<< The Body Politic

What the troops leave unsaid: a growing civil-military divide

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

Over at the “At War” blog of The New York Times, Jonathan Raab, a sergeant in the New York National Guard currently serving in Kuwait, reminds us of the hardships many veterans face when they return home from war–and the responsibility we have to engage them in thoughtful conversation about their concerns.

He writes:

Specialist “Ponch” is one of my soldiers. He’s approaching 30 and is popular with the platoon, and has a great sense of humor. Our duties here include spending long hours checking IDs or searching vehicles; this gives us plenty of time to joke around and talk about going home. Home is always on our minds. Home is something that seems less distant and more real every day.

We were sitting in a guard shack, waiting for vehicles to search and IDs to check.

“I have this recurring nightmare where I go home and can’t find a job,” Ponch said, shaking his head and staring wide-eyed at the simmering Kuwaiti desert. “I go back to my job and it’s not there for me. Nobody can help me. I need to take care of my dad, of my girlfriend. And I can’t. It’s scary, man.” […]

Deployed troops often experience extreme hardship, but we are also often afforded a reprieve from the hidden demands of the seductively “soft” civilian life. That is one reason why so many troops choose to re-enlist or extend deployments. Even in Afghanistan, I could forget about the troubles of home: the bills, the struggle to get ahead or just to stay afloat, the social pressures, the drumbeat of a million tiny anxieties.

Like so many of our problems, sometimes it’s better just not to talk about it.

That’s especially true when the reality of home is that you have become invisible, and your work, your profession and your entire way of life are suddenly of little consequence to the average American. Not talking or thinking about that leads to your staying away longer, because being gone (and you are gone, aren’t you?) is suddenly a more attractive option.

It’s better not to talk about it when home is where your friends and family who didn’t bother to write, e-mail or call for months at a time suddenly want to ask you deeply personal questions about traumatic experiences. Home is where you find your job is gone. Home is where you find your apartment or house empty, save for a few boxes and the dusty footprints of the one who left you. Home is where you interact with your spouse and children with desperate periods of horrible silence.

Home is where the two men running for president, and most of the media around them, share that same horrible silence when it comes to the war, or to the missions that support that war, or to your role and place as a soldier and a citizen within the machine, within but on your way back out, returning to a place and a people you remember vividly but would now hardly recognize.

This is uncomfortable, isn’t it? Then I guess we’d better start talking.

After further discussing the shock of the return home and his worries about an increasing civil-military divide, Raab concludes:

What do we owe our veterans, those at risk for suicide, our troops overseas, or the people who died because of the actions of terrorists so many sad Septembers ago?

Is it better not to talk about it? Because that’s the message we’re sending ourselves. That’s the message we’re sending Specialist Ponch. That’s the message that we’re sending the retiring sergeant major driving out of Fort Bragg for the last time, the terminal lance corporal shaking the sand from his M.C.U.’s as he packs for home, the transport pilot setting a course for the States, the junior petty officer putting his back to the sea and his eyes on the road ahead.

These questions deserve answers. They deserve thoughtful responses. They – we – deserve a conversation, a debate, a consideration. Ignoring the war – ignoring us, or ignoring our fears about veterans’ returning home to unemployment or isolation or alcoholism or substance abuse or a million other demons – does our nation no good.

Read the whole thing here.

AEI