Veterans Day, Observed

I had to work today – so I drove in to work, but, as it happened, I ended up listening to a New Yorker – Out Loud podcast:

From the website: “In the current issue of The New Yorker, Dexter Filkins writes about an ex-Marine seeking forgiveness from the family of the Iraqi civilians his unit killed. Here Filkins talks with Nicholas Thompson and George Packer about the ongoing effects of the Iraq War on those who were there, and why the rest of the country has yet to deal with the legacy of a war we largely ignored.”

I had heard the story a few days earlier, on another podcast – NPR’s Fresh Air – when host Terry Gross interviewed Dexter Filkins and the ex-Marine, Lu Lobello spoke about the experience of forgiveness and moving on from an unimaginable tragedy.

And, yesterday, I was near tears when reading the story in the Washington Post magazine, “Soldier of Kindness“.  The story was about Army Lt. Col. David Cabrera, a licensed clinical social worker who chose to go to Iraq, and was killed when a suicide bomber driving a van loaded with explosives careened into the vehicle Cabrera was riding in.  As I was reading, J peeked over my arm, and asked about the picture of the funeral procession:

J was struck by the two boys – are they the dead man’s sons?  he asked.

Yes, they are.

Is that you, Mommy? (pointing to the widow, who has curly hair like mine, although hers is a gorgeous red, and i’m just salt and pepper brunette).

No, that’s not me, honey, that’s the mommy of the two boys in the picture, and she was married to the man who died.

I grew up in a militantly left-wing, anti-military family, and my image of soldiers was straight out of the 60’s counter-cultural iconography:

Flower Power by Bernie Boston

Military personnel were never depicted in sympathetic terms in our home.

And then, I met “my” vets – the patients that I took care of in the primary care clinic at the Baltimore Veterans Administration Medical Center during my residency training in Internal Medicine.

These men were lovely people.  Gentle, thoughtful, and most had gone to do their duty, and most came home without complaining about the sacrifices they had made.  Especially the WWII vets.  They never complained.

The movie “Saving Private Ryan” came out while I was in my residency training, and I was, like so many in the general public, blown away by the opening scenes of the landing on Normandy.  I happened to see my first patient the following week, and he was a WWII vet.  I told him I had just seen the film, and asked him if he’d seen if, and what he thought of it.  This gentleman was one of those people who always has a smile on his face, and is always optimistic.

His face became grave, and he met my gaze with an intense look in his eye, and said “I will not go see that movie – I was there on that beach, and I don’t want to relive that experience.”

I felt ashamed, but it brought home to me that war is not an icon, or a symbol – it is a real experience that brings pain and suffering, terrible nightmares, and sometimes death, to those who must go bravely into the heart of the conflict.

And, as the New Yorker piece and the interview with Dexter Filkins and George Packer discusses, there is a huge disconnect between the experience of the 1% of our society that has participated actively in the Iraq and Afghan wars of this past decade, and the other 99% of us who stay home, and, in most cases, have no direct connection with the experience of executing these wars that we have committed our national resources and soldiers to.

Getting to know vets in person allowed me to move from an extreme position of vilification and stereotyping of the military to a deep respect and appreciation for the dedication and willingness to accept the deepest burdens and wounds.

To all our veterans – I salute you.  Our nation owes you and incalculable debt of gratitude.

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