Mass media consumers in America might be forgiven for forgetting this, but the purpose of Memorial Day -- obviously enough -- is to remember our troops, past and present, with gratitude for their service. But what are those service-members themselves remembering?
I've been asking this question while in the company of a good many U.S. military veterans, as they delved deeply into their own memories.
My focus was a workshop conducted for and by wounded warriors who suffer from invisible as well as visible damage. Media access to such highly personal and confidential events is rare -- for understandable reasons. But I was invited in for the purpose of covering the "Healing Of Memories" process -- as it is known to the participants -- in a forthcoming edition of the PBS television program Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, to which I'm a contributor.
The episode will not air for some time -- probably not until June or July -- but as the Memorial Day holiday begins, it feels apt that I should pass on to HuffPost's readers some of what I've learned about the (often deeply hurting) memories of the American service-members I've been talking with.
The originator of this workshop series -- of which the one I attended was held in the calm surroundings of the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, AZ -- is someone I've known for some years, and whose experience of war derives from a theater of combat somewhat removed from U.S. military operations.
He's Father Michael Lapsley, an Anglican priest originally from New Zealand who served as chaplain to Nelson Mandela's African National Congress liberation movement -- and for his pains he had both his hands blown off by a package-bomb. (Pictured, LapsLey and his prosthetic hands)
The bomb was dispatched to him by agents of South Africa's white supremacist regime in its last throes in 1990, shortly after Mandela had been released from his 27-year prison ordeal. (As I've reflected in my column The Media Beat several times recently, the physically brutal reality of that country's struggle for freedom -- even during its eventual negotiated transition to victory for the ANC -- has too often gone under-reported, especially in American media.)
After a slow and agonizing recovery from his injuries, Lapsley now travels the world conducting "Healing of Memories" workshops for similarly traumatized people as himself, usually military veterans. Their countries range from Mozambique to Germany, to Sri Lanka, to the U.S. and more. In the U.S., the workshops take place in Arizona, Minnesota and Hawaii, with plans to extend into several more States.
The American veterans I sat among in Scottsdale all felt that Lapsley's literally battle-scarred experience was profoundly helpful to them as they met to confront the frequently deeply-buried mental and emotional damage exacted along with their physical injuries. An Army engineer with severe arm and leg damage who served in Iraq said:
"Talking with this guy whose hands were blown away seemed to give me a way to voice my own truth, about how I've felt getting injured in war -- because he's the real deal. My anger, my loneliness became something I could finally spit out."
Many told a recurring truth ... that no matter how many civilians tell them "Thank you for your service", they feel there is no way they can communicate in a truthful way with them about that service. "I sense that I just can't talk to those who haven't shared my kind of experience," said a Vietnam era Marine, "and neither, frankly, do I even really want to."
They don't have to, either. But many do quite evidently have that need to talk to someone about their memories, if only to others like themselves. But it's a need that is not always recognized, and often outright repressed -- a repression that is sometimes self-determined though perhaps unconsciously so, and sometimes brought upon them (even unknowingly) by well-meaning but uncomprehending families and communities.
The workshops take a straightforward form. Individuals with traumatic histories are encouraged to purely tell their tale -- and others to purely listen. Everyone, in the end, tells their tale ... for everyone, of course, has their own story. There are many silences. There's no "therapeutic discussion" as one ex-Navy officer somewhat disparagingly called it.
"Our approach is simple, perhaps deceptively so," says Lapsley gesturing with his far-from-cosmetic prosthetics. "We offer people the chance to tell their story, perhaps even just vomiting it out, when they have perhaps never been able to before -- and they do so without being judged or advised or offered a 'cure', or anything like that."
It gave me pause this week, and finally proved both quieting and heartening, to appreciate just how sheer story-telling (something that I usually think of as merely my regular stock-in-trade) can prove fundamental to aiding men and women who go to war, in their recovery from what war has done to them.
Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his regular column, The Media Beat, with accompanying video and audio. Listen also to The Media Beat podcasts on demand from Connecticut's NPR station WHDD, and at iTunes.