In our first conversation, Coming Home: Veterans Readjusting to Civilian Life, our contributors — including veterans, family members of veterans and members of organizations that support veterans — share their own stories, offer insights on the challenges facing returning veterans, and provide tips and resources on the kinds of support that families, friends and communities can offer veterans.
When my son visited the VA hospital for his first physical evaluation, the only other person in the tiny waiting area besides him and me was a wizened man, whose skin was deeply creased like the soft leather of an old flight jacket. He looked to be in his 70s and "Korean War Vet" was embroidered on the hat in the chair next to him. Four chairs separated the older and younger veteran.
After a while, the old man turned in his seat and asked in a deep, rich voice, "You a vet?"
"Yes, sir," my son replied.
"Were you wounded?"
My son remained silent for a moment before turning back, "Well, I was blown up a dozen or more times...but that thousand pounds of C-4 in a yellow dump truck got me."
The old man gave a tiny nod of his head and then thrust his hand at my son. "Fair enough," he said.
They shook hands... the handshake of reluctant members of a brotherhood no one wants to join. A handshake and a nod signaling the bridge between generations was — painfully — open.
Our son has been home from war four years and medically discharged for two. His reintegration has not been without its roadblocks and setbacks but, for the most part, like a significant majority of veterans, his life has moved forward — not always in ways he imagined, but forward nonetheless.
No surprise in the lessons we have learned: the people who have helped him the most in his continuing journey have been his family, friends and the veterans' community — especially "The Bridge Builders," described by poet Will Allen Dromgoole as those who cross the chasm and stay to build a bridge for those that come behind.
From that Korean War vet at the VA, to his trusted PTSD counselor at the Veterans Center, and the large veteran population in our community, our son has been warmly received. As one of the first Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans in our area, the reception into and recognition by a much older veteran population has been heartening and helpful — especially the profound level of commitment to our newest veterans among Vietnam-era veterans who tell me that they never want to have any veterans be discarded the way that they were ever again .
The unwavering support from his large, extended family has been a lifeline for our son. Their support included so many packages when he was in Iraq that he never lacked a jovial entourage when he retrieved his mail. This support continued upon his return with open ears, open minds and open arms. Using all available technology, our son stays connected with old friends from high school, new friends from college, other single parents and a large group of Army friends — those still serving and those that have transitioned.
He has found mostly friendly support from fellow firefighters (surprisingly, few here are veterans), although his "get 'er done" discipline towards his firehouse chores — as the new guy, he did all the kitchen, bath & general cleaning — has ruffled a few who would rather sleep in and then start their day with an extended bull session. As our son told his fire captain after someone complained that he seemed a bit unsocial, "I'm not opposed to a 'smoke & joke,' sir, but I'm the part-time new guy with chores to do. But I'll work on the bull part."
Those that have been the most unhelpful have been the uninformed (sometimes mean-spirited) who try unsuccessfully to ascribe the myths and politics of the wars to the soldiers. When he began college, he learned not to mention his combat experience to the naive and mostly misinformed younger students who used the opportunity to only openly deride him and his service and disparage the Iraq mission which he still strongly supports. He has found that it is impossible to have a meaningful discussion with some people about the difference between political and media-fed perceptions and the reality of soldiering. He has learned that self-preservation sometimes requires simply walking away after delivering his newly-mastered, "Sure.Whatever.you.say.You.really.should.read.more" scowl.
People often ask what they can do to help veterans. In practical terms, contact the closest Veterans Center and offer donations of pre‑paid gas cards, grocery cards, or donate to their Christmas fund. Whenever you can, give a veteran a job. And reach out and shake a veteran's hand and say the most meaningful phrase ever uttered, "Thank you for your service. We really appreciate all you have done."
Blogger, Some Soldier's Mom. On what it's like to have a child at war.
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