Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, October 13, 2008

What not to say to an Iraq War veteran

The October 6 New York Times carried a story about a group of Iraq war vets who went off together to a Vets4Vets retreat to open up about their painful memories. "It was clear," wrote the reporter (who was allowed to attend) "that this was a wounded group." The story is really sad. Here's a portion of it (note the "don't"s addressed to us civilians back home).

[Kevin Cajas, one of the vets, said,] “We were exposed to trauma so much we became addicted to it. We became trauma junkies. It doesn’t go away, so you’ve just got to learn how to manage it. I liked it; I’m not going to lie.”

Everyone had a transition story. Shifting from “hunter-killer mode” to husband-student mode is so sudden, it’s insane. One day you’re in Baghdad, the next you’re in Atlanta, passing rows of cheering civilians at Hartsfield airport. Then you get on with your life. The price is steep, in sleepless nights, troubled consciences and buried anger.

People have no idea, the veterans said. Ryan Knudson, from Phoenix, told me what a lifeguard at a pool had asked him: “Is it, like, all warry over there?”

Yes it is. Do you want to hear about it? No, said Mr. Knudson, you probably don’t.

Mr. Cajas: “We were the go-to platoon. When you’re on the go, you’re in a manic rage of violence, nonstop. My body’s just accustomed to that. I picked up my friends’ body parts. My roommate got his face blown off.”

Mr. Cajas was in a quick-reaction force, the guys who knock down doors. “We did a good job,” he said. “The irony of service is, we did a good job, and came back different. This is what it does to humans. The analogy we used was prison. We were locked in the base, and every time we were released, we had to go kill people. We acted like animals because that’s what we were.”

It was hard to watch them beat up on themselves, although their intense expressions of guilt seemed like signs of intact souls. One veteran told me he was haunted by the realization that any trauma he suffered was multiplied a hundredfold for the Iraqis he shot at.

Some gave me tips to pass on to the civilian world: Don’t ask The Question (Did you kill anybody?). “Support the Troops” magnets mean nothing to them. And military culture is not big on touching: the main things civilians want to do to soldiers — hug them and get them drunk — are generally not welcome.

Read the entire article:
"Veterans, Alone Together, Share Stories They Can’t Tell You"
Published: October 5, 2008