As a military chaplain recently returned from Afghanistan, I hear regularly from the soldiers I served. Some messages are light-hearted jokes. Some are laments about distance from buddies who understand what we’ve been through. But all of them are looking for connection, especially in the anticlimactic letdown that can accompany a return to civilian life.
Last fall, President Obama extended the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan until at least 2017. Given this commitment, we need a more candid conversation about war’s unseen, untold impacts and the way communities at home can respond.
“We need an option beyond patriotism and protest.”
The soldiers I meet for counseling are looking for connection. We deploy, carry out various missions, and return to communities that are surprised we are still at war. Our observation is that the public does not know what war really entails or how to connect emotionally and spiritually with returning veterans. Even when community members recognize our sacrifices, they struggle to say something more meaningful than, “Thank you for your service.” When the national conversation about war is framed in either/or terms celebrating a blind patriotism or a blind protest, it misses the lived experience of the veteran. This keeps communities and individuals from offering effective support to veterans who need it. We need an option beyond patriotism and protest. Engaged participation can empower us to better support the veterans within our communities.
The psychological effects of war, and the moral ambiguities in combat are well documented. But we have not sufficiently acknowledged the sophisticated challenges faced by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Asymmetric warfare blurred the lines between enemy combatants and civilian; the strategic use of non-combatants (women and children), create a battlefield that is unlike any in history. These moral ambiguities set the stage for the various psychological diagnoses we are witnessing.
We are not talking about “weak” veterans who need stronger coping skills. An overwhelming number of veterans are receiving treatment for PTSD, suicidal ideation, moral injury, and other combat related diagnoses. This is why communities need to offer engaged participation to returning veterans.
First, it is vital that each of us work out our own perspective on war. When I returned home numerous people asked me how many people I killed in Afghanistan – as a non-combatant chaplain, remember. Let that sink in. It is hard to connect with another person when my role as a religious leader is not understood. Countless soldiers tell me they are asked similar questions, and their question to me is always the same: what am I supposed to say? When we returned home, we were greeted at the airport as heroes. However, some soldiers were torn, as they did not feel like heroes. They had done their job, as they were told, but they did not think the hero status was appropriate. At the other end of the spectrum, however, the political leaning of people is apparent in conversations and the veteran is merely a pawn for political purposes. My plea is for all of us to understand the political situation and our involvement in the conflict before engaging with veterans who know more about war than we do.
Second, get to know a veteran and learn to listen to his or her story. The sort of relationship I am advocating for will not look like the type of relationship a veteran I will refer to as Sergeant Andrews shared with me. Sergeant Andrews told me that when he travels and is recognizable as a service member (the hair cut always gives us away), people often offer to buy him drinks, but fail to listen to his story. As a chaplain and veteran, I am interested in the intentional commitment in allowing veterans to retell their stories. We want to tell our story. To listen to another person’s story, especially the stories of war, is courageous work. This may sound like an overstatement, but to stand in that space with a veteran and listen to a story that perhaps he or she has not shared with another person is normalizing in a way that a drink at an airport bar could never match. It is in these moments that we integrate our veterans back into society. For many veterans these stories need to be told as part of their reintegration. We must reintegrate the entire veteran.
Finally, become a lifelong companion to veterans. This commitment is more in depth than a “thank you” on Veterans Day. This work is intentional, but we owe it to our men and women who have served our country. Communities can rebuild their moral identities, and we have the privilege of being a part of the process within our own communities. Regardless of your personal political affiliation, actual men and women are struggling to reintegrate into a society that blessed them before deploying and are searching for a similar blessing upon return. What happens after the welcome home parade? We are only recently coming to terms with the total complexity of psychological injuries from Vietnam. These injuries are a timeless element of war. For those that engage in war, there are lasting effects and mental consequences. These three actions help reintegrate our veterans into our communities.
Engaged participation is work we must do together. Seek opportunities to get involved with veterans in your communities. These veterans are three-dimensional persons who experience complex emotions and are seeking opportunities to reintegrate their story back into civilian life. Listening and journeying with another person is basic to the norms of society. This process of affirming and normalizing our veteran population has lasting impacts for a morally just society.
After my deployment, I returned to work and answered the seemingly Rolodex of veteran questions: Will you have to deploy again? Aren’t you glad you aren’t there anymore? What did you do to earn your Bronze Star Medal? Unfortunately, none of these questions offered the possibility of relationship. I wish instead that someone engaged with me on the deeper questions. Even in my own experience I saw the need for an engaged participation. These questions could easily be transformed into something more meaningful in which a relationship ensued, or if nothing else, at least a proper understanding of the complexities of this war.
As Veterans Days come and go and you see a service member in uniform, remember that saying “thank you for your service” is a good starting point. Although, perhaps asking, “how are you?” could create space for an authentic relationship. So, instead of beginning a conversation with a veteran by asking, how many terrorists did he or she kill, begin by saying something like, “if you are willing, I would love to hear more about your experience.” For it is through these relationships that we truly welcome a veteran home.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and are not necessarily those of World Religion News.
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