Today is Veteran’s Day and I’m thinking about what I learned from doing my clinical chaplaincy training at the VA working with veterans.
Above and most surprisingly of all, how hurtful it can be to them to promote the American myth of heroism.
Now I know how counterintuitive this sounds. I mean, what could possibly be wrong with touting veterans as heroes??
Well I spent hundreds of hours listening to soldiers share things they were proud of having done in their service AND things they weren’t proud of that sometimes even haunt them to this day. But many were struggling to find healing because our society’s single story of heroism doesn’t make space to hear both sides of their experience: their heroism and their trauma, their bravery and their regrets, their missions and their moral injury, their triumphs and their guilt.
We may try to simplify and sanitize their stories out of our own discomfort but soldiers know the sum total of what they’ve done and being seen as heroes when they don’t feel like heroes is an immense psychological burden that can make them feel guilty, fraudulent and/or like they have to keep their full truths inside of them.
I remember one particular story about a platoon who finally came home from deployment, landing at an airport in Texas. They saw from the windows of the plane a large huge group of family and friends who had gathered with signs lauding them, screaming and singing, and a joyful atmosphere. As they stepped off the plane, the little kids were giving out brownies to them to say “thank you.”
The soldier I spoke with said he couldn’t eat the brownie because the parade-like welcome felt so dissonant with the brokenness he was feeling. It made him feel like an imposter.
As my clinical supervisor, a 37 year veteran who retired at the rank of colonel, explained: the higher the pedestal we put our service members on, the longer it feels like the fall will be when people find out the complexity of their whole truth.
It’s why she told us to say “Thank you for your sacrifice” instead of “Thank you for your service.”
Now I’m sure many veterans do appreciate being seen as heroes so maybe the goal is just to not assume, to seek to understand, to create spaces where people can be fully heard and seen, and, ultimately, to allow for the shadow and the grace.