The Human Beings That Are Veterans, and How We May Need Them

In America, as we move into the parades of Columbus Day and Veterans' Day (and of course the sales!) we tend to look down on looking within at the mistakes we have made, lived through, voted for, and those that came before us.
09/21/2015 04:52 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2016

There is a piece in Sunday's New York Times that is big, and human interest, and important, but it is on a topic that has too often been part of human disinterest, which would be Post Traumatic Stress, and in particular suicide. It is entitled, "In Unit Stalked by Suicide, Veterans Try to Save One Another," by Dave Philipps. The descriptive line about the article reads, "Members of a Marine battalion that served in a restive region in Afghanistan have been devastated by the deaths of comrades and frustrated by the VA."

The first line reads, "After the sixth suicide in his old battalion, Manny Bojorquez sank onto his bed. With a half-empty bottle of Jim Beam beside him and a pistol in his hand, he began to cry." Here, I'd like to discuss is our attitude towards not only war, but towards the young people who are haunted so excruciatingly as to want both an escape from the life that has seemed crippling, and an escape to a death which can seem to offer a chance to unite with what may seem to them their closest family anywhere, their brothers in arms.

The lack of excellent mental health services is not altogether surprising, as in hearing one of the men discuss a therapist who told him to consider the atrocities that haunted him as a bad breakup, something which duly infuriated him. One of the Veterans told of the surreal atmosphere that can beset a person trained to behave with propriety in one aspect of life and set naked before death, killing, savageness inside and out and the loss of one's comrades. Then there is the impossibility to adjustment to life at home where expectations of normalcy seem quite harsh and really impossible. The is the kind of problem, set of problems, that requires the immediacy these people are giving to themselves and each other through social media. They are showing up with a commitment to be there for each other, inventing a therapy so to speak, and infusing it with a humanity we don't see enough in the field of mental health services.

I tend to think we have a tendency to forget as soon as possible, the horrors of war, and remember instead the memorials, the parades, the declarations of "Never Again" sewn together awkwardly with the odes to peace forever at the end of a battle, the actual battle sites later becoming our tourist destinations. In today's headlines, where we see the horrors and sorrows of refugees, most dramatically the photographs of children geared to tug at our heartstrings, we can sometimes forget that the wars that have enmeshed and entrenched us, in the Middle East in particular, involve all of us, and all the future generations as well. I don't much like the competition we may feel automatically as we grieve over the helpless child in a news report while the children or boys who just become men while they are shooting and being shot at, seem less important to us, because they aren't in our line of vision. Some of us, perhaps me included, have seen Marines as the toughest and most patriotic part of the military, a vision that may stop us from humanizing these people as people, with hearts and minds that get sick and feel terror, sometimes terror and aching without apparent end.

War has seemed to become a habit, and actually, at least in America, there seems to be an increasing reverence for patriotism which often brings with it the sense that anyone who questions our involvement in Iraq and even in Afghanistan, lacks the strength of will and the rightness of mind to be thought of as patriotic enough. Lost then, is the deepening and caring awareness of what can happen, and what has happened--not only to civilians on the ground but to our sons and brothers and neighbors and the guys next door to someone, even if not us. What gets lost is the connection between weakness and strength, and how it can be the strongest thing to admit combinations, of weakness, caring, even crumbling. We owe the greatest respect to these veterans, also for admitting their own fears, something that can run against the machismo of the greater culture.

I have thought for a while, that we owe it to ourselves to hear the stories of combat and even adrenalin-fused battles, from people who have been overseas. I feel that what has happened to them could happen to any of us, and that we need to lessen the distances between the "us" and the "them", that this is the only way to feel empathy, and to effect change. In our polarization and religious self-righteousness, we tend to think we or those near us belong to the good only, but the truth is there are so many shades and shadows that we need to learn about belonging to all of them. The worst thing, along with isolation and lack of understanding, can be the shame associated with not living up to expectations internalized by a culture which is friendlier to near poetry about embracing imperfection than it is to getting down and dirty about hearing and growing to be able to hear how brutal and terrible some imperfections can be.

In America, as we move into the parades of Columbus Day and Veterans' Day (and of course the sales!) we tend to look down on looking within at the mistakes we have made, lived through, voted for, and those that came before us. It can be so hard for us to look at these people--these Marines-- as brothers, not only who need our help, but whose help and humanity, and hearts and mistakes, we need, and very badly so. They shouldn't have to see help as charity, but rather as something mutual. Our own deeper understanding can help us face the calamities of living in war, and to sober up about the consequences.