When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, troops came home not to the accolades and war heroes' welcome of days past, but to personal attacks on character based on the condemnation of the war itself.
Today, we face an unprecedented number of troops coming home from what has become the United States' longest war -- Afghanistan -- in addition to the thousands having already come home from Iraq. While this class of veterans may not always face verbal attacks, as did those from the Vietnam era, many face a pervasive communal silence in their transition home from war. The silence may not come from an aversion to these wars, but an apathy toward them. Returning troops face a nation sublimely oblivious to the intense pain of war, loss of life and disruption of global community.
Contrast the last decade with the era of the Second World War. During "The Good War," ration books adjusted everyday home front living with staples like coffee, sugar, fuel and more all coming under government regulation. No such costs have been exacted upon us during America's longest war. War bonds are a thing of the past... grocery lists remain the same... the American automotive industry has survived recession and is coming back in spite of an ongoing war.
In addition, while today's returning troops suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) are added to safety-net programs, many of the same people who herald patriotism call for budget cuts to these very programs. And, unless we live near a military base, we've seen little press coverage of the lives lost.
Tobias Wolff, Vietnam veteran and professor at Stanford University, has written:
The sign of a really decadent civilization is one that sends young people out to do and to suffer the things that soldiers do and suffer in war and not to care about what those things are... not to have any costs laid on them [civilization] even of knowing... we seem to have avoided every other cost... but to avoid even the cost of knowing is an unforgivable decadence. -- Operation Homecoming
As a society, we can learn from a past that has resulted in over one-third of our homeless population consisting of veterans. Caring for returning troops is an act of responsibility taken by a civilization that recognizes their participation in sending them into harm's way. Caring involves not only providing government programs that care for the mental and physical health of veterans, but participation in communal acts that envelop the whole person and empower them to fully return home.
A very powerful communal act is storytelling. In listening to the stories of those who've participated in war, healing can eventually come to those individuals and the cost of war can be understood so new ways of resolving global conflict can arise. Unless they speak, veterans may remain captives of war's demons. Unless we listen, we fail to comprehend the horrors in which we collectively participate. Storytelling is a powerful, ancient ritual that moves people beyond language itself -- shaping not only perceptions, but also the ways in which we live together in the future. Storytelling provides a means of sharing the cost of war among all people, so we develop an aversion to war and seek true and just alternatives for resolving conflict.
In January, many United Methodist congregations will participate in America's Sunday Supper with Points of Light Institute -- engaging communities in dialog about the issues that most impact returning troops and working together to address them. Some of our faith communities will provide free screenings of Operation Homecoming or The Invisible Ones followed by dialog to raise awareness and assist in telling the story. Some congregations may provide job fairs and financial literacy programs or initiate Habitat for Humanity builds for and with veterans. As important as the concrete results of these acts of service are, they offer more than the help itself. They offer a means of coming home.
Print and video stories that show the many ways United Methodists are involved can be found at www.umc.org/military and you can learn more about how to get involved.
This blog is part of our #GivingTuesday series, produced by The Huffington Post and the teams at InterAction, 92nd Street Y, United Nations Foundation, and others. Following Black Friday and Cyber Monday, #GivingTuesday -- which takes place for the first time on Tuesday, November 27 -- is a movement intended to open the holiday season on a philanthropic note. Go to www.givingtuesday.org to learn more and get involved.