Do you recall the Nicole Kidman thriller The Others? In it she lives in a haunted house which she does not know to be haunted. Eventually the ma & pa caretakers, also ghosts unbeknownst to Kidman, tell her about the “others” who are the other ghosts in the house threatening her children.
And some of us too are guilty of not seeing “the others” all around us. I knew I had PTSD issues long before I was diagnosed. Part of my war cry was the familiar “my friends and I bled for an ungrateful nation.” You know it. You have said it too. You also may still believe it. There are lots of anecdotal stories that justify our angst. I have been called baby killer, I have had to listen to stories of “military incompetence” by academics who never served anything but know how everyone else should. When I taught ROTC on college campuses I got told how the country was just wrong and the military is unnecessary. I have listened to well-meaning but naïve Americans who are interested in what is going on with the wars but just can’t get their heads around it for a variety of reasons. I have listened to “Thanks for your service” as a socially cool thing to say. My favorite is listening to men tell me why they did not or could not serve. Telling me this makes my day better how? Oh right, it does not. It is them using me to feel better about their own conscience pangs. I don’t need that. In fact, I don’t care a whit about their conscience pangs. Please feel free to have them and leave me out of it.
Nobody likes us it seems. As if that were not enough the VA does not seem to care either. Going there often feels like you are messing up their pristine system because you have a problem. We see the news stories and hear the glee in the news anchors’ voices every time they can arrange the story as a failure for the US. This usually means some more of our buddies have died. The liberals seem to want us dead so that they can point to the futility of the war. The conservatives want us dead so they can show everyone how patriotic they are. Please, God, isn’t there anyone who wants me to live? I just want to go to a concert and not freak out about what a horrible tactical situation I am in. I want to be able to wind my window all the way down when I am driving. Remember that? But you just smile and nod and say thank you and go to Applebee’s every November 11th and get your discounted lunch (I do appreciate that by the way) but what you really want to know is that someone out in there in John Q. Public cares about what you tried to do for them. The country is so ungrateful.
PTSD makes you very cynical. So can the military. I won’t go into the chicken-or-egg argument on that right now. In your cynicism you have everyone figured out. For now, your cynical hopeless side discounts everyone who did not suit up. They’re just poges. Am I right?
Then you meet the others. You did not know they existed. They are not vocal. They do not get on CNN or Fox (I do not like either). They stand respectfully when the anthem gets sung at a high school sports game. They open the door for you and your prosthetic leg. They watch your dog while you are out. They don’t say much, that is until you start a conversation. You admit you could use some help with something and one of the others takes five minutes to listen. They don’t know what to say and you don’t either. They are probably afraid of being disrespectful. They may be afraid of you exploding on them. We are a thorny and awkward bunch after all, aren’t we? I mean, even we think we are crotchety, imagine what that looks like to someone knows nothing except what they have seen on the news. One listens for five minutes and invites you to something and then you meet another and another. For the price of five minutes you soon have a network of people who think you are not a bad guy and you have some cool stories. After a few weeks you might even have a real friend. The others are out there. They are the great mass that is America. They are all around but you have to let them know it’s ok to approach. We give off warning vibes then we complain that they don’t care. It’s a little lopsided.
I learned this recently. I went on a veterans’ ski weekend put on by an organization called Dream Adaptive. I skied for free. They bought me lunch and they provided expert ski instructors who were familiar with all the ways physically challenged folks can ski. They are not schooled in crusty old war horses who think no one cares about them. They volunteer to this and they pass up a weekend with their friends to teach some old broke guys -more proof that no one cares… I was skiing in a group of three and our instructors were young ladies. One was in her late 20s and the other in her early 30s. They had no prior exposure to the military. One even admitted that she went to South America with the peace corps. Oh, and if you are keeping score the ungratefuls footed the bill on this weekend through their charitable donations and grants. Oooh the nerve!
My little group was all grunts. These poor youngsters did not know what they were walking into. We started getting acquainted and finally they fessed up-they were the “others”. They appreciated us and that we made their way of life possible (they actually said that). These girls were a little hesitant though, because we were on a chair lift 200 feet up with three ex-shooters who all had anger and memory issues and they were the adult supervision. We talked politely at first. As the conversations got more raucous during the day they started looking lost so we agreed to explain the jokes. Then we explained some acronyms. Finally, came the million-dollar question. One of the ladies wanted to know if she could ask about PTSD and what it did to us and how we managed it. I was floored. Imagine that, somebody you aren’t related to caring about how you were doing. Who knew? We told her yes, she could ask her questions. She asked some serious questions about nightmares, anger, triggers, if the VA was as bad as the news says, and other unpleasantness. They were both very concerned that our little ski outing was a break from all of that.
By the end of the day we were all skiing much better but something else happened; we were all laughing. We made jokes about our memory issues , anger issues, & physical issues. We made jokes about AfghanIraqiPakistuzbekistan. We laughed about the stupid things the Army and USMC did on deployments. We made a lot of Air Force jokes. We laughed. We laughed. We laughed. We even told them that we could go to great lengths to defend their honor and not remember what we did with the perpetrators (no, not apologizing). By the end of the day I knew they were catching on when I asked a skiing question and got, “that’s classified way above your level.” The other said “No Sh#!@ there I was…” It was hilarious! Imagine, three old grunts and two young ladies (one of them from the dreaded peace corps) just hanging out like we were some old uncles they had not seen in years. America at its finest.
The others are out there. The nation is not as ungrateful as our false nobility wants it to be. Trying to see it that way may just be an excuse to hang onto irrational anger (remember- that is a thing we do). Self-isolation for the sake of believing a false reality will not get us back to whole. If we isolate because “no one cares” then we are isolating because we want to be isolated, nothing more. It is not disloyal to our dead brothers and sisters to engage the others and have a laugh with them. It does not mean we are not warriors anymore. It does not make us one of “them” and not “one of us”. It is ok to have a cup of coffee with the others. The others want to say thanks. They don’t know how. Shame on us if we just don’t know how to receive that. After all, it is what we all want.
Can they understand what it is to shoulder a 100 lb. ruck sack and go 25 miles in 5 hours? Not anymore than I know what it is to pack train a llama in the peace corps in Peru. Do they understand what it is to watch incoming and have to sift through the BDA? No and we went so that they never would have to- remember that. None of that however, means that they are democrat or republican or CNN or Fox. They are just the others (just like we are “those guys”) and if we tell them they can come up to us maybe they will and maybe that will be a good day. At least the skiing will be good. Go get ‘em tiger.
Joe DeCree is a Maj. (Ret.) US Army, Green Beret, 19th SFG (A). He works with returning veterans and lives with his family in Montana. You can contact Joe directly at email@example.com or 406-871-0638 MT.