It happened again this week, first in an online article and then in a public place: The depths of silent suffering that war veterans endure appeared. Each of these two appearances is tragic on its own, and what is also devastating is that the silent suffering goes deeper and stretches more broadly across this nation and others than most of us would begin to imagine.
In a piece on Wednesday at Salon.com, titled “My Dad is Gone, But I Can’t Let Go of His Things,” although the focus was on the writer’s inability to throw out the father’s belongings, interwoven in the article was the information that the father who died had been a war veteran, was living alone “in a room rented to him by the Veterans Administration” when his family would not take him in, and died from a pill overdose. Ah, no, another one?! And was the overdose on purpose or from the kind of drug cocktails, or mixtures of drugs, that the VA hands out liberally and that has alarmed the Department of Defense because of deaths caused by drug interactions? The writer doesn’t say, although the veteran had talked at the VA about killing himself, but either option is horrible, and deaths of veterans are happening far too often in both ways.
In a public, recreational area, I saw a Vietnam vet whose torment, like that of many, continues these four decades after he came home from war. The person on whom he ought to have been able to count the most for understanding and support primarily feels irritation and anger about his suffering. He is one of the most life-affirming people who ever walked the earth when he comes out of these states, but now that the torment has again become a tsunami, even his adored children do not bring a smile to his face. Watching, I could see that the skill and speed with which he can usually manage work and the warmth and graciousness of his way with people are not at this time available to him.
Is it the combination of drugs he is on, the inability of those closest to him to offer what he needs, the fortress around him that keeps away the people who want to be there for him, or some combination of these? The answer is unknown until something happens to help relieve his suffering, and at this point it is impossible to predict what that could be.
In the brilliant novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, the widow, seeing that four decades after her husband’s war, he returns to the battlefield where he saw his best friend killed, wonders “at the headlock History still had on my man,” asks whether it will ever end, and struggles to find a way to bring him back from where he has gone.
Our uncertainty about how to bring these suffering souls back to where love and compassion are must not keep us from trying. What matters is that something, someone must get through. Those who love him are paralyzed with fear that he will try to kill himself, as he has tried before. When the suffering is so great, and life itself at stake, it feels unthinkable to risk any step that could harm more than help.
But let us offer to have veterans take us along by telling us how their journeys have been and where they are now. Let us listen with openness and respect, whatever our views about the war in which they fought. Let us hear what these human beings have to say about the parts of their lives where they have lived and still live in extremis, where most of us have never been. They are part of our world.
We must reach out, say we care even if they seem not to hear, even if we feel they are trying to drive us away, for it may be because they don’t want to burden us, don’t want anyone to see them feeling so miserable, feel confused and tormented about whether the fact that dear comrades of theirs died at war should mean that they, the survivors, ought to be unable to enjoy life themselves or ought to treasure it all the more.
In the face of their silent suffering, if we remain silent, more will feel too alone and die too soon.