STRANGER IN THE MIRROR


A friend sent me this article last week showing ‘before, during, and after’ pictures of combat soldiers that have survived their tour of duty.  If it is true that ‘the eyes are the windows to the soul’, the photographs depicted in this article give a clear visual record of that fact.

My husband is a survivor of three combat tours during the Vietnam War.  Although the war was physically over for him almost forty years ago, he remains haunted by it to this day.  I can see it in his eyes and hear it while he sleeps.  The war will never end for him.  He still runs through those jungles, every night.  He still hears his dead team mates call to him in his dreams.  When he leaves the peace and safety of home and goes out into the world, he is on constant alert.  His eyes are always darting about as he scans his surroundings, always looking for possible threats and escape routes… always on guard and always ready for battle.

I have seen, first hand, how combat affects the human soul and permanently changes the soldiers that live it.  Innocence, once lost, can never be recovered.  My husband is still the same soul that went to war to fight for his country, but he is forever changed, hardened. At times he is seemingly inexplicably both filled with rage, and saddened.  He will never overcome his survivor’s guilt, he can never go back to the young man he was before his soul was forever scarred by war.

There was a time in this country when it was against the law to teach slaves to read and write.  The reason for this was that slave owners feared educated slaves.  They knew that once someone learned to read and write, they could not ‘unlearn’ it.  They knew an uneducated slave was easier to keep docile, while an educated slave could be downright dangerous.

The lyrics, “How you gonna keep em’ down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree” are from a popular World War I song and gives another example of that simple fact.   Once you ‘know’ something, you are forever changed by that information.

Even if they survive combat without physical wounds, the horror of combat and survivor’s guilt leave veteran’s permanently scarred.  They can never be the same as they were.  Their new personas are unrecognizable to everyone they knew, and far too often, to themselves as well.  The person they used to be is dead, buried under the burden of knowledge and experience they now carry.  The person that returns to the world has experienced sights, sounds, and horrors that loved ones cannot even begin to imagine, let alone understand, or relate to… so even though the veteran looks like the same person, they are not, and can never be, again.

I have met enough combat veterans to know that it is the same for each and every one of them.  They are all like my husband.  They all suffer permanently from the damage done to them by their experiences with War.  They all need help to return to the world.  They need the patience and understanding of people that love them.  More than that, they need the acceptance of those people to be unconditional.  The veterans who have been damaged by exposure to combat require acceptance for who they are now. For the most part, they are unable to cope with demands that they return to who they were, before they left home.  That is as impossible as unlearning to read.  The people that love a combat veteran must love them enough to accept the person they have become if they ever hope to help that veteran to heal. They must accept the fact that the person they knew before the war, is a casualty of that war, and will never return.

That is the only hope a combat veteran has of surviving their return to the world.  Our veterans have sacrificed so much for us.  We must not abandon our soldiers.  We must accept them, love them, and do everything within our power to help them as they struggle to survive their homecoming.   Returning veterans may not be the same people we remember them as, but they are still our husbands, fathers, sons and daughters, neighbors, and friends.  They have put their lives on the line, and they deserve our support.

If you want to get a better understanding of what I am talking about, I suggest you take the time to read “Heirs of Honor”. The author, my husband, lived the Vietnam War. He still lives it. His experiences will help you understand YOUR veteran better.

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