I often write about the effects of war on our warfighters and the people who love them. But the subject “often leaves me feeling depleted of hope,” a reader wrote. “How do you stay hopeful?”
Good question. When I think about the military families I know who suffer through divorces as a result of their deployments, I feel hopeless. Or the veterans I meet who battle severe anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. These enormous problems make me feel not just hopeless, but helpless to do anything about them.
I felt especially hopeless when a pacifist told me she wanted to reach out to military families. Her attempt to build bridges should have made me optimistic. Except she added that every time she saw another military family on TV mourning a soldier killed in action, and she heard them say, “He died for his country, he died doing what he loved,” it broke her heart. It broke her heart because, as she put it, they believed “all that mythology.”
I give her credit for attempting to reach out. But I have to admit that her attempt left me feeling angry and alienated from her, and I’m a pacifist myself. While on the surface her words were sympathetic, underneath lay a patronizing disrespect. She seemed to assume that her beliefs were factual and the beliefs of these bereaved families were mere fairy tales. In her mind, she was right and they were wrong. This woman, who has worked hard to end violent conflict in this world, had just demonstrated what it is about human nature that probably guarantees war will always be with us, despite our best intentions.
I’ve had a lot of depressing encounters like that with people on the left and the right. But two things give me hope. The first is the members of the military community themselves. I know so many military spouses who volunteer countless hours to help others. I’ve seen deployments actually strengthen marriages — including my own, after it was tested by loneliness, constant fear, and my husband’s combat stress reactions. I find hope in the amazing resilience of human beings. I find hope in the ability of many to not just go on, but to become stronger, more compassionate people than they were before.
The second thing that gives me hope are those civilians who simply ask, “How can I help?” They don’t offer a political rant for or against the war. They simply respond to the sight of human suffering wherever they find it and try to alleviate it. Not only does this give me hope, it reminds me that none of us are helpless. I may not be able to move the whole mountain, but I can move a few shovelfuls of dirt. If everyone moves a few shovelfuls, eventually the mountain will be moved. And that gives me even more hope.
I can give money to organizations that work to lighten the load on military families like the National Military Family Association (www.nmfa.org), as well as the charities listed at www.americasupportsyou.mil.
I can write my representatives in Congress (here’s how to find them) and remind them that taking proper care of our veterans and their families is one of the costs of war. That means fully funding the VA so vets don’t have to wait for help when they desperately need it.
And when I meet a combat veteran, or his spouse or his children, I can simply listen to whatever they have to say, without arguing, or talking about myself, or dragging politics into it. I can just listen. Because when someone has a traumatic experience, one of the most effective ways to find meaning in it and heal from it is to tell the story. Since the days of Homer in ancient Greece, veterans have fared better when they’ve been allowed to tell their stories in a safe place where they are deeply and respectfully heard.
Taking action and seeing others in action – whether it involves letter-writing, check-writing, advocacy, or just listening – is what gives me hope.
To learn more about combat trauma and its effects on warfighters and their families, I highly recommend the following books:
• “Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming,” by VA psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, who has worked for decades with veterans with combat PTSD.
• “Herakles Gone Mad: Rethinking Heroism in a Time of Endless War,” by R.E. Meagher, on how the ancient Greeks healed their warriors.
• “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society,” by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a psychologist and former Army Ranger – more info at www.killology.com.
• “Vietnam Wives: Facing the Challenges of Life With Veterans Suffering Post Traumatic Stress,” by Aphrodite Matsakis PhD, who works with these wives.
• “Finding My Way: A Teen’s Guide to Living with a Parent Who Has Experienced Trauma,” by Michelle Sherman PhD and DeAnne Sherman, (available at www.seedsofhopebooks.com).
© 2007 Kristin Henderson.
About Kristin Henderson
Kristin Henderson isa journalist who writes frequently on military issues, including reporting from Iraq. She is a frequent contributor to the Washington Post Magazine and the author of the homefront memoir Driving by Moonlight and the nonfiction book While They’re at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront, which Senator John McCain called, “A piece of often untold American history, and a must-read for those both in and out of uniform.”
A Quaker, Kristin is married to a Navy chaplain who served with the Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq. She’s been active in the Marine Corps’ Key Volunteer family readiness program and Compass, the Navy’s spouse mentoring program. She regularly speaks to both military and civilian groups about the challenges facing military families, and has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and Fresh Air, NBC’s Weekend Today, and C-SPAN’s Book TV and After Words.
For more on Kristin’s writing, as well as links to resources and suggestions on how to really support the troops, visit Kristin’s website at www.kristinhenderson.com.