The combat phase of the campaign in Iraq is winding down and now the hardest job of all begins-winning the peace. Soon many of our fellow citizen-Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsman-both active and reserve will return home with their units or as individuals. All have served and participated in an extraordinary campaign of liberation that was fought in a manner that reflected not only the determination of the American people to do what was necessary but also reflective of our value to spare life whenever and wherever possible.
As these veterans begin returning home and people are asking themselves what they can do to celebrate their return, honor their service and remember those that have fallen in the performance of their duty. After every war or major conflict, there are always concerns about the emotional state of returning veterans, their ability to readjust to peaceful pursuits and their reintegration into American society. People naturally ask themselves "what can we do or what should we do?" The purpose of this message is to offer that there are three very important gifts that we personally and collectively as a society, can give to these returning veterans. They are "understanding, affirmation and support".
With "understanding", I am not speaking of sympathy, empathy, consoling or emotional analysis. Rather, I offer that we, to the best of our ability, need to comprehend some of the combat truths learned and experienced by these returning servicemen and women. Their perspectives and their personal experiences will shape each of them and our society in large and small ways for years to come. Though we were not there, our comprehension and respect for their "truisms" will be part of the gift that will truly last them and us for a lifetime.
The truth every combat veteran knows, regardless of conflict, is that war is about combat, combat is about fighting, fighting is about killing and killing is a traumatic personal experience for those who fight. Killing another person even in combat, is difficult as it is fundamentally against our nature and the innate guiding moral compass within most human beings. The frequency of direct combat and the relative distance between combatants is also directly proportional to the level of combat stress experienced by the surviving veteran. Whether the serviceman or woman actually pulled the trigger, dropped a bomb or simply supported those who have, I've yet to meet any veteran who has fought and found their contribution to or the personal act of killing another human being particularly glorious. Necessary-Yes. Glorious or pleasurable-No. In combat, the veteran must psychologically distance themselves from the humanity of their opponent during the fight. The adversary becomes a target or an objective or any number of derogatory epithets that separates "them from us". Combat becomes merely business-a job that has to be done, part of your duty and killing-a necessary result. It's a team job that needs to be done quickly, efficiently, unemotionally and at the least cost in lives to your unit, to innocents and with the most damage inflicted in the least time to your adversaries. Then you and the team move forward again to the next danger area and fight. The only sure way home is by fighting through your opponents as quickly and efficiently as possible. Along the way you quietly hope or pray that your actions will: be successful; not cause the loss of a comrade; the death of an innocent; or that you'll become one of the unlucky casualties yourself. You stay despite your fears because the team-your new family of brothers or sisters, truly needs you and you'd rather die than let them down. You live in the moment, slowly realize your own mortality and also your steadily rising desire to cling to and fight hard for every second of it. You keep your focus, your "game face" on and you don't allow yourself the luxury of "too much reflection" or a moment's "day dreaming" about home, loved ones, the future or your return. You privately fear that such a moment of inattention may be your or worse, because of you, a comrade's last.
So if I may caution, please don't walk up to a combat veteran and ask him or her if they "killed" anyone or attempt well meaning "pop" psychoanalysis. These often-made communication attempts are awkward and show a lack of understanding and comprehension of the veteran. They also reveal much about the person who attempts either one. Instead, please accept there is a deep contextual gap between you both because you were not there. This chasm is very difficult to bridge when veterans attempt to relate their personal war experiences. Actual combat veterans are the one's least likely to answer the question or discuss the details of their experiences with relative strangers. Most likely they will ignore you and feel as though they were truly "pilgrims" in a strange land instead of honored and appreciated members of our Republic. So accept and don't press. One note of personal caution for your awareness- If a combat veteran does answer or appear to openly revel in the number of adversaries they've personally slain then they either haven't or they are likely part of society's 2% sociopaths. In either case, I would recommend you beware and quietly distance yourself. Their enthusiasm and behavior are not normal for a true combat veteran. But here is what you can do. Don't ignore them or the subject. Please feel free to express your "gladness at their safe return" and ask them "how it went or what was it like?" These questions are open-ended and show both your interest and concern. They also allow the veteran to share what they can or want. In most cases, the open door will enable them to share stories of close friends, teammates or some humorous moments of which they recall. Again, just ask, accept but don't dig or press.
The second gift is "affirmation". Whether you were personally in favor of the war or against it no longer matters at this point. As a Republic and a people we debated, we decided and then we mustered the political and societal willpower to send these brave young men and women into combat in hopes of eventually creating a better peace for ourselves, for the Iraqi people and for an entire region of the world. More than anything else, the greatest gift you can personally give a returning veteran is a sincere handshake and words from you that "they did the right thing, they did what we asked them to do and that you are proud of them". We need to say these words often and the returning combat veteran truly needs these reassurances. Also please fly your flag and consider attending one or more public events with your families as a visible sign of your support and thanks. Nothing speaks louder to a returning veteran than the physical presence of entire families. Those Americans attending these events give one of their most precious gifts-their personal time. Numbers matter. Personal and family presence silently speaks volumes of affirmation to those you wish to honor.
The third gift is "support". Immediately upon return there will be weeks of ceremonies and public praise applauding the achievements of the returning units and their veterans. But the pace of life in America is fast and it will necessarily move rapidly onward towards the next event. Here is where your support is most needed to sustain the returning veteran and you can make the most difference in their lives for years to come. Continue to fly your flag. If you are an employer, then simply do your best to hire a veteran who is leaving service or if he or she was a Guardsman or Reservist, welcome them back to a new job within the company. All reserve personnel know that the economic life of the company has continued in their absence. It has to do so in order for the company to survive and prosper. They also know it is likely their jobs have since been filled. Returning veterans are always unsure whether or not they will find or have employment upon return. As an employer, if you can't give them an equivalent job because of downsizing then extend them with your company for three to four months so they can properly job hunt. Please take a personal interest in them and their families and use your extensive list of personal and professional contacts to help them land a better job-even if it is with one of your competitors. The gratitude they will feel for you, your personal actions and your company is beyond words.
For everyone else, the greatest gift you can give to continue support will take 10 seconds of your time. In the years to come, if ever your paths cross with one of the hundreds of thousands of veterans of this or any other conflict, then simply shake their hand and tell them "thanks" and that "they did a great job!" Your words show you understand, you affirm their service and you continue to support them. Teach your children to do the same by your strong example. Though veterans may not express it, every one of them will be grateful. If this message rings true with you, then let us each give these returning veterans these three gifts that will truly last them a lifetime.
Web Author's Note
I've kept a couple articles, two written by Peter Maass of the New York Times, and one from the Boston Globe, that can help you understand the impact of the events our Marines have been involved in during Operation Iraqi Freedom. They are graphic depictions as only Peter Maass could portray after being embedded with the Third Battalion, 4th Marines. If you'd like to read them, the links are below:
- New York Times: (Marines) of Misfortune
First off I want people to understand that there is more than just combat. We're not seeing fighting at all times. Sometimes accidents happen.
- New York Times: Blood and Grunts
To take Baghdad, marines of the Third Battalion fought the old-fashioned way, just as they'd been trained -- by shooting as many of the enemy as they could.
- Boston Globe: Ambush shatters sense of ease
NEAR BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Before dawn yesterday, advance parties for the Second Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment's four gun batteries moved to scout what they figured might be the unit's final location of the war. As the convoy rolled through the eastern Baghdad suburbs, the Marines shared a sense of relief that the end of their piece of the war seemed near. Then, just as the sun came up, the Marines drove into an ambush.
- Military.com: Lessons Learned From USMC Warriors in Iraq
Editor's note: This message was submitted anonymously by a Marine war correspondent in Iraq. Here he highlights some reports directly from the field.