It’s Veteran’s day as I write this, a powerful day to reflect on. As we honor those who have served in the military to protect the United States, I’m drawn to look at my own family’s legacy from wars long gone by.
There is a fair amount of history with the military on both sides of my family. My mother was a Navy nurse in the Korean war, and her father also served in the Navy. My father was in the Marines; apparently a top fighter pilot in his day, although he was humble and never bragged about his time in the cockpit.
I have distinct memories as a child of looking through my parent’s military memorabilia, which were quite a curiosity, especially my father’s. There was a framed photo of my dad cutting a cake on a naval ship, honoring his 1000th take-off and landing on a carrier. Amongst my parent’s bookshelves was an old book on learning Japanese, from my mother’s time stationed in Japan. And I would sneak into my parents’ bedroom and look through the drawer where my father kept his old ribbons, pins, and medals that he wore on his Marine Corps uniform.
But surprisingly, my parents were mostly silent about their military experiences. My father didn’t say much unless prompted, and my mother typically would share the same anecdotes about how she hated the smell of bananas after being stationed in the Philippines, fun times in Yokosuka, Japan (which she pronounced Ya-koo-ska), and how my parents met in the officer’s club at Cherry Point, NC.
I can only imagine the horrors and trauma they might have experienced during their time of service, as so many veterans do. They live with the legacy of terror and suffering that often remains buried in their unconscious. But one night, I received a glimpse of my mother’s own repressed memories.
My husband, daughter, and I were visiting my mother for a few days about 6 years ago. It was a very stressful time, for our purpose for visiting was to unravel her financial woes. After a very humbling and worrisome day for her, I accompanied her up to bed. I could tell she was deeply distraught. As she was settling down to go to sleep, she suddenly became deeply agitated, her eyes widening and her body trembling.
She began to spontaneously recall a moment during the Korean War. It was an overnight shift; she was head nurse, and had one orderly assisting her. 100 wounded men were air-dropped, and the two of them were solely responsible for cleaning and dressing all their wounds. Her voice trembled as she remembered the mud caked in their bloody gashes, and having to dig out the maggots harbored there – all 100 soldiers in great pain and suffering. I held her hand and listened, and let her know she’s OK and right here with me now.
Until that moment, I had not known my mother had PTSD. No telling how much was repressed into her unconscious. It explained why there wasn’t much acknowledgement of emotions in our home. Perhaps it was too scary to go there.
So many of us are left with the painful legacy of war, and the legacy passed on to us from parents that suffered and buried it inside. It wounds not only our flesh but our families, our hearts, our minds… the fear of feeling and remembering, the avoidance of emotion, the desperate need to keep the image that everything is fine, while trauma seethes beneath the surface.
I know that in my parents’ time, there weren’t resources or even much acknowledgement for post-traumatic stress. Now, although resources are still short for many veterans, at least there is understanding of and compassion for this disorder. PTSD affects not only veterans, but their families and an entire society that, for good or ill, continues to wage war and thus continues to lick the wounds of all those affected.
I feel the deep need for us as a culture to look within at our own repressed pain as well as our unconscious participation on some level with war. To acknowledge that war impacts everyone, not just those bombed or dropping the bombs, or those who “win” or “lose”. No one wins, for everyone carries the trauma of the experience, collectively, in our psyches.
I don’t have any easy answers, other than to look inside myself. To know that within me is the enemy, and is the soldier protecting me. Within me is the navy nurse and the wounded soldier she attends. Within me is a dead American, Korean, Vietnamese, German, or Afghani, and a crying child wandering in a village that was torched by the opposition.
I deeply bow to all the veterans who made that sacrifice. May you never have to walk in those shoes again.
Together, let’s find the healing. Let us open our hearts to each other and ourselves in that pain and suffering. Let us create a new legacy of communion with all life, beyond war and peace. And pray that a day will come when we all are so deeply connected with one another that we no longer need to create war.