Today is veteran’s day. I often think on these days of how societies normalize things that are terrible. Wars are terrible, and yet if we don’t fight them, home becomes terrible as well. No society can survive without people to protect it. So we create a military, with a culture of its own, with rules of its own, and this is how we “normalize” the hideous reality that young people are going off to face death. As a person obsessed with stories, I see this as another type of story, and another use for story. But not all stories are good, and sometimes I wonder if we have normalized this dark part of life too much.
Today’s Washington Post had some powerful coverage of the day. One was a front page story about three women who became friends because they share the same hideous experience — losing a child to war. Each one of them comes every Sunday to visit her son’s grave in Arlington Cemetery. Each has been doing it for years, and so, over the years, they’ve bonded. You can see a short video about them here.
So many things struck me about this story. One was a description of the raw grief that people feel when they lose someone:
“In the first years after her son was killed in Afghanistan, she raced to the cemetery to see his name etched into the headstone and sit among parents and spouses experiencing the same all-consuming sadness. Wives lay facedown in the new grass covering their husbands’ graves. Children worked nearby on crayon drawings.”
Another was a paragraph about one mother’s dreams for her son when he was a child: “Davis didn’t know much about the military when her 18-year-old son enlisted. During his school years, she decorated his room with signs meant to inspire him: Justin Davis: neurosurgeon,” read one. “Justin Davis: history teacher,” said another. After his starring role in his middle school’s production of “Bye Bye Birdie,” she added, “Justin Davis: actor.” The military was never something she wanted for her only son, especially not during a time of war.”
Finally, there was this image of the dead frozen in time: “Listening to the two soldiers, she is seeing her son still alive and seven years older.”
This is the reality of war, not just for the people who go, but for the ones left behind.
In the same newspaper, Chris Marvin, who founded a group to try and bridge the civilian-military divide in this country, wrote an opinion column. He starts off by talking about why he’s uncomfortable when people thank him for his service. He goes on to say that he’s part of a generation of soldiers who volunteered, and who want to serve, even after they’re out of the military. Thank yous make him and many veterans uncomfortable because service — in many forms — was a choice they made, and continue to make. He’d rather people reach out and talk to veterans, find out about their experiences, and what their lives are like now.
That’s a good point, but I think he’s missing something when he tells people there’s no need to thank veterans. There’s very much a need. We can’t fall prey to the story that this is normal. That some people choose the military as a line of work just as others choose to be a mechanic, or grocer, or lawyer, or doctor or actor. It’s not normal to put your life on the line, it’s not normal to lose a child, and we shouldn’t normalize it.
So veterans deserve thanks, every day, all the time, for choosing a path that is dangerous, sometimes heartbreaking, and so important. That’s the thank you I’d like to give today.