Written in January, 2008
“Ben, you deserve a break, some time off.”
I hear this all the time, and I still am unsure exactly what it means. Clearly, when transitioning from combat zone to stateside to civilian, a little quiet time is indeed in order. But a break? From what?
I think Americans are starting to recognize that returning combat veterans aren’t altogether “fine” upon return. And I think it’s good, but also simultaneously bad. We elicit sympathy, which is certainly nice, but that simply permits many of us to act less responsible, less active, less productive, and be far more selfish than perhaps we should be.
“Ben, you’ve been through a lot.”
A blanket statement, and while perhaps to some degree true, also too generous.
It’s a ticket to be a loser.
Am I suggesting that I should rush out, seek career-oriented, gainful employment and launch into a series of commitments that restrict creativity, freedom of movement and relaxation? Not in the least. What I am saying, however, is that many of us, myself included, aren’t particularly victims until we are told we are such. Keep telling us we are and we may start to believe it.
I do deserve a hiatus. I do deserve some time off. I have worked hard (some days), and frittered away many others. I have endured high stress and undeniably low pay. This much is certain. And I did see and do things that are not easy to reflect upon, much less discuss with others. This is true.
But I do not need a vacation from reality, to fill my days with meaningless television programming, too many drinks accompanied by too many cigarettes. I, we, do not need pity. We need instead your help.
I need friends, I need confidants, challenges, to think, to not be alone with my thoughts. That idleness, this poison, brings melancholy to the heart and further widens the already-present chasm between “us” and “normal people.” We need friends around us.
I am not a victim unless you tell me I am. I must deal with my experiences on my own. Our survival, others’ departure, personal failures, self-doubt and anger. These are between me and God. But you can listen, and many times that is all we ask of you. Listen. I know, we know, that you cannot solve our problems, that you cannot convince us to cut back on the drink or the drug, that you cannot tease out what claws at our conscience. But you can be there when we start to grapple with it on our own. Do not let us go it alone.
When does the vacation I deserve evolve into the unjustified lethargy of poor transition? One month? Six months? Years? It must end sometime. It is not healthy, nor right, to ride comfortably on the wave of sympathy that we receive. Challenge us.
Make us think. How? Listen to us and we will eventually think on our own. Be that safe recipient as we tell you of our duress. We will appear crazy, in grave need of professional help, perhaps medication and restraint. Listen to us, gain our trust, and treat it as a gift. Swallow that enormous, rising lump of alarm and just listen. We will probably sort it all out, but be willing to listen. Don’t ALLOW us to be victims.
Encourage us to think. Don’t let us alone. We NEED to fit in, not go on extended mental and social holiday. Stop buying us drinks, stop making concessions: “oh, he’s a veteran; it’s okay if he drinks himself into a stupor.” It’s not okay.
Challenge us. Do not make allowances. Giving us license to withdraw from society may be terminal:
” In 2005, for example, in just those 45 states, there were at least 6,256 suicides among those who served in the armed forces. That’s 120 each and every week, in just one year.” (read the article here)
We need you, and that is our only request of the nation we swore to defend. War is not our darkest hour nor the longest night. Those come when we are home, when we are remembering, when we are standing in crowds but somehow alone. We need you to see us through it.
Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved