|Download PDF of this full issue: v40n2.pdf (14.6 MB)|
On Veterans Day, Acknowledge Grief as Well as Service
By Cynthia Orange
"I hate Veterans Day and all days like it," the young veteran with vacant eyes and clenched fists confided. "I hate their parades, the yellow ribbons, being told I'm a hero. If they knew what I saw and did over there...I'm no hero."
"Over there" meant a tour in Afghanistan and three in Iraq. He came home with a heart filled with pain and a head filled with ghosts. Two of his buddies were killed in action in Iraq and five others committed suicide when they came home. He came home with four purple hearts, a traumatic brain injury and a raging case of PTSD.
We are a country of short memories and quick fixes. Have a headache? Take an aspirin. Fight a war? Get over it. Be proud. Smile when we wave our flags and thank you for your service. Be thankful you came home in one piece. Appreciate our patriotic gestures; let us feel good about ourselves for this one moment so we can get on with our own lives and forget about yours.
When I married Michael, I soon discovered I had also married Vietnam and the trauma he carried from his combat experience. Throughout our 37-year marriage, we've both learned that so much about surviving trauma and loving a trauma survivor has to do with loss and grief. My conversation with my Iraq veteran friend reminded me of those lessons.
I remember when our family first visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. It struck me as a large, dark, wing of death. Our daughter and I stood at each end of 1969-1970, Michael's tour of duty, and I was taken aback by the enormity of loss as I ran my fingers over the grooves of letters that formed the names of the dead.
These losses are tragic, but they are tangible, even touchable. I understood my husband's wrenching sobs of mourning, but my own sense of personal loss confused me. Michael did not die. He stood physically whole to photograph his wife and daughter at the Wall, to trace the names of his fallen brothers. Now I know we just scratched the surface of loss on that pilgrimage to the Wall all those years ago.
Michael and I recently facilitated a discussion about grief and loss at a VFP convention. "What does war take from soldiers, veterans and those who love them?" we asked the crowd. Their responses included things like: Innocence. Patriotism. Love. Relationships. Money. Jobs. Sanity. Security. Tranquility. Trust. Courage. Loyalty. Feelings. Self. Purpose. Laughter. Family. God. Country. Dreams. Future. Youth. Friends. Pride.
War changes us forever – all of us: veterans, spouses, children, healers and citizens. This doesn't mean we can't grow stronger and healthier. But our lives and our relationships are not the same, and it's important to mourn what we have lost.
It's also important to acknowledge the enormous grief many of our newest veterans carry deep inside them. To realize that for many vets like my friend, praise on Veterans Day – although well intentioned – can be burdensome and confusing. Many like him (and like so many Vietnam veterans I know) don't feel praise-worthy. They say they feel angry and used by a country that lied to them.
Before we rush to extend a hand to veterans in gratitude for their service this Veterans Day, perhaps we should first offer them a compassionate embrace. Then pause to grieve together.
Cynthia Orange is author of Shock Waves: A Practical Guide to Living with a Loved One's PTSD. She co-facilitates a caregivers' support group in St. Paul, MN. She and her husband, Michael, are actively involved with VVAW, VFP and vetspeak.org.