Guest Opinion

Self-serving culture neglects its veterans

In the April 23 issue of the Missoulian, an article titled “Resting Place” described the unfortunate death of a disabled veteran, Donald Papke. The reporter quotes Poverello Center Director Ellie Hill as saying, “Veterans come home from wars to inadequate, splintered communities that still can’t offer them enough.”

One of the primary purposes of modern military training is to separate the trainee from civilian society and shift his primary allegiance from his civilian family to his military family. The combat experience tends to enhance this sense of separation. It is intensified if the veteran has doubts concerning the justifiability of the war, the competence with which it was conducted or the support of the folks back home. I suspect that most war veterans would admit, perhaps reluctantly, that they have never completely lost that feeling of being somehow separate or alienated from the non-veteran community.

This sense of separateness is manifested in many ways to different degrees, depending on the individual and his or her personal experience and psychological makeup. It is one of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Many veterans learn to camouflage their sense of isolation with some sort of middle- or upper-class all-American high-achiever facade of normalcy. Others end up as suicides, in prison or homeless. Some simply live in solitude. Most veterans muddle along somewhere between these two extremes, perhaps lessening the strain of the effort with a little too much alcohol or drugs n and perhaps a divorce or two along the way.
The American public has never quite known what to do with their veterans. They tend to vacillate between hero-worship and scapegoating, between pity and contempt. Scapegoating, pity and contempt are dehumanizing and objectifying attitudes. So is hero worship. All of these attitudes lend themselves to further isolation of the veteran from the community.

The old-time Plains Indians seemed to have a better handle on much of this than we do, recognizing the emotional and psychological bond between the warrior and his people needed to be improved rather than broken. When the warriors returned from battle, the need for healing and purifying was taken for granted, but the task was made much easier by the continued close connection between him and his people. The Indian elders were also very aware that the same war experience that had created the need for purifying and healing also tended to enhance the qualities of self-sacrifice, courage, responsibility and mutual co-operation in the veteran n qualities already much valued by the tribe. The tribe recognized that they needed the returned warrior, both his wounds and his virtues.

We live in a culture that tends to glorify self-serving competition and independence at the cost of mutual cooperation and integration. As individuals and as a nation we tend to use our resources to isolate ourselves from the community experience. Self-sacrifice tends to be a bit of an alien concept to most of us, something for saints and soldiers. As we move away from our “primitive” roots, we also tend to lose that “primitive” sense that the community’s survival, much less its thriving, depends upon the community’s taking on the virtues of the warrior.

Consequently, in our culture, the ideal modern soldier becomes a kind of warrior-monk and our military tends to become more and more separate from the civilian sector. We remove the soldier from our individualistic and competitive culture and place him/her in a culture built on the principles of team work and self-sacrifice. The soldier’s training and experience teach him that every individual is absolutely essential to accomplishing the mission, to survival. His primary concern is often more for doing his job and supporting his comrades than it is for his own survival.

However, while the Indian warrior usually returned to a village that respected and shared his values, the veteran in our culture all too often returns to a community that has no place for the values burned into him by the fires of war. All too often, he is asked to work and live in environments that encourage only mediocrity and/or self-serving competition. Returning from the military culture that, like the traditional Indian culture, recognizes the need to make the best possible use of every individual, he finds himself in a culture with a strong penchant for rewarding the “winners” and discarding the “losers” into the dustbin of our welfare system and homeless shelters.

All too often the best we can offer returning soldiers is a choice between being “heroes” who need nothing more than a parade and a yellow ribbon, or being “problems” in need of a solution. Yes, we should embrace them when they come home n but embrace them for their reality, not their ability to fit some comic-book hero image. Yes, give the returning veteran dignified respect for his sacrifice, give him any psychological and medical care he might require but, perhaps most importantly, respect the values and lessons he has brought home with him.

Our “inadequate, splintered community” may not “offer enough” to meet the needs of Donald Papke and other veterans, but the real tragedy may be the community’s inability to recognize what it needs from the veterans. Veterans are one of this nation’s under-developed resources.

Philip J. Burgess is a Vietnam veteran and poet. He lives in Missoula.