On This Veteran’s Day…
Every so often my job takes me to Washington D.C. and over the years it has become a place that is less of an acquaintance and one of a familiar friend. Every time I go, I retrace the same steps through our national memorials, pause to soak in the same paintings from the same bench at the National Gallery of Art, and stand in the same long lines to see fading script on our Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Bill of Rights.
Last year, I spent 45 days in D.C. and during that stay something changed. As I walked the WWII, Korean War, and Vietnam War Memorials, it suddenly hit me that one day I would visit and there would be a memorial for my generation, for the thousands of service members that have lost their lives during OEF/OIF. One day, I will come back here as an old lady, with liver spots on my hands, and I will let the tears run down my wrinkled cheeks and pay my respects to my service brothers and sisters. I wonder what it will look like. I wonder if it will capture the sorrow and heartache felt by everyone who has lost a husband, wife, brother, sister, father, mother, friend. I wonder if it will honor the lives lived and sacrifices made. I wonder if children from future generations will leave roses and crayon-scribbled “thank you” letters at its base.
But really, what hit me the most was that a memorial doesn’t exist for the service members who made it home but still lost their lives or in the midst of losing their lives to PTSD. Where is their memorial? Those lives, shattered by trauma and a sense of loss will forever leave them grasping to reclaim what they had. Families broken, they walk like ghosts among us, staring down a saturated oblivion, trying not to get swallowed whole.
Three years ago, I decided to go back to college to get my B.S. in Psychology. This was the third major I would be declaring over a ten-year period and I just wanted to finish my degree for the sake of finally finishing it. I settled on Psychology because I thought it was interesting. But over the course of writing papers, reading books, and seeing it unfold in the lives around me, my heart and interest start drifting towards the study of trauma. And when my university offered a crisis/trauma counseling cognate, I knew exactly that is what I wanted to devote the rest of my studies to.
Part of my graduation requirements mandated a 120-hour internship in my area of study. At first, I was thinking of interning with a Sexual Assault Resource Center to help survivors of human trafficking. Or, maybe volunteer with the Red Cross. But on my last day of that 45 day trip to DC, I was walking down the length of the National Mall one last time, coffee in hand, the early spring air still crisp. I walked by a young man, clean cut, but a bit frayed around the edges, wearing a multi-cam undershirt tucked into his jeans. He looked to be my age, and his eyes were downcast, and he was holding a hand-written sign that said:
“OEF. I’M TRYING. PLEASE HELP.”
And I remember my heart breaking, and my eyes filling with tears because I was looking at the next generation of lives broken by war and he was my age. He might as well have been any of men I work with and in his face I saw theirs. I don’t know why I didn’t stop and talk to him. I kept walking, just like I do when I walk by something that makes me uncomfortable. I guess because it is easier. Because if I can pretend I didn’t see him, I can pretend his struggle and heartbreak don’t exist. That world is easier to live in. That world allows me to live comfortably, buy what I want to buy, enjoy the safety of living in the U.S., without acknowledging that I own part of that cost and yet don’t want to pay any of the consequences.
But about 100 meters later, I knew I needed to go back and talk to him. I needed to look him in the eyes and tell him he mattered. I would give him everything I had in my wallet and try not to cry.
But as I neared him, I saw that another man had arrived and was sitting down next to him. He also looked to be our age and from his haircut and style of dress, I had a feeling he was currently or prior military. And do you know what they doing? They were talking. Simply talking. The man with the sign was doing most of it, with the other man nodding, and listening. And while I couldn’t hear what they were saying, I just knew I was witnessing a holy moment forged between brothers on the dirty sidewalks of D.C.
And in that moment, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to honor the sacrifices listed on the walls of the memorials and the sacrifices that walk among us by continuing my education so that I can help ensure what happened to the returning Vietnam vets doesn’t happen to my generation. But I don’t have to wait for a fancy degree to do that. I need to first stop and open my eyes. Listen. Affirm. Be grateful. Understand that while war is messy, complicated, and horrible, that I as a citizen (and as one who also wears the uniform) have a responsibility to help shoulder the burden that so many carry within them.
When I enlisted into the Air National Guard at the age of 17, it was prior to Sep 11th, and I had only planned on doing six years so I could get my degree and become a high school English teacher. And then the towers fell, and like so many lives, mine drastically changed and completely veered onto a path that I honestly I didn’t want at the time.
But I know now that God used that path to lead me exactly where I am supposed to be.
I mentioned earlier that people with PTSD walk like ghosts among us. But I was wrong.
They are not ghosts. They are flesh and blood and they are your neighbors. They are the ones seemingly functioning in society, but carry an unseen wound. They are the men and women, tattered and broken, lining the streets around the Gospel Mission. They wear everything from service uniforms, to power suits, and tattered blue jeans. They serve your coffee, teach your children, build your houses and fight to make the VA better. They hide, unable to leave their house, paranoid, and schizophrenic. They are old and young, and in-between. Some are missing limbs. Some are missing entire pieces of their hearts. They are fighting for their families and some have lost. But no matter their walk of life, they are the men and women bravely TRYING and NEED OUR HELP.
These are my service brothers and sisters and together we make up a living memorial that is carved of flesh and blood. It is held together by our families, who bravely fight their own wars and rarely get the acknowledgement and help they deserve.
So, on this Veterans Day (and really, everyday) do not ignore it. Do not walk by it. Do not trample on the flag, but also, don’t ignorantly wave it without realizing that it drips in blood and brokenness. It is a responsibility we all need to share. It is a collective and solemn “thank you” that is best lived out in taking care of each other.
***In honor of Veteran’s Day, I would encourage everyone to check out and support Returning Veterans Project, located here in Portland, OR. Started by a group of non-military affiliated social workers and mental heath providers, they provide FREE and CONFIDENTIAL mental health and somatic services to returning OEF/OIF combat veterans and their families. I completed my internship with them, and I was overwhelmed by the amount of care and advocacy they do on behalf of our veteran community. This is truly an example of caring citizenship. We owe them so much. http://www.returningveterans.org