Veterans have stories to tell. But sometimes they won’t tell those stories until something clicks into place.
On our way back from Iraq, my Nebraska cavalry unit spent some time at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. We spent a couple of weeks completing whatever things the military said we needed to complete before we could return home from a combat zone. Near the end of our stay there, my unit went through the appropriate channels to get permission to drink alcohol at a place on post. I remember because I was the designated safety officer and did not drink that night. When we got back to our barracks, something amazing happened. Soldiers sat in their bunks and talked. I don’t remember how it got started. But one cavalry trooper after another brought up a story, or expressed their feelings, or talked about the soldiers who weren’t coming home with us. My opinion then and now is that the alcohol removed some of the inhibitions and allowed something to take place. I think that time spent venting probably helped the long-term mental health of many of those men and may have even saved lives. I don’t know. There’s no way to prove it.
A few years ago, my wife’s grandfather opened up to me about his experience serving in the Pacific during World War II. He and I were sitting out on the deck near Scotia on a nice Nebraska day. I had been home from Iraq for a couple of years. He knew I was a combat veteran, and he started telling me about his wartime service. By the time he stopped talking, we had heard about where he served, what his job was, and some of his feelings about what it was like. As he talked, the family gathered around. They had never heard these stories. He had never talked much about it. And then as a man in his late 80s was finally opening up.
This year, the daughter of a veteran of the Korean War told me that she had done some research about the unit her father served with. She learned a lot about his time in combat that she did not know, and had a new level of respect for who her father is and how his combat experience shaped his life. This year also, the wife of a Vietnam veteran told me that it has helped her husband to talk about the war with fellow veterans.
This summer, I was in uniform at the Kearney Hy-Vee during a break in some training we were doing in town. I was at the salad bar when a woman came up and thanked me and another soldier for our service. I heard a man in front of me with a bum leg talking in a stage whisper: “No one ever thanked us.” I said to him, “It is wrong that you were not treated right, or thanked for what you did. Thank you for your service. Where did you serve?”
Based on my experiences working with soldiers and veterans as a military chaplain, I believe that there is great value in veterans sharing their stories. I think it is much healthier for human beings to share their traumas, than to keep them canned in where they roll around and continue to do so much concealed damage. Maybe one of the ways we can honor our veterans is to respect them by listening when they try to tell their stories, and providing opportunities for them to share. We don’t have to force the stories to fit a particular patriotic or political narrative. We don’t have to be entertained by what we hear. We don’t have to even be comfortable with what we hear.
Veterans need to tell their stories, and we as a community need to listen. I would love to see an open mic night for combat veterans. It has been done in other places. If we can ever pull it off here, I hope combat vets come and say what’s on their mind. And I hope the community comes to listen. Even if it is tough or uncomfortable.
This column is also available in this week’s edition of The Shelton Clipper, which serves Gibbon, Shelton, Wood River, Alda, and Cairo.