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The Importance of Giving Veterans a Voice

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Back in November the "Modern Love" column of The New York Times ran a piece by the wife of an OIF veteran in which she says that the "real depth of devotion is proved not by the secrets we're told but by the decision to shield us from the ones we need not hear. Love articulated by a lexicon of silence. Letting him keep the hurt locker closed."

As the daughter of a World War II veteran who tried to shield me with silence, I disagree. Over my father's lifetime, his silence hardened within him, turning into a fortress from which he could not break free. The walls left me outside, dependent upon my imagination to fill in the blanks. A child's imagination is often cruel, creating explanations that blame the child for the pain, the melancholy, the palpable aftermath of war. My father's silence exiled me from comfort and affection, and it also obscured his perceptions, so he could not recognize my depression and our estrangement, even when friends tried to coax him into getting me help. "She's fine," he responded. His silence left no other option.

We fool ourselves if we think that silence protects a child or spouse. Pain is like an underground spring; it will find its way to the surface -- either in nightmares that disturb the family's sleep, angry outbursts, or numbing and withdrawal. Pushing back the memories saps energy, creating contagious depression.

This dynamic of silence over decades is familiar to children of veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War. These veterans accurately perceived that the society to which they returned did not want to hear about their wars or the horrors they witnessed. So having no place to speak about their experiences, the veterans went silent, distance and estrangement with their children, alcoholism and even suicide the consequences.

Although we are much more aware now of how vulnerable soldiers are to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), how much more space have we created for veterans to speak their truths? Yes, many of them have learned that writing provides tremendous relief, that by writing down their memories, they begin to free themselves from the horror of those memories. The compassion of many civilians has propelled them to create writing workshops all across the country -- a grassroots phenomenon -- from Philadelphia's Warrior Writers to Chicago's Vet Art Project to San Diego's Veterans' Writing Workshop to Austin Community College having Composition classes expressly for veterans.

But writing one's story is only half of what is necessary to break the paralysis of silence. Having an audience listen is the other half. The first warriors to compose their war stories did so before the inventions of pen and paper. Those warriors told their stories; the audience then passed those stories to others; an oral tradition carried the stories forward until Homer compiled them. We no longer gather as communities in amphitheaters to hear stories (though that would be enormously transformational). But we have a new version of the amphitheater -- the Internet. Today, people share their personal narratives in blogs or videos.

Civilians have a critical role to pay in helping veterans and their families heal from war. Dedicating virtual and real space to veterans for storytelling would help them break free of their silence. It would let them know we want to hear, that though we do not know the world of war, we care. Such space would also provide veterans with a safe medium in which to experience the benefits of storytelling. Because while silence damages a family, so does untamed release of memories. While children are much more able to take in stories we adults deem scary, the imagery and details of the stories must match the child's maturation; what is appropriate for a 13 year old to hear is not appropriate for a seven year old.

Writing workshops and support groups develop the veterans' ability to measure and respond to their audience. The greatest danger of silence is that in waiting until either we are removed enough from the horror or until our children are old enough to hear, we get stuck in the cement of silence that hardens around us before we even know it is happening.

Every veteran needs to know: rather than to slip into silence, it is better to tell a child "I love you and am so glad to be back home. I'm not ready to tell you my stories yet, but I'll share them when we both feel ready to talk about it." The door to conversation opens, stays open, and gives the child a sense of participation and control. It's a lot like talking to your children about sex. Let them know you are ready to talk when they are ready to hear. And while you wait for the questions, start writing and sharing it with us.

Veteranschildren.com offers a place to share.

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