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In honor of Veterans Day: Telling too much

“May God bless us with the courage to face these darker truths, so we can work side by side with our veterans to heal the wounds war leaves, striving for a world that embraces the path of peace.”

“Don’t tell Mom too much.” This line from Arlin Buyert’s war poem, “Dear Dad,” speaks poignantly to the soul wounds of our veterans. The poem is devastating in its confession, and devastating in its acknowledgment of the killing we require of our soldiers and how that killing wounds them.

It is also devastating that the soldier in the poem needs to share – needs to confess to his dad – but knows his whole truth is “too much.” Yet he needs others to help him carry the burden of war, to hear and hold his story so he can make sense of an experience that feels senseless. War is too much to bear alone.

This issue of the Presbyterian Outlook dances across the line of telling too much. You will hear from veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan carrying the trauma of those wars in their bodies and souls. You will read coarse, crude language from soldiers in the heat of combat trying to keep themselves and their friends alive. You will read honest, authentic words about war, about returning from war and about what it feels like when you train for war, but don’t get deployed. Let this editorial serve as your trigger warning. The content of this issue is painful and difficult.

But I am convinced the church must cross this line of “telling too much” if we truly want to support our soldiers. Veterans fill our pews. “Thoughts and prayers” are not enough to heal the wounds they bear. We must face the truth of what we ask these soldiers to do on our behalf, make space for them and their stories and acknowledge their humanity.

My only personal windows into the military were my father’s stories about his experiences as a naval officer and stories shared by the veterans who attended the churches I served as pastor. I’d sit in the living rooms of Vietnam, Korean War and World War II vets, or at their hospital bedsides, to listen and receive whatever they felt comfortable sharing. They’d often speak of their service and the bonds they shared with their brother soldiers. But I never heard about the killing — never heard them share the darker details. These older vets adhered to a common code of silence, protecting me from the full truth long after the war was over.

Younger veterans – particularly veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan – seem more willing to share. Perhaps the reduced stigma around mental health gives them more permission — or the new knowledge we have about PTSD and moral injury. Whatever has granted these soldiers their voices, I am grateful for it.

My husband introduced me to the SITREP program at Western Illinois University. A military acronym for “Situation Report,” the program, developed and led by WIU faculty members Jacqueline Wilson and Barbara Lawhorn, gives veterans creative spaces. I’ll never forget attending a SITREP reading at a Unitarian Church in Macomb, Illinois. Eric Hanson, a West Point graduate who became a platoon leader downrange in Afghanistan, read aloud parts of his combat journal. We’ve published an excerpt of Eric’s journal in this issue. What you won’t experience as you read, though, is what I experienced hearing Eric in person. This tall, strong, articulate man, now 35 years old, had to pause again and again to collect himself. He wept as he read his words from Afghanistan, his tears releasing and revealing emotions that he could not (and should not) bear alone. Eric, and other SITREP veterans included in this issue, were eager to be heard by our wider audience.

They deserve to share their stories. We cannot claim to support our soldiers while also protecting ourselves from their truth. We cannot send them to fight on our behalf, then fail to acknowledge the pain of their experience. Nothing can motivate us to work harder for peace than knowing the truth of war. May God bless us with the courage to face these darker truths, so we can work side by side with our veterans to heal the wounds war leaves, striving for a world that embraces the path of peace.