I’ve been thinking a lot about Veteran’s Day this year. I’ve spent the last year and some change away from the army attending grad school at Duke and it’s given me a lot of time to think about what it means to have literally taken off my soldier identity and become something else entirely (that’s a completely different post for another time).
I’ve spent a lot of time considering where my writing and my work fits into the broader public narrative about returning veterans. I write about soldiers coming home from war and the challenges we face. But am I contributing to the scarred PTSD narrative out there that is so problematic for a variety of reasons? Or am I informing readers about the complexity of military life and what coming home from war entails?
On the one hand, there are posts like this one at the Washington Post that talks about the perceptions of PTSD among returning veterans is leading to or worsening unemployment among them. Employers are unwilling to hire vets because of perceived problems with PTSD and what that actually means. And when there’s a violent incident somewhere, the veteran community collectively holds its breath that basically can be summed up with “please don’t be a vet” – because the stereotype of violent PTSD has taken hold among the civilian community. We push back against these narratives of the violent veteran while quietly acknowledging amongst ourselves that yeah, some of us have problems but not ALL of us have problems. We’re fine. The cycle of public denial amongst those of us who are fine stands as a defense against the media perception that we’re all one bad mood away from shooting up a mall or punching our loved ones but it does not deny the reality that there are real problems in the force.
On the other hand, there are efforts like the recent video The Wrong Side of Heaven by Five Finger Death Punch. I’m a huge fan of the band and I love that they’re trying to raise awareness of the very real problem of homelessness among veterans. I loved this video and the sentiment behind it and yet, part of it still plays into the narrative of screwed up vet who lost everything because of the war.
The most powerful thing about this video, though, is the end, I think. Not the credits where they list organizations that can help. The most powerful message is at the end where the soldier whose life was saved turns around and lifts his brother up. He’s managed to be okay and he doesn’t walk by his brother in need. He reaches down and lifts him up. They stand together. For me, that is the biggest, most powerful take away from the video.
Going out on a limb, I think that image speaks to a broader sentiment in the veteran community. I suspect that those of us who have come back okay need to present a face of “okay” to the public while at the same time, using the cultural capital that comes from being a veteran to reach down and help our brothers and sisters who may not be okay. This is not pity so much as it is an acknowledgement that everyone needs to take a knee sometime.
All of us came home from war different. Some of us have gone through rough times, others have really been fine. Some of us are struggling. We in the veteran community can acknowledge this struggle without pity – we’ve been there or we know someone who has been there. It’s the reality of the lived experience which makes us push back against external attempts to label us all as poor bastards joined the military because we couldn’t do anything else and well, it’s just so damn sad we’ve abandoned by society. But it’s our sense of belonging to this community that makes us also defend it – to demand better treatment and better programs for our brothers and sisters. To enter government and try to make things better not for us individually but for all of us. To be engaged in raising awareness and standing with those who can no longer stand on their own.
Because I may not put on the uniform every day but being a soldier still defines me. I suspect it always will. But what does that mean and how does that reflect in my actions. Veteran’s Day is a day to remember those who have served. There are many of us trying to figure out how can we still serve.