I am not a veteran, my parents are not veterans, my grandparents are not veterans. I have no direct relationship to the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, except for the fact that they are maybe the most definitive marker of my generation. My memories begin post 9/11, and my entire adult life has coincided with one long, never-ending war.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are possibly the most documented and publicized in history (the internet will do that to things). Yet, we have the privilege of ignoring them if we want to. We have the choice to read the article, the book, the op-ed in the New York Times, or to ignore it all. That’s our decision. And the decision to ignore is one that I made, along with many of my peers and community. It’s a lot to handle. It’s devastating and horrific. And the worst part is it seems like you can’t do anything to make it better. So why watch? Why read? Why talk about it?
Well, we don’t really. There’s a lot of silence when it comes to our veterans. It’s not until something horrible happens – like the tragic shootings in Fort Hood this week – that soldiers get the national attention they deserve. Unfortunately, this attention makes it seem like these specific soldiers are the wrong ones, the crazy ones, the ones who couldn’t handle war. And that’s just NOT TRUE. They’re the everyman. They’re the majority. And they’re largely ignored. That’s the problem. And that’s on us, not them. This problem isn’t political. There are no sides. This is about the human beings who are at the center of it all. The parents, and children, and siblings, who sacrifice everything, despite their own belief or disbelief in whatever war we’re fighting or whichever enemy is presented to us.
We have to start taking responsibility for our veterans and start giving them the attention, respect, and help they deserve. We have to start demanding more care, more attention, more options for them. We have to start showing our empathy and compassion, because it’s not enough to just say we “care,” we “support our troops,” we have to ACTUALLY support them.
My personal sense of social responsibility for veterans came when I was in middle school. I was scared of my neighbor (a Vietnam Veteran). He smoked outside and had a beard and wore black. Sounds like someone I would have crush on now, but as an 11-year-old it was straight scary. My mom told me I wasn’t allowed to be scared of anyone for no reason. She told him I wanted to interview him (for a homework assignment…that she assigned) – so over I went with a camera and notepad. I learned what happened to veterans when they came home. I learned about his daily battle with PTSD. I learned about his life before war, and his life after war. I got to know him. I got to really see him. I photographed him for years afterwards. Mostly because I wanted to hear more and more about his experiences. That was all it took. One conversation. One person. And I was changed. Immediately. Forever. I became aware, and then I became active.
We need to talk about veterans, and we need to hear their stories. We need to stop creating a line between “them” and “us.” We need to stop disassociating ourselves from them – because they’re not a separate entity. We can’t pretend they’re separate from us so we don’t have to deal with the lifelong mental and physical issues our wars give them.