Watch for video coverage from last week’s event and hear the veterans’ stories yourself Wednesday on Veterans Day at at gainesvilletimes.com.
Americans who haven’t served in the military should try to understand what we have asked of the young men and women who have laid their lives on the line for our benefit. We can’t really walk in their boots and share the full experience of combat and beyond. But even if we can comprehend just a bit of the dangers they endured overseas, and the challenges they now face back home, we can better fathom the human cost of war. In doing so, we should wisely choose leaders who don’t lead us into them carelessly.
If there ever is a time worthy of that effort, it is Veterans Day, when we acknowledge sacrifices that also should be noted the other 364 days.
Thursday night, a couple dozen people opened their ears and minds at The Times’ Voices event held at Scott’s on the Square in downtown Gainesville. The event gathered four military veterans of various experiences to share their stories. And amazing stories they were, not works of fiction on a big screen penned by a Hollywood writer, but the real thing, raw, unfiltered and riveting.
On the surface, the only common trait each had was their time in uniform, their experiences varied and unique. But a few shared themes emerged from their narratives: Each had to endure the terror of the great unknown, overcome by relying on each other and on faith.
Gabe Shippy, an Army veteran who served in South Korea for two years, spoke of staring through binoculars across the Demilitarized Zone, the heavily fortified border separating the democratic South with the communist North. He told of the training exercises and heightened alert U.S. forces experienced whenever tensions erupted that “reminded you why you were there,” never knowing when the unstable regime in Pyongyang might again spark the conflict halted by an uneasy truce more than 60 years ago.
The Rev. Evelyn Johnson told of her hitch as an Army medic in the Vietnam War era, treating soldiers with devastating physical and psychological injuries. She spoke of further pain inflicted on troops returning to a nation divided by the war and who were met by scorn, not parades. Johnson’s unknown was in how she and her patients together endured such mind-wrenching trauma.
“I wanted to pull you from where you are now and move to the next level,” she said of her healing efforts with horribly wounded troops. “So we would pray hard and work hard to lift their spirits and move beyond the moment.”
Marine veteran Aaron McKeithan served in Afghanistan, and now attends the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus. He spoke of a different unknown: the difficult transition he and his fellow veterans face in returning to civilian life. What would seem a blessed opportunity is in fact a daunting challenge for veterans accustomed to the structure of military life. For many, that uncertainty has led to psychological problems, addiction and often suicide.
“It’s frustrating to suddenly have to make your own decisions,” he said. “People don’t think the same. ... Some just can’t handle it.”
Last up was Andrew Pedry, a former Marine scout sniper in the Iraq War, now a teacher at Riverside Military Academy, where he seeks to give his students an appreciation of the history he lived and what it means when our nation goes to war. He told of the uncertainty Marines felt when they first rode into battle, never knowing when a rocket-propelled grenade would find their landing craft.
On missions, he faced “not knowing if you have to pull the trigger” as he and his team would wait, sometimes for days, in a copse of trees waiting for a target to emerge, ready to take action and extricate themselves quickly. Yet while hunkered down, would they be discovered by a dog or a child, perhaps followed by a group of armed men?
The great unknown, always lurking in the shadows, gnawing at soldiers’ psyche, lying in wait around the next bend or over the hill. How does one deal with the threat of such hidden danger?
Two ways of coping emerged from their tales. One is from veterans support groups, official and otherwise, where those who can relate to feeling the world closing in around them offer a sympathetic ear. Many who are haunted by their war experience and struggling to adjust need to reach out to each other for emotional help. Our nation is duty-bound to provide it in whatever way necessary.
Another is faith, itself a belief in what we can’t see. Relying on that greater unseen force and trusting its healing powers lifts veterans from the despair they encountered in a combat zone, a hospital or civilian transition. If the world you’re in is violent and unforgiving, leaning on the next is a saving grace.
“War is the most traumatic thing there is, and you can’t do it by yourself,” Pedry said. “You need something bigger and wiser than you. And that’s also why vets need to talk to each other.”
Our daily lives are full of uncertainties, but you can’t compare a flat tire or feverish child to the daily specter of death combat veterans endure, so we can only grasp it to a point. What we can do is create a society that honors their sacrifice by boosting the support systems, health care and job training they need to refocus their special skills back into civilian society. And one that goes to war in a thoughtful manner with clear objectives that value the human toll that must be paid.
And we also owe them this: We should continue to listen. As long as veterans will share their stories to help us better comprehend, they should have a willing audience.
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