Saturday, June 2, 2012

Memorial Day

I had never attended a truly traditional Memorial Day service until this year. There had been plenty of picnics and family gatherings, events with friends to kick off the summer holiday season, and laments with co-workers at school that we did indeed have two weeks left before summer break. Honoring veterans, however, had not been something I'd officially done. This Memorial Day was different.

At a ceremony dedicated solely to respecting those who had fought for the United States and for those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice in order to protect the liberty of the US, I passed out programs to attendees, heard their stories about being there to honor family members that had lost their lives over the course of the last year, and listened to speakers who extended respect for men and women who served the nation.

All of the stories told were of the valiant efforts of the military. The items that made the greatest impact on me, however, were the tales of local soldiers that had been killed in action. The speaker did not only tell of the circumstances of their deaths, but also of the details of their lives. Each and every one had families that they left behind, passions they had pursued in their private lives, and goals for the future. The reminder of how very precious life was hard hitting to say the least.

A Brigadier General concluded his speech with an incredibly difficult fact for me to hear. He said that every day of the year, at least one soldier commits suicide. I knew that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was something very real, and I knew that its effects on military was far more serious than I probably imagined, but I did not know this statistic. It made me think about a variety of discussions I'd had with people in recent years.

The first was a discussion students had in my Current Events class when I taught high school. Each student was asked to bring in an article of their choosing from a current magazine or newspaper. The class would read these independently and then spend the rest of the hour debating their interpretation of the issue. One day the topic was how soldiers leaving the military were treated. A junior ROTC student was incredibly opposed to the idea that the military was in any way faulty. He said that PTSD was completely made up and anyone who said they had it was "a pussy that couldn't handle being a real man." Obviously, this attitude was offensive to a lot of the other students, and to me. He refused to back down, though, even when other points of view were presented. He was adamant that there was nothing that a strong personality couldn't witness or endure that would permanently affect them in a negative way. This kid riled me like none other ever had. It was unbelievably hard not to light into him with all of my own beliefs, with all of the facts I knew, with all of the personal stories I knew that contradicted his naivety of having never seen any sort of combat, or even real training.

The second talk I thought of was an incredibly recent one. Just a few days prior to the holiday, I'd talked with a 24 year old that had become a civilian just a few months earlier. He'd been in the Air Force since he was 18. Heserved all across the world, including two tours in the Middle East. He said that the six months he'd been out of the military were ones of adjustment. Then he quickly clarified, "It's not like I mean PTSD or anything. I didn't see my best friend blown to bits in a battle. I just mean it's hard to go from having all aspects of life dictated to you and then being on your own to figure out the rest of your life is all." I considered how he seemed to feel the need to disassociate himself from the idea of PTSD, as if it was something shameful. It was also something that he seemed to consider incredibly serious, and he wanted me to rest assured that he wasn't afflicted.

I spoke with a retired military man about the topic. This man is someone for whom I have nothing but the greatest respect. He was an artillery specialist, and saw combat many times in many wars. Today he still works as a consultant for the Army, and he volunteers with veterans. We'd both attended the Memorial Day event, and I told him that the quote about regular suicides had really bothered me. He has always been philosophical about military issues when I've talked with him. (For example, when discussing the use of gas or chemical warfare, he'd said "Many consider the use of Agent Orange to have been one of the worst things the US ever did. The truth of the matter is at the time, we didn't know that it would have long-lasting effects. At the time, we used what we had at our disposal to save American lives and win a war.") With the concept of suicide, he said, "There are lots of ways to look at PTSD. Lots of people attribute what I'd consider small things to it. Sometimes it's far more serious, sometimes it's just part of having waged war. I went to the VA hospital not long ago, and they gave me a questionnaire. Some of the questions were things like 'Do you ever have bad dreams related to your service time?' Well, hell. Of course I do. You don't go through combat and not. You see things there that no one ought to ever witness, and of course it stays with you for the rest of your life. If it doesn't, you're not human. But some people are more steeled for it. Some people have the ability to put it out of their mind. Some others just can't do that. They're not weak; they just can't deal with it the way other people can. The number one reason for the suicides is the sense of guilt people experience. They wonder why so many of the people they were friends with died while they survived. It doesn't make any sense to them and they feel too much guilt to keep on living." It was a fascinating conversation for me, and I could have talked to him about it all day. I want to know from the people who have lived it what experiences I will never have were really like. But I also know when others have had enough of a topic and when to let them be. I've discovered quite by accident that relatives who served were involved in the Tet Offensive, or in other incredibly terrible situations in Korea or Vietnam. In both instances, these facts basically slipped out, and it was made very, very clear from body language and a quick change of topic or leaving the room that these things were never to be discussed. Some things you learn to leave alone, and you have the respect to never refer to the information again.

The suicide statement really made me think, however, of a story that will never leave me. This story is one that will stay with me as long as I live, as both a testament to the power that an event has over our lives and to the need to share our humanity with others. I was in San Diego. I love San Diego; it's one of my very favorite cities in all the world. I was staying with a friend, and he was at work for the day. I decided to go for an independent adventure. I took the train and decided to head downtown. What I hadn't bothered to do was look up train schedule times, so when I arrived at the transfer point that would really head to the city there was a two hour wait. I hung out around the station -- went to grab some food; went to the dingy little beach down the way -- hung out by the platform when the arrival time drew near. I asked a guy that I'd seen earlier if I was waiting on the right side of the track (I'm incredibly directionally challenged -- even the concept of basic North and South can confound me in an underground station). I sat down and he asked me where I was going. He told me that he was going to work; that he worked as a security guard during his down time, but that he was really in the military and stationed in San Diego for the time being. I asked him how he liked it, told him that my father had been life-long military and had been stationed there for a while. I will never know what prompted him, but he looked at me for a few moments, really looking at my face, intensely looking into my eyes. He said, "I'm actually from here, or at least pretty close. My best friend and I went to high school together. We were about a year apart. We did ROTC together so we could do basic training together when I was done. He got deployed to Iraq, but he never saw any real action in the sandbox. He never said too much about it. I mean, he didn't love it or anything, but he never complained really. He came back changed, though. He'd gotten married, had two kids, and at 21 he was already done with his youth and just a war veteran. We were on duty together, bringing in aircraft. So, we were bringing in a HUEY -- do you know what that is? So, we're bringing a HUEY, and he says, "I got it. I'll be right back." Instead of signally it in though, he walked right into the rotors. There was a down-wind spray, and I was literally covered in my best friend. Then I got assigned to cleaning up the airstrip. I was the one who told his wife. And it didn't even register with me until a month later what had really happened. I was on the same duty, and I just freaked out. The other guys had to grab me to keep me from doing the exact same thing." He was quiet for a minute, and I asked him how he was now. He said that he'd had about six months of mandatory therapy, and it had actually really helped. I asked him if the military was supportive of providing psychological help or even medications in situations like this or if there was a big stigma attached. He said that there wasn't -- that they really were trying to help where they could. As if on some sort of pre-planned theatrical cue, the train arrived at that moment. We boarded, he headed to a different car, looked over his shoulder and said, "Thanks for the talk."

This kid made a huge impact on me. He was 19. He wasn't legally able to drink off base, for shit's sake. This kid had experienced more trauma than the typical person ever will, and it probably was nothing compared to that of his best friend who succeeded in killing himself. I don't know his name; I wouldn't recognize him if I saw him again. But I am going to think about him for a long, long time. He doesn't just represent the military to me. He represents humanity to me. I don't know if this was a situation that happened in his life that he needs to talk about all the time and does so at random moments, or if it was something that he never spoke of. My guess is it is the latter. I had the impression that something about me made him feel like I'd understand and that I'd let him just tell the story without any judgement or without interjection. Such terrible things happen in life -- the fact that people have to go through it is a part of being human. The perseverance of going on after you've experienced it is part of being human. The greatest part of being human, though, was his need to share it with someone else.

We seem to honor those who keep things inside. If a person underwent great hardship and kept it inside, they are revered as a strong hero. But are they? Does it make someone "less than" if they voice a traumatic tale and make the admission that it haunts them? I'm not suggesting that we dwell on events or let them dictate the rest of our lives. What I do suggest, however, is that we recognize the need to relate to one another in meaningful ways. The freedom and liberty celebrated on Memorial Day means nothing if we're really a nation that keeps its love, honor, respect, mourning, lamentations, and genuine emotion for individuals and personal events to itself, never to be revealed.

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