I know this is a Veteran’s Day story rather than a Memorial Day story. I know Memorial Day is for those who made the ultimate sacrifice. I know that Veterans Day is for all those who served and came home. But I can’t hold it in until next Veterans Day. So I will write a Memorial Day story about those who came home. Those who are still paying a price we can not imagine. A price that is almost worse than a life snuffed out. A living hell made worse because they were told not to talk about their experiences. Just “Move on with your life” they were told!
This weekend I was privileged to hear a 20 year veteran of surgical nursing in the military share the experience of the worst 13 months of his life. It has been almost ten years since that tour of duty at a Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan. After much therapy, he is grateful that he can sleep 19-20 hours per week. Grateful because for many years he was only sleeping 10-11 hours per week. I am amazed he can function in his place of employment!
With great reverence, he shared slides, at times quite graphic. Some slides showed “wounds” (I am not sure that is the right word) that I had never imaged existed or that I would see. Some slides reminded him of the lives that couldn’t be saved. Other slides showed the pride of lives saved, even if not restored. With great reverence, he identified the pictures of the team that shared the experience of those 13 months. He told their stories also.
Memorial Day and Veterans Day will never be the same for me.
I must admit that, as so many people, I had come to think of Memorial Day as the beginning of summer. Not anymore!
I have never visited Walter Reed Hospital. But as I think of him and the untold thousands in VA hospitals I recall the words of General William Tecumseh Sherman
“You cannot quantify in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it, and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.” General William Tecumseh Sherman Letter to the City of Atlanta (September 1864)
St. Vincent DePaul and War
All this reminded me of the glimpses Vincent had of the suffering of the poor in his time. Besides some brief and short-lived periods of peace, the century in which Vincent lived was a century of war: People, soldiers and non-combatants, suffered the consequences of the wars of religion and the upheavals of the civil wars which were often complicated by foreign wars and continual threats from the Muslim world.
We must also admit that our century is no better than the seventeenth century … in fact we have surpassed the horrors that were created by the Thirty Years War and the Fronde.
Vincent was neither an ideologue nor a theoretician. When speaking about war and peace he placed great value on the numerous eye-witness testimonies. He allowed himself to be touched by the accounts. We hear him say,
“…the misfortune of the war has distributed equal portions of misery everywhere…”
“…No tongue can express…”
There are Christians and disciples of Saint Vincent on both sides of every barrier, wall or “curtain”. Like Vincent, they participate in countless endeavors to alleviate the suffering that results from war. These individuals seek to discover the root causes of war and yet do not embrace a blind pacifism. They support other organizations that promote, on both a social and political level, peace and justice in the world.
The disciples of Saint Vincent always defend the poor and are also concerned about establishing peace because they realize that the poor are often the first victims in all of these various conflicts.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel pointedly reminds us “What experience and history teach us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”
Respecting the untold stories of war
This surgical nurse is not the only one with so much of an untold story. One of the ways they are now being helped is through Prolonged Exposure Therapy. People with PTSD often try to avoid things that remind them of the trauma. This can help them feel better in the moment, but in the long term, it can keep them from recovering from PTSD.
“In PE, you expose yourself to the thoughts, feelings, and situations that you’ve been avoiding. It sounds scary, but facing things you’re afraid of in a safe way can help you learn that you don’t need to avoid reminders of the trauma. Your therapist will ask you to talk about your trauma over and over. This will help you get more control of your thoughts and feelings about the trauma so you don’t need to be afraid of your memories. She will also help you work up to doing the things you’ve been avoiding. For example, let’s say you avoid driving because it reminds you of an accident. At first, you might just sit in the car and practice staying calm with breathing exercises. Gradually, you’ll work towards driving without being upset by memories of your trauma. PTSD Guidelines
When the parades have passed by what we can do?
Do we recognize the existence of these untold stories in our midst?
Are we ready to listen if we sense a need to talk?