Over the past six months, my writing has frequently been on subjects that fairly raise the accusation that I am unhealthily fixated on a small portion of the veteran community that seems to readjust poorly to civilian life. While they may indeed represent a relatively miniscule percentage of veterans, it in no way diminishes the importance of understanding their situations, their plight, and their struggle for readjustment and understanding. The truth is, incidence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is on the rise. It necessarily demands attention.
Perhaps the best question would then be “why?” Why are more veterans confessing their difficulty with return to civilian life? Why are VA hospitals packed with young men and women who have not adjusted well following their tenure in a combat zone? And why, above all else, are they committing suicide at such astronomical rates (the VA estimates that 5,000 veterans will take their own lives this year)? These are challenging questions, however, and reams of documents have only barely scratched the surface of the matter.
There is one explanation for this tragedy that has somehow escaped the vast majority of public attention. For lack of a better term, it could be referred to as “national absolution.” One reason it may be often ignored is that it casts a great deal of blame and no doubt makes a number of people extremely uncomfortable – or vehemently defensive. In a nutshell, troops are not receiving a unified statement of “well done” from the public. Opinions on the war are too sharply divided.
Since wars became a part of “civilized” society, so also have ritual cleansing ceremonies and grand victory celebrations for the returning warriors. The individual performance of the warriors was irrelevant, as was perhaps the overall victory in the war itself. What was universally agreed, however, was that the warriors had served well, acted selflessly, and participated in a conflict essential to the survival and wellbeing of the society. But this doesn’t happen anymore.
Though few realize it, by the time the last US troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, the percentage of medical evacuations from the combat zone for psychological trauma (PTSD) was nearly identical to the percentage of civilians in the United States that fiercely opposed the war: approximately 55%. The close correlation cannot be ignored. Though oceans apart, stateside disagreement with the merit of the war was exacting a heavy toll on the troops. It is difficult to put one’s heart behind a cause that only a moderate percentage of one’s own countrymen support.
And while the reception of veterans now is much improved over that during the Vietnam War, strong opposition persists nevertheless, and even a veteran purposefully shielding him or herself from all news sources will still encounter day-to-day conversations that reflect the division. One’s service, therefore, does not settle easily as a noble act, but one of intense controversy.
As a consequence, many veterans are left with three options: they may oppose the war and agree that it was a poor idea and they the victims if a misguided foreign policy, they may spend the remainder of their days attempting to justify their national service, or they may simply remain silent on the matter. None are terribly helpful, however, and deprived of a country which unanimously supports her servicemembers, the actions of a few short years are denied their proper place as distancing memories and held forever in the forefront of the heart and mind. “Did I do well? I think I did, but these other people say I did not.” There is a tormenting lack of closure.
This is an unquestionably unpopular hypothesis because it casts blame for an epidemic of PTSD on all those who are fairly exercising their rights to free speech. Yet perhaps they are misdirecting their anger. As I have quoted before, a wiser man than I once stated, “the warrior has always been separated from the war. The warrior is sacred. The war may be political. Respect for the fallen is never an issue.”
Yet there now appears to be little distinction between the warrior and the war, and the warriors are the ones bearing the burden. According to widely publicized remarks, they aren’t noble men and women who took an oath to their country and its citizens; they are instead a lot of misinformed young persons who have acted as instruments for the government’s maligned intents. Such presumptions, however inaccurate and unfounded, are wounding. There is no peace with one’s war, but a continued battle to justify it within one’s own heart and before one’s own countrymen.
The human body and mind are extremely resilient, and capable of surviving unfathomable injury. And veterans, like few others, are immeasurably tough. What is most challenging to shake, however, is the pervasive fear that their service has all been for nothing. The citizenry they swore to defend loudly declares they needed no defense. There is no longer a country at war, but a few men and women fighting one, and a very large and vocal percentage of the country that aggressively opposes it.
Those who have served well are not returning home to peace, but to a myriad of questions, accusations, and even taunts. Patrolling on foreign soil, wearing body armor and carrying a rifle at the ready was only the first battle. The greater war is actually waged stateside, against ridicule, misunderstanding, and a crowd of citizens who appear to go out of their way to devalue the high character of those who willingly sacrificed personal ambition for the preservation of their country. Yet that country, ignoring the beauty of her warriors, does little to receive them.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved