Although I was raised by a veteran in a city with a vast military presence, it was not until I worked side-by-side with active-duty and retired soldiers as an Army civilian that I learned two contrary things can be simultaneously true about American veterans. First, they are often among the bravest, strongest, most competent and cool-headed members of this great nation. Secondly, their service may have left them with immense personal anguish.
This realization made me question whether a simple “thank you” was enough to express my gratitude for our veterans’ service. I was on the lookout for some grand gesture to display my appreciation when, six years ago, I met Will*, who taught me that simply listening to veterans’ stories can be a way to give back to those who have served our nation.
Stories from a Stranger
I met Will in a hotel Starbucks. A towering, wide-shouldered man in a sharp suit, he approached to ask about my shirt, which bore veteran support organization Operation Ward 57’s motto: “For the wounded, the fight never ends.”
Will first grilled my husband about the non-regulation length of his hair. When my husband explained he was a civilian, Will asked about my profession, but not my name. Although he never offered his own, I read both his name and his title, manager, on a dull gold tag pinned to his suit jacket.
For the next 40 minutes, Will poured out his soul to strangers. At first, he told me about his severe and noticeable limp, the result of a high school injury exacerbated by being dropped into various battlefields during his Army service. Casually, he mentioned participating in the Battle of Panama before explaining he would soon undergo surgery at a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital to correct his gait.
Still not convinced that I was truly a civilian who wrote about war, Will asked “Okay, so where is it?” as he visually scanned my fingers for a service academy ring. “I’m a civilian,” I explained “I never went to an academy. But my dad did.”
Then Will displayed his own ring, from West Point, where he graduated just a year before my own father graduated from the United States Naval Academy. We marveled at the coincidence, and he regaled me with stories of being a cadet in the 1970s.
Then Will slipped into deeper waters. “Why do you write about war?” he asked. “I don’t write about war in the sense of tactics and strategy,” I explained. “I interview veterans and write about war’s effects on the people who fight.”
“God bless you,” he said, as tears cropped up in his heavily lined eyes. “If people knew how terrible war was, we wouldn’t have war. God bless you,” he repeated, as droplets coursed down his cheeks. He turned to walk away, but only took a few halting steps before returning.
“How do they handle it? The other veterans you talk with? You’re working with imperfect intelligence, the fog of war. The people you’re in charge of die. You can’t save everyone. And when you…the people you kill, you never forget them, their faces. They had families, children…”
I told the man who towered over me, who had stood on the earth more than twice as long as I, who had been into war and back, about a good friend who wears large tattooed reminders of the men he lost during a devastating tour in Iraq.
Will began to cry once more. It was all I could do not to match him tear for tear as he explained how he could never reconcile his actions during war with the intentions of his God. Will’s doctors at the VA suggest Prozac, but he refuses to use medication to numb his guilt. “What kind of human being would I be if I didn’t feel terrible for all the things I’ve done?” he asked. “I wouldn’t be a human being anymore.”
My heart broke for Will as he shared one final story. When he returned home from West Point, his town was thrilled to have its first service academy graduate among its numbers. One of his teachers applauded how West Point had built his character. Will choked through thick tears. “I told her, ‘No, ma’am, West Point reveals character.’ You see,” Will explained, “My parents built my character. West Point just polished it.”
A Lesson in Listening
Six years later, I still consider it a high honor to carry Will’s story with me. Will taught me that the most meaningful thing civilians can do for veterans and service members may be to listen to their stories of service.
Listening is an active way of caring. It also allows civilians, who have never sworn an oath of enlistment, gone through military training, entered a career field based entirely upon the needs of their military branch, or spent years of their lives at the military’s beck and call, to enhance their understanding of what service can require of those who perform it.
Not every veteran shares Will’s experience of combat, but each has valuable stories about how their service added to the security and freedoms Americans enjoy.
Some veterans sat behind desks to do the paperwork that keeps the military running, or worked in supply to ensure that necessities like water, food, ammo, and gasoline get to those who need them. The Purple Heart and Medal of Honor recipient Kyle Carpenter, a Marine, writes in his memoir, “You Are Worth It,” that he spent a three-month “float” on the USS Wasp washing dishes before being sent to Marjah District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, where he leapt atop a grenade to shield his friend, Nick Eufrazio, from the blast.
Some veterans fixed the aircraft, boats, and vehicles that bring swift death to our enemies, and hope to those in dire straits. Still others remotely piloted drones to perform reconnaissance and provide close air support that saved lives.
Some veterans prepared to be instruments of war, but served during a time of peace. Then there are those like Will, who saw the battle they were trained to fight and will never forget the sensory experience of war. While some may have positive memories of battle, it is not uncommon for veterans to harbor regrets. It was then Chief of Staff of the Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower who stated in 1946, “I hate war only as a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”
Veterans’ experiences may vary, but by donning the uniform and pledging to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” every service member prepares him or herself to make that ultimate sacrifice on behalf of a nation that has not always been grateful.
Civilians Can Make a Difference
According to Edelman Intelligence’s 2018 survey on the wellbeing of veterans, 81 percent of veterans and 75 percent of non-veterans “agree that average citizens often struggle to relate to veterans and their experiences.” Developing empathy for our veterans by gaining understanding of their sacrifices could be key to bridging a divide between military and civilians in the U.S., which is stark, and growing.
The very least civilians can do on Veterans Day and throughout November, which President Trump has declared “National Veterans and Military Families Month,” is to thank those who have served. If we truly want to assist veterans and service members, we should make an effort to listen to the color and detail of their firsthand experiences. The better civilians comprehend what military service entails, the more fully we can embody and express our gratitude.
*Name changed to protect privacy.