Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What do Iraq war veterans and bereaved moms have in common?

I've read so many great articles lately where I keep thinking, "I should blog about this." And then the paper gets thrown out & I can't remember which paper it was in, etc.

Fortunately, I did make note of this one. The New York Times has a great blog called Home Fires: American Veterans on the Post-War Life, which features personal stories from Iraq war veterans. A recent entry described the challenges faced by soldiers who are re-adjusting to the civilian world. After it was published, the blog received many comments from Vietnam war vets, describing their own returns to civilian life. Some of these were highlighted in a separate blog entry, titled Coming Home Again.

On the surface, these men have nothing or very little in common with me & my readers (infertility, pregnancy loss). But reading some of their comments, I was struck once again by the "transferrability of trauma," & how much we have in common with others who have been through a traumatic experience, even though the circumstances of those experiences may be very different.

Here are a few of the quotes I could most relate to from Coming Home Again. (You'll probably see why when you read them.):

To Brian Turner, all I can say is that four decades since the year that lanced through my life, I’ve never really talked about it to anyone. I don’t recommend that. What you are doing is good. It is not that we “get over” things like this or “find ourselves” again. It is more that out of the shards and bits and broken pieces — those museum uniforms isolated behind glass — something new is fused, grown. We become what we were but so much other and hopefully more, the more having the insight of the “sailor home from the sea.”

Yeah, it would have been nice if we’d have come back as a unit and someone had walked up and said, “Welcome home” and “Do you want some coffee?” Almost
makes me cry.

— Posted by Robert S

These days I work with trauma survivors who have P.T.S.D. If they are military veterans, Blackwater cast-offs, rape victims, or clergy abuse survivors, they all have the same P.T.S.D.... Rituals help us heal from our P.T.S.D. trauma, regardless of how we got it. Native American rituals and traditional rituals help nourish and heal the soul.

Best advice to help someone with P.T.S.D.: If they talk to you about their experiences, just shut up and listen without judgment. Don’t interrupt and tell them about your own sorrows or you know someone like that. It may be the one time they are able to talk about it and heal. Don’t shut it off. Second piece of advice: sustained prayer.

— Posted by John Zemler

I felt as if I had snuck back into the U.S. from Vietnam in ‘71. My family was proud of me, but they tiptoed around a lot of questions... in a casual conversation with an Air Force colonel, he asked if I had ever served in the armed forces. I said yes, and he did the mental math and asked if I had been to Vietnam. When I said “yes” he just said “thank you.” That was the first and only time anyone had ever said that to me. I cried...

I think the Bush-era ban on returning ceremonies for soldiers killed in action bordered on criminal neglect. The British publicly honor every fallen soldier returning home. I suspect they do a better job of honoring all of their soldiers. I wish America would too.

— Posted by Robert Easton

*** *** ***

I left in that last pargraph, even though it doesn't really relate to the rest of the post, because it reminded me of the repatriation ceremonies that take place at a Canadian air force base, about an hour down the road from where I live. Each time a Canadian soldier is killed in Afghanistan -- and there have been more than 130 since the Afghan mission began in 2002 -- his or her body is flown to this base, where there is a "repatriation ceremony." The body is then carried in a convoy down Highway 401 to the coroner's office in Toronto, after which it is released to the family for burial. (Initially, the Conservative government -- taking their cue from the Bush government, no doubt -- wanted to ban news media from the ceremonies. They backed down after a bereaved father voiced his objections.)

Canadians are not generally a flag-waving people. But something amazing began to happen. Members of the public began lining the fence at the base to show their support for the soldiers' families. And people from communities along the 401 began to gather on the highway overpasses, bearing Canadian flags, and paying their respects as the procession passed by. Parents with young children. Veterans in dress uniforms and firefighters standing atop fire trucks, saluting.

Nobody told these people they should do this. It was entirely a grassroots thing -- one group joined by another and then another. Eventually, a newspaper photographer noticed what was happening and took some photos. (Last year on Veteran's/Remembrance Day, NBC News even ran a piece on the phenomenon.) Today, hundreds of people might be standing on & around a single highway overpass; thousands along the route -- which, since 2007, has been officially renamed "The Highway of Heroes."

I'm usually at work when these ceremonies have taken place, so I have not personally witnessed a procession. But it does travel past my community en route into the city, and I have seen the photos and television footage.

Just thinking about it -- or writing about it, as I am now -- brings tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat.


  1. Right there with you. Thank you for posting this. Not only for sharing the soldiers' and sailors' words, but for talking about how Canada honors its heroes. Tears...

    Awfully convenient for our government to rave about the heroics of our men and women, but to actually ban media coverage. It certainly sends a message.

    Thinking about the processional you described, it makes me think of the value of shared grief, of simple acknowledgment of loss. A simple thank you. An I'm sorry. Amazing how far those go, and how often the are not heard.

    p.s. on my reader just before your post was something from about a women's conference in CA. Talking about the experience of grief and sharing it. Important, too.

  2. Loribeth, this post just really drove home to me why I adore you so much. I always really enjoy the diverse articles that you post, but beyond that, I deeply appreciate the way that you are willing to find common ground between seemingly unrelated experiences. It is really the mark of a compassionate and wise soul to be able to see right through to the heart of so many diverse types of suffering and see that there is so much similarity there. I wish you had your own column in the G&M on this very thing! Thank you for being your thoughtful and insightful self.

  3. I never realized that, thanks for letting me know.