Written by David Hammer | July 17, 2017
This question was asked of me by a graying woman while I was talking to a group about the invisible wounds of war that cause American military veterans to kill themselves at alarming rates. The tone of her voice and demeanor indicated that this was more of an intentional, personal challenge than a curious question. That initial theory was given weight by the groans, sighs and rolling eyes from the rest of the group in the church where I was presenting.
Where to begin? The questioner apparently wasn’t too concerned about healing those already carrying the invisible wounds – dealing with the consequences and responsibilities of decisions already made. I already had identified myself as having been diagnosed by the VA with PTS and explained what the PTS did to me, which raises other questions about the true motives of her question. I have wondered in the days since if she was trying to change the topic to one within which she could avoid recognizing that our communities and our nation share the responsibility of bringing the morally wounded “All the Way Home.”
A common experience of the presentations I give on moral injury is to watch the audience react in shock, surprise, and shame to the descriptions of widespread human misery and self-destruction, then to scurry from the room with downturned eyes after I end the presentation by describing how they can help. The most effective help for the veterans is for people to take the time to listen to them and understand them, then form a non-judgmental and welcoming community around them. In other words, to heal them, you have to know them, accept them, and personally touch them in welcoming and caring ways. More importantly, you must rebuild their trust in our society, which they feel has betrayed them twice. The first betrayal was sending them to a war we didn’t let them win, and the second is in ignoring their inevitable personal wounds when they return home.
A more honest and thoughtful question, particularly given the setting and context, might have been, “How can we stay out of war?” or, “How can we minimize our participation in war?” As a first response, I would suggest that a better educated population of citizens, more actively engaged in the governance of our democratic republic, might more effectively influence the decisions of the politicians and bureaucrats who send other people’s children and grandchildren to foreign killing fields.
The question, however, preceded a topic I discussed later in the presentation. Many indigenous cultures realized that war causes soul wounds, and those who have experienced war and recovered from their soul wounds can become wise, caring, and compassionate leaders. These are leaders who wage war only when absolutely necessary for the public welfare. The literature on war and invisible wounds abounds with lessons about the “elder wisdom” acquired by the soldiers, sailors and airmen who use their wartime experience to transform themselves. The All the Way Home reading list contains examples, including: Unbroken; We Were Soldiers Once, and Young; Brave, Strong, True; and Good-bye Darkness.
One of the several questions I have begun to ask my audience is, “Who was the two- term president since World War II who did the best job of keeping us out of war, and even armed ‘interventions,’ and what was his pre-presidential background?” As Supreme Allied Commander of the Normand invasion and European theatre, Dwight Eisenhower knew well the searing and enduring human costs of conflict.
A related question is, which war since the Civil War was won in months instead of years because our objective was clearly stated and achieved, and when we accomplished it we went home? President George H.W. Bush spent time in a life raft on the Pacific Ocean in WW II after his navy fighter was shot down. Hundreds of thousands of living veterans carry invisible wounds that limit their participation in society and their effectiveness in expressing their experiences and beliefs. Other hundreds of thousands have died lonely deaths by their own hands since returning from war.
How different might our nation be if those many men and women who survived the war were alive, healed, and participating fully in our democracy with the wisdom and experiences that transformed them? And what would be the added effect on our country of all the potential changes in civilians who could themselves be transformed by helping heal and transform the veterans?