Same Old Same Old: The Return from War. Time for Us to Get It Right.

Even in this complex world of ours, some things don’t change.  Take the experience of returning from war.  It’s been largely the same for over two hundred years in America.  Longer than that if you include the rest of the world.

Last winter the Huntington Library’s exhibit A Strange and Fearful Interest: Death, Mourning and Memory in the American Civil War stopped me in my tracks.  Excerpts of letters from the battlefield and an account published on the front page of the New York Times in 1862 could have been written last week instead of 150 years ago.

In an episode of the BBC’s Foyle’s War, a WWII vet who just returned to England from the war in Africa, sits across from a young woman, herself a vet who served at home.  She’s welcoming him back in some center, offering him the companionship and community of a group of married veterans.  He looks at her, completely baffled, and then his anger breaks.  Her “help” is so irrelevant to his experience.

Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken is a true story of the Olympic runner Louis Zamperini’s WWII experiences.  Shot down over the Pacific, he was captured by the Japanese and survived internment in several POW camps before he finally returned to his family.  Only that wasn’t the happy ending we all wanted for him.  PTSD took its toll -- on him and many of his surviving colleagues.  We still get the calls here at the NVF.

So even if you haven’t experienced war or watched a loved one struggle with the transition home, there are books (novels, poems, memoirs, biographies), film, theatre, print and television journalism to show us the effects of war and how difficult the transition back to civilian life is.

Wouldn’t you think we’d have gotten the message by now? And shouldn’t we be doing everything we can, given this knowledge that we now have, to help our troops transition back home? You bet. 

Think this problem is too big to tackle?  Think again. Here are just a few things you can do: hire a vet or  encourage your employer to hire a vet, support your community-based veterans organizations, talk to your government representatives and insist that our vets get the health care and services they need. Be willing to listen to a vet unravel his experience both in service and in the transition.  The most powerful "welcome home" is person-to-person, whether it’s in words or deeds.  That’s grassroots.

We need to broaden the scope as well, to look at the big picture.  Are there better ways of delivering healthcare? Like harnessing technology to facilitate everything from filing VA claims to using telecommunication to deliver services and counseling?  What about transition centers and programs? The military has some courses for this, but what’s to keep corporations from helping?  What part can the Vet Centers play?  How about the veterans services centers on school campuses? 

Here’s the thing: a lot of this is in place, but a whole lot more is waiting to be implemented.  Are you in a region where vets get the best chance for a successful transition? I suggest you find out.  I can guarantee you’ll find either a gap or a place that can stand some improvement.  I mentioned the size of the problem.  Maybe you think the government should just handle this.  Guess what?  In a democracy, we’re all the government. And these issues need every scrap of energy and creativity we can muster.

Such a small percentage of our population has served in these two long-running wars.  Surely we can manage to recognize their achievement and express our gratitude by working to make their transition back from war easier.  How can we ask them to wait, or worse, do this by themselves?