Shayna recently wrote about Eugene and it got her thinking about how sad it is that we, as a nation, tend to forget or overlook those who gave so much. She wished that they would talk more about their experiences in the hopes that the rest of society would be reminded of what they went through and not to forget them.
I wanted to try in some weak attempt, to explain why that probably won’t ever happen. I agree with her; we should be reminded not to forget those who sacrificed so much and gained so little, but the sad fact is that the majority of combat vets won’t talk about it. At least not to just anyone. They’ll talk at length with other combat vets, or tell some of the funny stories to their families; but most won’t open up about the serious times.
My theory about why is rather simple, yet strangely complicated. I know that most vets are very proud of what they did, of their contribution to history, of being part of something important, something historical. But the difficulty lies in that to be proud of that, in some way the vet must be proud of killing; an act that is taught to us from the earliest stages of our life, to be the ultimate sin. Killing another human being is one of the most reprehensible thing anyone can do. Yet the bottom-line job of the military member is to kill.
We desensitize ourselves by making light of it, or even advertising it. “Our job is to kill people and break things.” “Kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out.” “Killing is our business, and business is good.” None of us really feel that way, but we try and convince ourselves that it’s okay. The training and preparation kicks in during battle and instinct and training take over. There is no time to reflect, but deep down, late at night, especially after the battle, and the fog of war starts to dissipate, we look at ourselves in horror. We don’t want anyone to know the horrible sin we’ve committed; the taking of another human life. Forever silencing the voice of someone’s father/brother/son/mother/sister/daughter/friend. You can’t take that back. But it’s what we do. We have to, or else evil will prevail.
So the combat vet stays mute about it except to another combat vet. Someone who’s been there too; someone who understands. No matter how hard you try, no matter how much you want to understand, to sympathize, to help; you can’t. You cannot fathom the guilt/pride conflict raging within. The combat vet doesn’t want to remember the killing, but it is something that can’t ever be forgotten. Even those “lucky” enough to have never actually killed; the sights, sounds, smells, and touch of combat casualties is every bit as traumatic. As a military member, your job is to inflict pain amongst the enemy, but as you see the aftermath, you question how can civilized, sane people do such things to one another. So you shut it down, you don’t talk about it, you hide it away because if you don’t, you run the risk of seeing the looks of revulsion from those you love. You so desperately want to forget, but you can’t.
There are countless stories out there of combat heroes, whose families have no idea of their bravery. Navy and Air Force Cross recipients, Silver Star recipients who put their medals in a dusty box in some basement or attic. People who did extraordinary things while under fire, but hide them away like forgotten trinkets. I remember reading how John Levitow’s wife, also an Air Force member, didn’t know he had been awarded the Medal of Honor until she studied it during a required Air Force history class. She knew he had served in Viet Nam before they met, but had no idea he was the lowest ranking AF member to be awarded the Nation’s highest military honor. Or of Susan Rescorla finding her husband Rick’s military medals only to have him refuse to let her display them. Rick Rescorla not only was a hero of the Ia Drang Valley in Viet Nam, but he was chief of security for Morgan Stanley and lost his life in the WTC on 9/11, but not before ensuring over 3000 of his charges were evacuated safely.
This is the reason why military members are the last people who want to go to war. We make the sacrifices. We run the risk of being killed or wounded. We run the risk of losing our closest friends. We run the risk of having to kill or maim another human. But we do it when needed. Some may think we rush into wars, but believe me, the vast overall majority of military leaders will only advise military action if all other avenues have failed.
It is not the job f the combat vet to remind society of what they did, it is the responsibility of society to remember the sacrifices of the combat vets and to honor them. The combat vet doesn’t want sympathy. All he wants is acceptance and possibly a thank you. It’s societies job to HONOR them, and to never forget. Don’t pity these heroes, for most of them would do it again even knowing the consequences. Don’t pry or try and understand their silence, respect it. Don’t patronize them, but be their friend. Most of all, don’t forget them; they did what they did for you.