By Larry Hollon, Special Contributor…
When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, troops came home not to the accolades and war heroes’ welcome of days past, but to personal attacks on character based on the condemnation of the war itself.
Today, we face an unprecedented number of troops coming home from what has become the United States’ longest war—Afghanistan—in addition to the thousands having already come home from Iraq. While this class of veterans may not always face the verbal attacks as did those from the Vietnam era, many face a pervasive communal silence in their transition home from war. The silence may not come from an aversion to these wars, but an apathy about them. Returning troops face a nation sublimely oblivious to the intense pain of war, loss of life and disruption of global community.
Contrast the last decade with the era of the Second World War. During “The Good War,” ration books adjusted everyday home front living with staples like coffee, sugar, fuel and more, all coming under government regulation. No such costs have been exacted upon us during America’s longest war. War bonds are a thing of the past . . . grocery lists remain the same . . . the American automotive industry has survived recession and is coming back in spite of ongoing war.
In addition, while today’s returning troops suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and TBI (traumatic brain injury) are added to safety-net programs, many of the same people who herald patriotism call for budget cuts to these very programs. And, unless we live near a military base, we’ve seen little press coverage of the lives lost.
Tobias Wolff, Vietnam War veteran, acclaimed author and professor at Stanford University, has said:
“The sign of a really decadent civilization is one that sends young people out to do and to suffer the things that soldiers do and suffer in war and not to care about what those things are . . . not to have any costs laid on them [civilization] even of knowing. . . . We seem to have avoided every other cost . . . but to avoid even the cost of knowing is an unforgiveable decadence.”
As a society, we can learn from a past that has resulted in over one-third of our homeless population consisting of veterans. Caring for returning troops is an act of responsibility taken by a civilization that recognizes their participation in sending them into harm’s way. Caring involves not only providing government programs that care for the mental and physical health of veterans, but participation in communal acts that envelop the whole person and empower them to fully return home.
A very powerful communal act is storytelling. In listening to the stories of those who’ve participated in war, healing can eventually come to those individuals and the cost of war can be understood so new ways of resolving global conflict can arise. Unless they speak, veterans may remain captives of war’s demons. Unless we listen, we fail to comprehend the horrors in which we collectively participate. Storytelling is a powerful, ancient ritual that moves people beyond language itself—shaping not only perceptions but also the ways in which we live together in the future. Storytelling provides a means of sharing the cost of war among all people, so we develop an aversion to war, and seek true and just alternatives for resolving conflict.
On Jan. 20, many United Methodist congregations will participate in America’s Sunday Supper with Points of Light Institute, engaging communities in dialogue about the issues that most impact returning troops and working together to address them. Some of our faith communities will provide free screenings of Operation Homecoming or The Invisible Ones, followed by dialogue to raise awareness and assist in telling the story. Some congregations may provide job fairs, financial literacy programs, or initiate Habitat for Humanity builds for and with veterans. As important as the concrete results of these acts of service are, they offer more than the help itself. They offer a means of coming home.
Print and video stories that show the many ways United Methodists are involved can be found at www.umc.org/military and you can learn more about how to get involved.
The Rev. Hollon is the top staff executive of United Methodist Communications.