It's a good bet that few people will read this essay, because the word "veterans" appears in the headline.
When I wrote When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans a couple of years ago, I said that Americans don't like to think about veterans. Why? Because war is upsetting, and if you don't know anyone who is directly involved, you don't have to think about it. Then, too, the strong American tradition of never admitting to fault clashes with the serious questions that have been raised about our most recent wars: Thinking about what veterans have been through carries the risk of making us wonder whether our government is always right. One more reason is the dangerous practice of our highly psychiatrized country's too-ready labeling as mentally ill anyone experiencing emotional devastation or moral anguish because of having been at war and the difficulties of trying to come home. All the time, I hear civilians say, "I'd like to do something to help veterans, but they're mentally ill, and I'm not a therapist, so there's nothing I can do."
How I hoped that I would be wrong, that I would discover that most Americans care deeply and meaningfully about veterans and want to get involved and help. To be sure, there are many people doing tireless, committed, effective work for veterans and their families. But how disturbing it has been to see hard evidence that few Americans are even willing to read an article about veterans. Of the many dozens of essays I have written on my Psychology Today blog since I began writing it about a year and a half ago, about one dozen have been about various subjects related to veterans, and the rest have been about an extremely wide array of subjects. On the running tally that shows me how many people have read each essay, I see that, with one exception, every essay I have written about veterans has had between 30 percent and 3 percent (that last number is not a typo -- it is indeed three percent) the number of readers of any other subject about which I have written. There, stark in black and white, is some sad proof that not enough Americans care enough.
The more distance we put between ourselves and others, the easier it is to forget to care. The closer in touch we come to the full humanity of others, the more we care, and the less bewildered we feel about what we might do to help. That is why I wish that every American could see the phenomenal film, SERVICE: When Women Come Marching Home. This beautiful movie, directed by Marcia Rock and co-produced by her and Patricia Lee Stotter, introduces us to a number of women who have been in the military and with sensitive, creative camerawork and a moving score by Stotter, lets us become their listeners as they bravely tell us the intimate details of the myriad of ways their time in the military and their experiences of coming home have changed their lives. We get to know them, we understand many kinds of things they have gone through, we see whom they care about, what devastates them, what makes them laugh, what makes them want to go on. It is impossible, after watching this film, to see servicewomen and women veterans as "other," as having nothing to do with the rest of us. And after all, finding our common humanity with others is what life is all about.
So for Veterans Day, please find a way to come closer to servicemembers and veterans. Go to the film's website and start to find a way to bring this film to your community, perhaps through a local college or university or a local organization. Or go to a homeless shelter, look for a veteran there (a huge proportion of our homeless citizens are veterans, increasingly women veterans), and offer to listen, really just listen silently but with your whole heart and with respect, to their story (see short videos and other information about the listening sessions in The Welcome Johnny and Jane Home Project here). Go to the website for "A Better Welcome Home" from the Harvard Kennedy School, Ash Center for Democratic Governance conference, watch a few of the five-minute videos about ways that every American can help, from working with veterans through the arts to meditation to physical exercise to service dogs and many more, and choose how you will get involved. Somehow, show that you care, and connect.
©2012 by Paula J. Caplan
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