A few months ago, I called a pastor about a new campaign to connect veterans and their communities. I wanted a cup of coffee with him, a chance to ask a few questions. His church, large and influential, had no outreach for veterans, no veteran program, no partnership with even one local veteran organization.
The pastor was curt with me. He had no time, he said, but “thank you for your service” -- and while full schedules I understand, his closing phrase felt like warm spit in my face.
First, he couldn’t know what to thank me for. Second, he didn’t mean it. Still, why feel the sting? Why let insincerity matter? Because I know firsthand that false gratitude leads to inaction, and that fake flag waving masks a quiet and deadly epidemic.
War is not the chief killer of service men and women. Suicide is. Every day, 20 or more veterans die not in battle but by their own hands, and that tragedy is just one symptom. Addictions, depression, homelessness, and damaged relationships also tear through those who have served.
These problems hardly define all veterans and service members--many are successful and stable--but the problems are significant, and we ignore them at high risk to us all. Until our society finds the life-giving ground between closing its eyes or perpetuating the “broken veteran” stereotype, we fail the men and women who did not fail us.
So, as a country, people ask me, how do we heal our soldiers’ wounds? Three actions, I often say, give us all a profoundly good start:
1. Become informed
You don’t need latest VA statistics or in-depth military knowledge to help warriors come home. Awareness of the front, however, and stories of their war, build an important bridge of understanding.
Stories are how we transcribe life--they are engines for empathy. Our new documentary captures the stories of my fellow soldiers, first, on the battlefield, and then as they come home. What happens here, the film is saying, multiply by thousands and millions of soldiers. To know some stories is to want to support all soldiers, and that leads to number two.
2. If you support the troops, make it active: Adopt a veteran organization.
The return-to-life groundswell our military needs can start with two simple questions to every American at home: Do you support your military? If so, how? Taxes don’t count as support. Troops pay taxes, too, and it’s no choice. “Support,” meanwhile, is an choice. Choose a veterans’ organization and donate your money, or time, or both. Even a small amount of action takes sentiment to something far more.
In No Greater Love, a soldier is wounded by a suicide bomber and lives now with shrapnel in his brain. For seven years, this man fought to get proper help from the VA. Seven years. Enter Paralyzed Veterans of America to help him navigate bureaucracy and paperwork, tasks made more complex for a man with a brain injury. If not for PVA, this U.S. soldier would still be fighting for benefits or short on care.
3. Learn what veterans know
Scenes most people can’t imagine are the events many veterans are struggling to forget, yet the worst thing a traumatized man or woman can do is to bury and numb the past. Hard memories handled with brothers and sisters, family members, and possibly counselors, can lead to the strength of what is called Post Traumatic Growth, and that’s the goal.
But what does their trauma model for us? Answer: willingness to die for a fellow soldier, despite personal differences. On the mountaintops of Afghanistan, the truth came to me clearly that Americans there were dying for each other in spite of their differences while, back home, Americans were willing to kill each other because of them.
Not once, not twice, but daily I saw soldiers commit acts of valor and sacrifice on behalf of soldiers nothing like them except for the common cause to serve their country. This is what soldiers know that all of America is short on.
Not everyone will serve in war, but we all can serve each other. It’s no offence to thank soldiers for their service. It’s offensive for the “thanks” to be empty, ignorant of sacrifice. Get the stories, step up to support, and learn what veterans know. Cross the aisles and stand for those who have stood for you.
Happy Veterans Day.