November 11, 2012
Thoughts from the Regular Life: Veterans’ Day
On this solemn day, I think about the men and women who have defended our country. Of the horrifying losses in the Civil War, the astounding numbers of dead and wounded in WWI. Of my friend whose uncle died in WWII and the many Veterans’ Day ceremonies we attended each year with her family on the shores of Lake St. Clair to honor an uncle she never knew.
In our living room is a small framed picture of my Uncle Norman in his Army uniform. Young, handsome, looking out as us as we look back at him each day. I think of him often now that he’s gone and consider how little I know of his service. WWII. France. He served with a tank unit, the obvious reason for his permanent hearing loss. But the experience itself? Details? Places? Feelings? Aftermath? In my memory, never talked about. What any of us today can gather from WWII is mainly secondhand, from diaries, documentaries, history books, family stories. Being human, we have the ability to mentally assess the destructive forces of war on mind and body. But as thoughtful and well-meaning as we may be, empathy and intellect are poor substitutes for the reality—the battlefields of that war and others—the direct effects of battle.
It is impossible to go to war and return unscathed. In the Civil War, what we now call PTSD was known as Soldiers’ Heart. Read Gary Paulsen’s book by that eponymous title, five years in the writing, about the wrenching changes that took place for the young men and the nurses and doctors who were part of that bloody endeavor. Consider the horrendous post-war treatment of our Vietnam fighters or the wide-ranging penetration of PTSD in the ranks of our Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers. And, at last, with civilians and those in the ranks and the medical profession is evolving a slowly changing attitude and understanding of toward reaching out and supporting the men and women who have served multiple tours of duty in faraway lands.
Living near Camp Pendleton, we hear heart-rending news of the injuries and deaths of young Marines and the effects on their families of long separations, terrible injuries, and, in many cases, loss of life. It’s remarkable how these brave returnees and other across the country do, in fact, soldier on. Witness the units on the east coast that have banded together, using their training, to help those hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy. One, working with his former comrades, said that banding together and reaching out has been more effective for returning vets as a way of handling what they have been through than other means have been. We honor our veterans all, the living and the dead.
Since 1987, this day has, for me, had an added layer. Twenty-five years ago my friend Frannie was on her way out to visit us on a business trip. Her cousin discovered her, lying on her couch with a tall stack of books beside her, no longer with us. She was only forty-four and her death was shocking, close to unbelievable. We’d been pals since second grade, and our houses were close, a hop of the fence away, so we could have Social Tea cookies at my house and then go to her house to do homework. Such memories really never fade away. A recent Ted Talk on memory noted that memory is not static, fixed. Our minds reinvent things each time we turn mentally to certain events, which explains why my mother and aunt would argue vociferously and with absolute certitude about specifics: “That’s not what happened, sister, dear.”
But I feel with vociferous certitude that some things I remember are true. That my mom and Fran’s were co-leaders of Girl Scout Troop 940, how we worked on badges, caroled in the old folks’ home, ate rattlesnake meat on St. Patrick’s day (okay, that was my mom, not Fran’s), went on field trips, planted seedlings on hillsides to prevent erosion, learned to leave a place better than we found it and, on a deeper level, learned about friendship and doing the right thing and listening and caring. And we joked that we were going to rock together on the porch of the old folks’ home while Girl Scouts sang to us.
Thus, as with many of you, Veterans’ Day is both broad and encompassing, narrow and deeply personal.