Be There and Listen, It Helps Veterans Heal
World War I ended one hundred years ago, and for 99 years the United States has honored its veterans on Nov 11th. This year instead of thanking a veteran for their service, ask one to share a story. Decades ago I learned first hand how cathartic it could be for those who served to have someone listen to their experiences.
Veterans Day began as “Armistice Day” on Nov. 11, 1919, on the first anniversary of the end of World War I. It is a day to pay tribute to all American veterans—living or dead—but especially those still living who served their country honorably during war or peacetime.
Currently, there are more than 16 million living veterans who have served during at least one war. Another 5.2 million veterans living in the United States have served in peacetime. Though only about 558 thousand remain living today, 16 million Americans served during World War II.
Twenty years ago I was privileged to attend a gathering of WWII veterans and record their stories. For days I listened to whatever they were willing to share. It was five decades after the war, but back at the place their journey began, surrounded by peers, some revealed stories they had previously never told their wives or children. The emotion and pain that crept up on these proud men surprised me, their families and them.
The interviews took place at a reunion of sailors that went through boot camp at the second largest WWII naval training facility in the world. Almost 300-thousand prepared for war at the Farragut Naval Training Station, located in of all places, North Idaho. The camp was only in operation a few years, and there is little physical evidence left of it today. Just some old concrete foundations and the brig that now serves as a museum. The rest is a state park.
When the first family asked if they could listen in on the interview, I agreed, on the condition that they promised to be silent, and remain out of both the camera's and subject's line of sight. Only after I began receiving hugs and hearty handshakes from the eavesdropping family members, did it become clear just what honor was being bestowed on me.
I was shocked when the first wife said, "He has never told me that story." My mission changed somewhat after that. Officially I was there to get stories I could use in a documentary about the training station, but we rolled hours of tape I knew that I could never include. KSPS gave copies of all those raw interviews to the little museum, which was good, but the most important thing that happened was the healing I was allowed to witness.
Even fifty years after their experiences, these men carried the burdens of war. Some lost hundreds of shipmates at a time. Some never saw a shot fired in battle. What each experienced was their own, as was how each coped, but all had returned changed forever.
Below, I've embedded the old documentary that includes some of the stories these men experienced when most were just boys. Watch and see how listening to what they had to say impacted them.
"I find myself repeatedly thanked for my service after I give talks at universities and corporations. I never treat those thank-you’s negatively; I appreciate them, although they sometimes make me uncomfortable. But what I’m really looking for is understanding. It is my personal (non-scientific) belief that the predominant driver of mental injury in veterans is moral in nature.
In order for a young man or woman to make sense of the actions they took overseas, of the loss they suffered and the pain they observed or inflicted, they must feel emotionally and morally unified with their fellow citizens. If they feel pain at the loss of their brother, or guilt over the life they had to take, they want you to feel it too.
“Thank you” does no better at easing such pain and guilt than does a disability payment from the VA. True healing comes when the burden is spread from the 2.5 million that shouldered it to the 300 million that placed it upon them. This Veterans Day, escape your comfort zone. Find a veteran and thank them. Then put your arm around them and ask to hear their story. Perhaps we’ll begin to heal together."
Of the 21.2 million veterans living in our country, each day at least 20 of them take their own lives. Data released in 2016 indicates that veterans accounted for 14 percent of all adult suicide deaths in the U.S., this is even though only eight percent of the country’s population has served in the military. Since 9-11 less than one percent of the nation has served.
According to the Veteran's Crisis Line, even seemingly small actions can have a huge impact. Their experts say we all can do something to help the veterans in our lives. They say preventing suicide begins with a willingness to be there.
So, on this veteran's day, or any other time you meet one of the millions who has served, don't' just thank them, take some time to listen to what they need to share. You never know, sacrificing a bit of your time, might help save someone's life.