Editor’s note: These remarks were given November 12th by Dr. Nancy Wolff at the annual Veterans Day ceremony put on by the Vietnam Veterans of America inmate chapter inside Graterford State Prison near Philadelphia. Dr. Wolff was the ceremony’s Special Guest Speaker. Also attending and speaking were Pennsylvania State Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery and former US Navy Vice Admiral and Congressman Joe Sestak. Several members of Philadelphia Veterans For Peace Chapter 31 attended, as did many others interested in justice as it relates to incarcerated veterans and the mitigating issue of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
By DR. NANCY WOLFF
My comments today were inspired by the words of General MacArthur. He said: “The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”
Thank you for selecting me to speak to you today about the consequences of war. In many ways, I’m the least qualified person to talk to you about war because I am a civilian. I have never been in combat; never cleaned, loaded, or shot a gun; never been trained and sanctioned to kill; never received an order to shoot; never been shot at or labeled an enemy combatant in a foreign land; never heard the sound of in-coming or the buzz of bullets zipping overhead; never had my buddy’s blood dripping off my helmet; and never had to carry a soldier in agonizing pain off the battle field. As a civilian, I’ve never lived these experiences or experienced their blowback as night terrors.
Civilians like me learn about the consequences of war first through TV. Images of death and destruction from war zones around the globe find their way into our safe living rooms during meal times but compete for our attention along with phone calls, school reports, and complaints about dinner. These TV images of war, while haunting, have been stylized and sanitized for our civilian eyes and ears. It’s not like being there. Saying we know of or about war through news images is like saying we understand prison by watching the movie Shawshank Redemption or the TV show OZ. TV cannot convey the reality of war or its consequences on those who have lived those experiences in real time.
The consequences of war become more real to us, civilians, when we see troops returned home in flag draped coffins carried by honor guards in front of weeping young widows holding infants; or when we see endless waves of white crosses at Arlington Cemetery and a convoy of backhoes digging there day after day after day; or when we see the thousands of names of young men and women chiseled in cold, dark granite at the Vietnam Memorial and other such war memorials around the country.
The consequences of war get more personal for those of us civilians who have received or sat with families who received unbidden calls, telegrams, and visits from officers in dress uniforms informing them that the bright eyed person who left their arms but months ago is forever gone – a casualty of war. We also see, after months of agonizing treatment and pain, the men and women who return from war missing arms, legs, eyes, ears, faces, skin – casualties of bullets, bombings, landmines, IEDs, and accidents – yet another consequence of war.
None of these ways of knowing the consequences of war approaches the first-hand experience of a veteran of war. I cannot know what your senses have experienced; what your eyes saw, fingers touched, ears heard, mouth tasted, nose smelled, or heartfelt. The horror of war, the reality of war, the true consequences of war — they are deeply and uniquely inside the heart and mind of a veteran. Our veterans alone suffer the consequences of what they were trained and ordered to do, what they saw, what they heard, what they felt, and what they know they did and did not do in the name of war.
Each veteran who sits here today left home a civilian. You left your safe, comfortable home wearing civilian clothes and carrying photos of wives, girlfriends, mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers, children, and homesteads. As you turned to leave, you waved bravely to your loved ones promising to return safely to the arms of the place you called home. You planned to return smarter, more skilled, more worldly, more mature, richer … more a man. You also expected to return the same man pictured on the family mantel; the man who your loved ones knew; the man who you knew you were; the man who was shaped by the place you called home.
This place called home raised you to be a good man; a man who opened doors for his elders and offered them seats on the bus; a man who loved and respected his parents, who wanted to provide for his family and watch his children grow up safely, a man who practiced the golden rule and helped people who were less advantaged; a man who believed that the government told the truth and that there were truly righteous causes; a man who believed in the goodness of humankind. These values fit you like the civilian clothes that you felt home in; they defined you; they gave you a sense of belonging to your family and community; they gave you comfort; they made you who you knew yourself to be.
Putting on a military uniform, however, requires more than exchanging one set of clothing for another. It requires extensive physical and military training, as well as the molding of a new mindset – a military mindset, where to be safe and to be honorable you must be prepared to kill a combatant upon command even if the person in your cross hairs is old, young, female, or known. Being a good soldier means doing as you were trained with precision and without hesitation. Indeed your best chance of making it out alive depended on you doing as you are told and as you were trained.
These consequences of war, however, become part of the man, not the uniform. It is the man who shoots the gun, throws the grenade, steps on the landmine, loads the bomb and pushes the button, bleeds, wretches, shits himself, watches the life slip away from a dying soldier, screams, cries, shakes, and wakes with a start night after night whether stateside or in theatre.
Even when the military uniform is replaced by civilian clothes, the sights and sounds of war remain deeply embedded within the man. The veteran of war has become what he has experienced and he is horrified – he just wants to be the good-natured, easy going guy in civilian clothes who was raised on Main Street, America. He wants to be who he was before he got his government issue. He wants to dream of graduating college, marrying his sweetheart, owning a home, raising his children, taking care of his aging parents, going on vacation, and so much more. Yet these images are crowded out by: the sights and sounds of enemy attacks in the middle of an arid desert or tropical jungle; the smell of fear, shit, and blood; the sights of dismembered body parts; the feel of his blade finding its target …. No relief …. no sounds of silence within the war torn mind and heart of a veteran of war.
Our veterans return home not feeling right in the clothes that once fit comfortably.
Our veterans return home not feeling right when they can’t meet the eyes of their loved ones for fear those love ones will see what they have seen and done.
Our veterans return home not feeling right when they walk the streets of the place they called home for their entire lives.
Our veterans return home not feeling right when they close their eyes at night or open them in the morning’s light.
The effects of war haunt many of our veterans of war — making them jumpy, angry, depressed, numb, hyper-vigilant, distrustful, anxious, and cautious. It is estimated that 31 percent of Vietnam Veterans and 21 percent of Iraqi war veterans have symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — PTSD. These estimates likely understate the prevalence of PTSD among them because many veterans mask their symptoms because they think they should.
It has never been customary for veterans of any war to talk about war, especially to their loved ones. War stays away from home. War stays away from the people that veterans love the most. It is their nature to protect us from harm, from the ugliness of war but, in so doing, they trap themselves in a war zone where they are both enemy and soldier. Their silence is their greatest challenge; their voice, their greatest liberator.
If I know anything about the consequences of war, it is because I was chosen to listen to our veterans of war. They have shared with me what they will not tell their wives, girlfriends, mothers, fathers, brothers, or friends. They have trusted me with their worst memories, with their most shameful and wretched experiences, and with their greatest vulnerabilities. They trusted me because they know that I would hold their stories without judgment and that I will believe in their inherent goodness at a time when they could not. They also know that I will do my best to help them voice, grieve, and heal. For those of you who have trusted me, I thank you and hope that I have justly honored you today.
I bow in gratitude to our veterans of war; the men and women who chose in their innocence to serve their country as soldiers and, as a result, bore the consequences of war. They are, however, the same men and women who left home in civilian clothes to serve their country. What war has taught them is what life teaches us all: We are human beings tested and shaped by experiences that expose the depth and breadth of the human condition. Experiences show us our potential but it is our wisdom combined with our self control that determines our moral character and our goodness as people. Our moral character is defined by what we learn from our experiences, not by the experiences themselves.
Throughout history, we have seen great acts of humanity and inhumanity – the bounds of the human condition. But who we are as a people — is defined not by these highs and lows but by the day-to-day way in which we take care of ourselves, our loved ones, and our neighbors. We decide every minute of every day which part of that human condition we will share with ourselves and others. We decide … will I smile, will I give a helping hand, will I forgive myself, will I give myself the chance to be the person I know I can be.
For every veteran here today, I hope you will decide to give voice to the silence, forgiveness to the torment and peace to the war.
Dr. Nancy Wolff is director of the Center for Behavioral Health Services and Criminal Justice Research at Rutgers University. Currently, her research focuses on developing reentry interventions that address the strengths and needs of people leaving prison and the public policies that hinder their reentry. She served as the editor of The Journal of Offender Rehabilitation and is the founder of Books Behind Bars, a literacy program inside prison, for which she received a Russell Berrie Award for Making a Difference in 2008. Her research-based publications are vast and focused on prison violence, trauma and, lately, inmate re-entry and community re-integration.