I read two things this week that caught my attention. One said, “a sign that you’re an adult is when you start thinking on a spectrum, and not in binaries, when things move from being mutually exclusive and black and white ideals to more gray and more complicated.”
The other said, “every day, 22 veterans commit suicide.”
I could personally relate to the first thing. The past decade of life or so has been a slow move away from well-defined categories and towards more nuanced thinking. It has caused me to look at my faith differently, my politics differently, my parenting differently. I realize now that the most important issues should take the most time and the most words to thoughtfully digest and process .
I never gave much thought to Veteran’s Day before. I don’t know why. It seemed similar to Memorial Day, maybe, and not having any immediate family members serve in the armed forces, it wasn’t something I thought a lot about. When I did think about it, it was in concrete terms. Veterans were people who had served, and the ones I knew were ones who had survived and hadn’t been required to die in their service.
Saying, “Thank you” was a way to honor that someone had once given of their time and energy and had a willingness to lay their life down—should it be required. It was a past tense “service” I thought about. That they had at one time put themselves in harms way, for the sake of our nation.
But then I read that suicide stat.
Twenty-two veterans. Every day.
It made Veteran’s Day less about whether someone died or not in service to the United Sates, a clear black and white way to measure the sacrifice asked of those in the armed forces. I had never considered that even though they were finished with their official service, and even though physically out of harms way, , that they were still serving.
Serving in the mental energy it took every day for them to process and reprocess the trauma they experienced while at war.
Serving in the flashbacks of what they witnessed, which continue to haunt them.
Serving in the inability to stop seeing now what they had so bravely done then. Following the orders they were required to follow into battles and operations that served a greater good, but may have crippled their capacity to feel. Leaving many to never quite recover from the emotional and psychological shrapnel lodged in their minds.
Some of these veterans carry a physical reminder of what was asked of them. That was my grandfather. He was shot in WW2 while serving in the South Pacific. Decades later, the injury continued to bother him, and eventually he lost his leg because of it. I could physically see what the war had done. But the suicide stat for veterans tells me there is a much bigger and harder to recognize wound these men and women carry with them. And maybe Veteran’s Day is a way to acknowledge that.
To not just say, “Thank you for having served.”
But, “Thank you for still serving, even though it looks different now than it did then.”
“Thank you for reentering what once felt like normal life, but will maybe never feel quite as normal as you remember it being.”
“Thank you for continuing to serve in your willingness to get out of bed every day, going through the motions of what every day life requires of you, protecting us civilians from the stuff your mind remembers. We can’t see what you endured. But you do. Thank you.”
A way to acknowledge that they may have come back alive, but they didn’t come back whole.
This morning Rodney and I went to a Veteran’s Day chapel at our kids’ school. Our youngest was going to be singing “America the Beautiful” alongside the other kindergarteners and since neither of us works on Friday, we thought we would go and watch.
I’m glad we did. Especially after reading what I did this week. Because there were a handful of veteran’s there who were honored, who stood up, who were clapped for, who I paid a little more attention to because of the stat that won’t leave my mind. I noticed their eyes. A lot were watery. I listened more carefully to the words of one who spoke, who recounted his experience in Fallujah, of how hard this time of year is for him as he remembers the battle, of the mission “to kill”, of the friends he saw injured, and the deaths of so many on all sides.
I think the two things I read this week have more in common than I thought. I think the reason we lose so many veterans every day is because the world is not black and white, but for their time serving, it was required of them to see it that way. To see bad guys and good guys. To normalize death. To commit wholeheartedly to a mission they may not have necessarily agreed with, but did so for a country they loved. And I think when they come back, , they live everyday trying to normalize a time in their life that maybe doesn’t seem that normal anymore. I think a black and white world served them well in their service. But makes living in the real world hard to do. Which makes life, just plain hard.
If it were up to me, Veteran’s Day wouldn’t just be a time to say, “thank you for your service.” It would be a day where we the civilians would pause long enough to really look in the eyes of someone who has been in the armed forces, and say thoughtfully and intentionally and meaningfully, “I see you. Thank you. And I’m sorry.” Because while they may not have given their physical lives, they gave their whole lives, and are a living sacrifice still.
I’ll see this day in a more somber light from now on. Because I still don’t get it completely, but I want to try, and I think that means imagining a harder reality for veterans than I ever have. I won’t soon forget the stat. Twenty-two veterans. Every day. And knowing it makes me wonder that if veterans felt not just celebrated and appreciated, but felt that they were seen and known, that maybe that stat would change. One can hope. And we can try.