I want to give a report on a recent retreat with a group of veterans of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf and Vietnam. I want you to know how courageous they were in telling them. I’d like their voices to be heard over the din of the political battles and the mostly abstract arguments about whether it is too soon to bring troops home. The problem is that too many of those who go off to war fail to find a way back from it. The problem is that the war continues to live inside the wounded bodies, the rattled nerves and the battered souls.
The depth of sorrow in a woman’s voice pours out as she struggles through tears to read her poem about losing her husband after he returned from the war. It may be her first poem ever, born of palpable tragedy and honest grief. She doesn’t think she could read it in public, yet she knows that she speaks for many others stranded on the road between life and death. She knows because she was in the military herself, because her husband committed suicide after years of battling with PTSD. She calls them the “walking dead” — the ones who make it back from the war but can’t make it back into life.
“The war was over, that’s what they said;
but not for the warriors and the walking dead.
Dropped back into life, like they were never gone,
the war still raging, hidden deep inside.
The horrors, the killing, just learning to cope;
the anger and fighting, alcohol and dope.
The hole in our family, the loss that we feel;
they say it gets better, with time we all heal.
The war was over, that’s what they said;
but not for the families of the walking dead.”
People take different positions about the necessity of going off to war, but everyone will be affected by the ways in which the war comes back. After the battles have concluded, after the speeches have been given, the war continues to reverberate in the hearts and minds of those who endured it. The war keeps coming back on those that went to it and on those closest to them. A young Iraq war veteran in bare-boned, bitten-lip honesty goes through his “checklist” of demons that make each day a new kind of battle as he struggles to be again “a loving husband and role model to my son, a loyal brother and caring friend.”
“Horrific memories… check.
Survivor’s guilt… check.
Night sweats… check.
Anxiety, abandonment, anger…
check, check, check.”
An older vet tells of the first time he pulled the trigger that ended in a direct kill. He has relived it many times and is old enough, seasoned enough, caring enough to explain how something dies inside when the bullet hits its living target. There is a back lash in the soul, an emotional, spiritual back-fire that not only burns away all innocence, but also alters one’s natural sense of self. Everyone nods heavily and wants to check in on the loss of innocence and the battering of the soul that only becomes evident when the adrenalin recedes, the smoke dies down and the danger moves from outside to inside.
There is a split in the psyche, an inner division born of war that separates returning soldiers from civilians. In the current wars it can be impossible to distinguish “innocents” from combatants and that makes the separation upon return even greater. The inner split keeps resurfacing in hopes that healing and wholeness can be found.
“I want to forget those fragments not meant
for viewing, and remember bodies whole.”
“Home” is a word for the feeling of being whole, of being at peace with oneself, and with the world. Home was a reason for going off to war, yet it is becoming more difficult for the warriors to find a way home again. Modern wars are not simply more lethal, they are also more confusing and soul-battering. The enemy can be anywhere, can be anyone. IED’s can erupt at any time and reverberate in the brain for years making it impossible to simply drive in traffic or enter a shopping mall. A city street or parking lot can become a “war zone” simply because of an unexpected noise or a sudden peripheral movement. The war fragments the soul and makes the peace-time fragile at best.
The wounds of war are deep and intimate and trying to be intimate again with others can trigger the unseen wounds, the hidden trap doors in the psyche, the nightmares and the night sweats. No one can count the wounds of war or the effects that war has on the soul.
“Physical wounds may be addressed,
but the hole in the soul is an abscess unchecked.”
There are new kinds of weapons and new forms of battle, so there are new kinds of wounds as well. There are damages to the brain both broad and subtle and affects on the soul never possible before. A soldier can be in the line of fire one minute and be “online” the next or be on a “smart phone” speaking a spouse or family member. War and home are becoming more entangled and more confused — both closer together and further apart. What is the unseen damage in the soul of those sending drone strikes from the deserts of Arizona to the deserted hills of Afghanistan?
“Mass efficient kill from 20 thousand feet,
computer guided warheads; mission statement changed from
exploring space to enhancing war.”
Often it is the common humanity of a person that is sacrificed in the dark doorways where life and death are decided instantly. In the aftermath of all the devastation, bravery and fear, when the smoke clears and the bodies are removed from sight, it is the deep humanity in a person that must be sought for and fought for and be found again. Otherwise, there is no coming home, but only a long season in hell, an endless and repetitious tour that keeps the war alive while the soul slowly dies.
In our temporary community of veterans the older vets instinctively become mentors to the younger ones and all contribute to the healing process. A nationwide “vets mentoring vets” process is desperately needed, especially with so many troops coming home in the coming months. There is also a great need for the community that sends its men and increasingly its women off to battle to play a greater role in the healing of the souls of those who sacrifice parts of themselves at the altars of war. Putting politics aside, putting aside the saber rattling for the next war, it is time to learn meaningful ways of welcoming veterans home and in doing so learning to heal the torn tissues of the soul of this country.
“Look into their eyes, if the eyes are still there.
Look into their hearts if they aren’t…
Look at their missing limbs… their burns, their scars.
Changed forever, but still the same…
And if you must use words like hero or enemy,
Then whisper them. It is all too easy to destroy.”