07 February 2008

Healing The Wounds

Most generations of American warriors returned from foreign soil victors. These brave young men returned to a hero’s welcome and the gratitude of an attentive public. Their sacrifices and the lost innocence of youth were rewarded with caring and recognition by a grateful nation. Did the Vietnam veteran deserve any less?

Upon return, the parades offered to the Vietnam veteran were the war protest marches of the 1960s and 70s that many of us joined after release from active duty. It was a bitter irony that we became “soldiers” in the antiwar machine that fed our neglect.

The wounds, both psychic and physical were often hidden from sight, covered by a thin veneer. Recognition and acknowledgment upon our return would have made easier the loss---our lost innocence, the lost war, and the loss of so many futures.

For some to heal, an understanding spouse, friends, or family may be enough. A spiritual awakening may refocus a life. But more often it’s something far more solitary. A visit to the Vietnam Memorial alone to finally mourn. Discovering comrades-in-arms with whom you shared the experience, reliving it with those that truly understand. For some it’s even a return to Vietnam, replacing the old memory with a new, more pleasant reality.

But make no mistake, every combat veteran carries wounds, wounds that must heal. In conversations with friends who served, many talk about “just getting on with it” upon their return and not looking back. But each time I pursue the topic with them there is always a wound, still healing, but hidden from view. The great betrayal of our nation was the refusal to offer the healing salve of care and recognition for the pain and sacrifice of the young men who fought and returned with memories rather than victory.

The emotional scars were borne by every combat veteran but those severely wounded in action had scars that would never completely heal. Former United States Senator Max Cleland left Georgia for his sought after tour as a gung ho Second Lieutenant and returned without legs and one arm.

In his book, Strong at the Broken Places, Cleland writes, “The putting together of the smashed parts took years, and the strengthening process still continues. But through my crises and defeats I have learned that it is possible to become strong at the broken places.”

The healing process for such devastating and life altering wounds is unfathomable to anyone not themselves victims. But for those of us who only bore emotional scars, a grateful nation heralding our return would have set in place a therapeutic reentry, perhaps saving an entire generation of veterans from unnecessary struggle.

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