not be criticized or grilled–and the listener’s silence gives them permission to tell their stories in the way they choose.

For the civilians, the experience was transformative. Whether it was bonding over the sadness of losing a loved one, a sense of powerlessness in not being able to help someone in danger, or a shared understanding of the fragility of life, civilians who had thought they’d have nothing in common with veterans were surprised by how easily they could relate to their experiences. [...]

As veterans open up in these listening sessions, they can more easily give voice to what else they need — from practical help finding jobs, shelter or medical care, to grappling with moral and existential crises, to turning from a culture of defense, attack and destruction to one of connection, creativity and care.

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