“The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. What they carried varied by mission. They all carried ghosts.”
American novelist, Tim O’Brien, wrote these words in his 1990 classic, The Things They Carried, based on his experiences as a soldier in the 23rd Infantry Division during the Vietnam War. Tim came home, as did many service members. Many did not. And while those who came home may have shed the physical load of their heavy rucksack, they returned instead with a heavier burden; one too big to carry alone.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that nearly 20% of Veterans suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. This is compared with 4% of the general population who suffer from this invisible injury. Death by suicide among Veterans is at an all time high and increased by 25% in 2020 alone. What a heavy weight they still carry. Can we, as family members, friends, fellow humans, help them unpack that cumbersome load?
Veterans Day, first founded as Armistice Day in 1918 near the end of WW1, commemorated the armistice, or cessation of hostilities, between the Allied nations and Germany that went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. For that reason, November 11, 1918, is generally regarded as the end of “the war to end all wars.”
We all know that wasn’t the case. However, November 11 is forever immortalized, originally as Armistice Day, and now Veterans day; a celebration to honor America's veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.
This Veterans Day, we are not involved in a major war for the first time in two decades. For this, we give thanks.
This Veterans Day we are also at a time when talking about and addressing mental health issues is no longer taboo. For this, we also give thanks.
"I’ve never seen one history book that tells how anybody feels,” Bob Dylan said in 1963.
The history books will not give us the path forward towards healing. The healing needs to come from us as a community. Not by looking in a book, but by looking thoughtfully inside the hearts and minds of each other.
Most young Americans today have no memories about going to war. And hopefully they never will. But we all know what it feels like to suffer from a trauma. None of us are exempt from hardship and therefore can express and feel empathy for Veterans who are suffering.
In his final letter home in 1972, my Dad wrote these words that help separate the war from the warriors and offer a glimpse into the feelings that aren’t reflected in our history books.
“I’m not looking forward to this next year. I love the flying and the airplane, but I don’t like the job. Regardless of any opinions I have about this war, or any other, it is hard to think about the killing I will be doing. I try to rationalize and say that it has to be done, but I can’t see any reason why. If anything should happen to me, please don’t let me die to Sharon and Becky.
Be Good, Steve”
As Americans, as humans, we are now ready and armed to understand and ultimately help lighten the load of the ghosts and trauma that our Veterans carry with them. They served for us and now we have the opportunity to be good and to serve for them.