In his book Achilles in Vietnam, Dr. Jonathan Shay warns about what happens — to both the veteran and his community — if the veteran’s stories are never shared:
“We can never fathom the soldier’s grief if we do not know the human attachment which battle nourishes and then amputates. Failure to communalize grief can imprison a person in endless swinging between rage and emotional deadness as a permanent way of being in the world.”
According to Kevin Sites, author of The Things They Cannot Say, “Without the demythologized, demystified, authentic experiences of war being shared by those most directly involved in it, society itself will remain ignorant of the real practice of war, its costs and consequences.”
One veteran who has made it her mission to lift the veil that enshrouds most veterans’ experiences is Yvette M. Pino. In 2009, Pino started The Veteran Print Project with the goal of giving veterans an opportunity to tell their stories to artists, who in turn would help express these stories through fine art prints.
“When I was in college studying art,” Pino told me, “there was this real disconnect between me and my classmates. Very few of them even knew someone who had been in the military, and during critiques, whenever it was my turn to talk about my work, I got the feeling that no one really wanted to hear about my experiences in the military.”
“Our main goal,” Pino continues, “is to bring together veterans and artists and to help open up a dialogue between them.” One print in particular that speaks to this sense of frustration — and urgency — regarding veterans and their stories is “Young Survivor,” which was created by artist Mathew J. Bindert and tells the story of Vietnam veteran Guadalupe “Lupe” E. Renteria.
“It was an amazing experience and privilege,” writes Bindert, “sitting down with Corporal Renteria, hearing his story and looking through his photos from Vietnam. It was clear,” Bindert continues, “that he felt if his and other veterans’ stories were not told that less would be learned from war.”
In all of his courses, Capps tells veterans there are two reasons to get their stories down. The first reason is that doing so can help veterans better control their traumatic memories. This, however, requires only that the story be written. The second reason veterans should write down their stories, argues Capps, is to bear witness — as the ancient Greeks did — which requires that the story be shared.
Capps says that those who didn’t fight need to know what happened, and they need to know about the struggles faced by those who fought for us. And in its own right, he says, bearing witness helps veterans heal. It makes them less isolated and offers them a new mission. It softens the blow of leaving behind one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives because it is a way to stay connected to it.
Over the past four years, I have asked the veterans I work with to relive the worst memories of their lives — to expose his trauma to the light of day. In the end, having their stories of war validated by friends, family, and their respective communities has been a critical step in their journeys home. Sharing the burden of war –and having it acknowledged — has helped them to understand and to heal.
Above all else, veterans need a way to talk about extremely painful experiences. They need a way to figure out what it means to survive and come home. And they need a way to turn off the disconnected numbness they were forced to turn on in order to survive combat.
As Dr. Tick has written: “In contrast to stress reduction strategies that counsel avoidance or disturbing memories, the healing cleansing of veterans can only occur when we relive memories and their accompanying feelings so that they may be expressed and relieved.”
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