A 21st Century Veterans Day
Michael Patrick Brewer, United States Marine, reporting for duty, sir! Veterans Day brings forth more of a sense of duty than entitlement for me. I work hard to contact as many of my comrades as possible on this one day.
Veterans Day is chock full of gratitude from our fellow citizens with a chorus of "Thank you for your service" raining throughout the day. As a medically retired combat veteran of the Marine Corps and the Vietnam War, I can assure you that the ubiquitous offerings of gratitude have never become cliche and always deposit a nugget of energy into the exchange. Save the antics of little children, few accolades illicit such a humble appreciative smile.
Just today, prior to boarding a flight to San Jose, California for the Elder Warriors – an annual retreat for combat veterans – I graciously received eight “thank you's“ and four “Welcome homes“, the often used greeting between Vietnam Veterans.
On the ride to my hotel, the shuttle driver, who was Vietnamese, shared with me that his father died in the Tet Offensive of 1968 in Hue City. Just like that, my view of Veterans Day expanded.
I showed him my keychain that was a gift from a Vietnamese Ranger and is a replica of the Vietnam flag. The colors and design are seen everywhere in the United States, from bumper stickers to patches on veteran apparel. The flag itself is a Service Ribbon and rivals the other regalia of the war. The unique aspect of adorning and displaying the Vietnam flag is that no other flag from wars we’ve fought has been so pronounced. I am not sure there has ever been such an adoption of a nation's flag like this one. If you were to ask a Vietnamese soldier or citizen who fled their country in 1975 what it means to them, they will tell you that they lost their country but gained one on our soil. The only place their Vietnam exists is inside our country. Our freedom is now theirs. So when you see the "lest we never forget" slogan - which we have to be reminded to not forget - include the Vietnamese people in your peans of praise. Our losses were great, yet theirs were in the millions.
We have come a long way in the recognition of Veterans Day. It was one hundred years ago that our Marines and soldiers fought in Belleau Woods in France. This is where the phrase "tuffel hunden," originated. It means “devil dog.“ The Germans said our Marines were so fierce and dedicated that they fought like devil dogs!
What’s different today? Those men returned numb and near-mute with their private wars. Repression of feelings and memories were a common experience, with few family members ever knowing a thing about their agony.
In Dixon, Illinois; where I was raised until 12 years old; my brother and I were tag-along fixtures at every American Legion event. My grandfather was a WWI Veteran and one of the first Commanders of the American Legion in 1919. My mother, grandmother, and aunts were all auxiliary officers. Our family has been continuous members of the Legion for a century. Did we ever hear anyone speak of the horrors of war? Never, not even once. That is what I mean about our evolutionary grasp of the impact and residuals of war on the human psyche.
Fifty percent of living veterans are over the age of 65, and while the dominant culture has now collapsed the stigma of speaking of war, few have ever fully told their story.
I am 70 years old and probably told only half of my experience. Of all the living veterans, only 3% were in combat. Find one, and learn how to engage in some deep listening. That will surpass the "thank you for your service" dictum.
2500 years ago, a veteran named Sophocles wrote a play called Ajax. A line from that play could be current:
For our fierce hero sits shell-shocked, in this tent, glazed, gazing into oblivion. He has the thousand yard stare.
This term was brought back to life in a WWII painting and is now in common usage as it refers to the internal wounded soul. Ajax, in desiring to hold on to his honor and identity as a warrior, committed suicide. That is current too.
It has become vogue to use the term "moral injury" as opposed to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Our growing understanding is that soul wounds are normal reactions to aberrant events. We do a disservice to the warrior by referring to them as disordered. Given the lingering residual repression about the true nature of war, it may be that it is the collective society as a whole that is disordered and in denial. Twenty years of ongoing war has taken its toll on our nation’s psyche.
It may be the reason that war is scrubbed from our news.
Psychologist Jonathan Shay made some distinctions about moral injury and expanded the definition of PTSD. He suggested that it occurs because there has been a betrayal of something we hold to be morally correct by someone who holds legitimate authority in a high-stakes situation. A man named Brett Litz goes further to include maladaptive beliefs about the self and world in response to perpetrating, bearing witness to, failing to prevent, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations. An example would be a retreatant several years ago who shared a story about the necessity of killing a 13-year-old girl who penetrated the base perimeter.
Unlike PTSD, moral injury triggers very deep guilt and shame and is not appropriately treated with conventional therapy. Fortunately, we have designed rituals that are as ancient as the forests to address these injured souls.
We have come along way from your father's Veterans Day. In Roman times, a Christian could not be a soldier without pledging their sole allegiance to Ceasar. One of the origins of the word veteran is the latin vetus, meaning old and outside the society. Veterans in ancient times were toxic and not allowed inside city walls until they were cleansed. The Native Americans had rituals for their warriors who were not allowed to have any form of intimacy with women or communicate with other tribal members until the completed cleansing rituals, which included sweat lodges. Quite ironically, our Veterans Administration now uses Lakota Sioux rituals.
Yes, we have come along way to incorporating the veteran of war into polite society. Now we can get to work turning swords into plowshares.
Happy Cleansing Veterans Day 2018.