As the Veterans’ Day holiday recedes into the past, I am reminded of how my views on military veterans have changed — and just how dramatically — all within the past six months.
This blog is still relatively new and (like most blogs) a work in progress.
One of my very first posts was a short contemplation on the Memorial Day weekend late this past spring. (http://jaypochapin.wordpress.com/2013/05/27/a-few-thoughts-on-memorial-day/) I still stand by what I wrote, but my perspective has absolutely undergone some change.
You see, I now work among veterans, probably to a greater degree than I ever have previously. And I now see with greater clarity than ever before what happens when the flower of the country’s youth are sent to wage war in a foreign land.
Back in the day, in MY day, when I was personally concerned about such things, “the war” was Vietnam. Like its predecessor in Korea, it was never a formally declared war, but inasmuch as people were conscientiously objecting to it, being drafted to serve against their will and frequently becoming injured or killed as a result of their involvement, it qualified as a legitimate war in every way that I could see.
I was, like most of my contemporaries, opposed to the war both politically and personally. That means I didn’t think the United States had any business being over there in the first place and I absolutely did NOT wish to go and fight in Southeast Asia.
Nevertheless, I registered for the draft. My lottery number was 155, which placed me pretty squarely in the middle of the pack. I might go, I might not.
As it turns out, I didn’t go. The draft, for whatever reason, figured the war effort could get along just fine without my participation and I believe they were pretty much right on this point.
Frankly, I don’t know how well I would have done. I was never much of a fighter, let alone the kind of person who thrived in the unquestioning obedience environment and literal-minded worldview the military lifestyle demands.
And then there was that whole death thing. As the late John Candy said in one of his films (I believe it was as the character “Barf” in the Mel Brooks movie “Spaceballs,”) “It’s just not me…”
Even if I had survived Vietnam in the sense of keeping my life, what kind of person would have returned to America? I always suspected that exposure to the kind of conditions I would likely encounter would have a deeply disturbing and traumatic effect on my psychological well-being. It was years before I could bring myself to sit through a simple screening of Francis Ford Coppola’s epic film about The Vietnam War, “Apocalypse Now.”
The legend is that Coppola himself suffered some real psychological trauma simply directing the film, which was shot largely on location in the Philipines, nowhere near the film’s actual setting.
But I digress…
The point I wish to make here is that I never dodged the draft nor my obligation to my country, I simply was never called up to serve and I didn’t volunteer because I didn’t want to.
I’m not ashamed to say it: I was scared.
And now I’m working side-by-side with people who, for whatever reason, made a different choice than I did. I stand in awe of most of them. Not only because they made the choice they did, but also because they have come back to a society that pays lip service to their sacrifice and precious little else more.
I believe I can say without contradiction that not a single one of the recent veterans I have met has escaped without some form of physical or psychological trauma as a result of their service. In many cases, both forms of trauma are present. Nobody talks about this.
It is part of the cost of any military engagement and it must be addressed. As the waging of war becomes more automated and detached, more impersonal and emotionally and physically distant, the effects on the soldier’s mind become more subtle even as they become more profound.
When death and injury come in an instant, in a blazing flash or a concussive wave of destruction, when the enemy turns out to be a man, woman or child you thought you could trust right up to the moment that you discover – violently – you cannot, that changes how you interpret every aspect of your reality.
Nobody talks about this.
We say “Welcome Home!” and a couple of times a year we have a parade, some fireworks, we distribute free cups of coffee, maybe a discount on doughnuts or movie tickets and then we go back to our non-military peacetime domestic lives.
These Veterans need so much more and, instead, they get so much less.
These are young men and women who left everything they knew, submitted themselves to a hostile environment in which to train and prepare and then travelled to the far side of the planet to find themselves in an ultimately hostile environment that literally defies imagination or description.
Assuming they survive this environment, both physical and psychological, they are ultimately decanted back into this non-military peacetime domestic environment we call America, where our greatest concern is whether Miley Cyrus is on her way to a psychotic break and whether anyone really cares that Jay-Z’s most recent work is truly his best effort and isn’t it a shame what happened to Justin Timberlake, etc., etc., etc…
So to every Veteran I know (and even the ones I do not,) I say, “Thank You! I can never know what happenned or how you survived. I can never know what horrors you have seen, heard, felt, been forced to endure and absorb. I may never have a clear understanding and I may never want to. But I know you served. I know you did your best to give everything your country required of you. I don’t care about politics right now, I just care about people. You count. You counted then and you still count now. You will always count. And as hard as it may be to believe in a God after everything you’ve been forced to endure and absorb, I say, ‘God bless you!’“