Everyone has a story. You just have to listen to it.
As a mental health counselor working exclusively with veterans, it often surprises me how difficult it is…and also how easy…for a veteran to be able to tell their story.
The impacts of combat, deployments, or even just military experience in general are felt long after a veteran leaves the service. When I say that the guns do not go silent after combat, I don’t mean that every veteran experiences John Rambo-like flashbacks every time a bottle rocket fires off, even though that’s a thing. I mean that our experiences in the military are hard-wired in our brain, and they crop up at really strange times. There is a certain type of weather pattern, an early-morning-post-rain kind of thing that reminds me of Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia in February of 1997…if that’s not a specific memory trigger, I don’t know what is. And it’s not just a memory…it’s an embodied experience, in which my body feels the memory, rather than just pictures in my head.
There are thousands of things, big and small, that can take a veteran back to their time in the service, some good, and some admittedly bad. The problem is, if we are not aware of them, then getting lost in these memories can drag us down rather than empowering us to do more. Veterans can and should acknowledge these memories as valued life experience, rather than shackles that bind them to the past.
“Easy for you to say,” I hear you mutter. I know. I get it. The memories of loss, or pain, the memories of things that we saw or things that we did are difficult to overcome. It is a challenge to see those moments as beneficial, but see them that way we must, or else they can bury us with their weight.
That’s where the talking comes in. Have you ever sat on a porch and talked to an old Army buddy? The benefits of recounting a shared experience are significant. It amazes my wife that I cannot talk to someone for a couple of years, and we can get on the phone and pick up a conversation as if we never left off. The challenge there, though, is that it becomes an echo chamber, with the stories only being told to those who were there.
In his book, Tribe, Sebastian Junger talks about an idea that I think is pretty intriguing. The opportunity to let veterans speak.
…[what may be] “More dignified might be to offer veterans all over the country the use of their town hall ever Veterans Day to speak freely about their experience at war. Some will say that war was the best thing that ever happened to them. Others will be so angry that what they say will barely make sense. Still others will be crying so hard that they won’t be able to speak at all.”
Could you imagine the power behind each individual story, and the collective impact of the entire event? It would be helpful for both the veteran and the community to be able to hear this. And, in my opinion, it shouldn’t just be left to those veterans who served in combat. There are thousands of veterans who joined the service, did their four years or six years or whatever, and got out and continued on with their lives.
Being able to tell your story means that you feel safe enough to tell your story. That you won’t be judged, or ridiculed, or pitied. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, veterans are not some fragile eggshell that must be handled with delicacy. We are strong. Resilient. For many of us, quite literally battle-tested. Who wouldn’t be changed after seeing what veterans have seen or experienced what they experienced? That doesn’t make us weak, though. It doesn’t make us fragile…it makes us real. To be able to tell our story, though, we need to be able to know that when we start talking about stuff, the real stuff, that the other person is not going to recoil in horror. The only thing that does is reinforce in the veteran’s mind that what is in our thoughts is horrible, and that we shouldn’t say it.
Others of you might say, “well, veterans should just get over it. They knew what they were getting into.” I’ve heard it before. And everyone has a right to their own opinion, and I’m the last guy to condemn them for it. The problem is, I know that I didn’t know what I was getting into, even though I thought I had a pretty good idea. There is a huge gap between theoretical understanding and lived experience, and no amount of reading, watching, or training can prepare someone for the complete, total-body, full sensory experience of military service. I was talking to a veteran recently, and they said it clearly: “they don’t get it, because they haven’t lived it.”
And we don’t want them to. That is one of the paradoxes of being a current era veteran: we want people to know what it was like for us, while simultaneously not wishing our experiences on our worst enemy. The way to do that is for veterans not to stay silent.
If you’re a veteran, figure out a way to let your voice be heard. Write it out, like I do here. Paint it, on a canvas or on a wall. Sing it, shout it, turn it into an interpretive dance if that’s what you want to do. Just tell your story, somehow, in some way.
Just because the echoes of the guns are still ringing in your ears, doesn’t mean that you can’t drown them out by the power of your voice.