Even before joining the Army, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried was a powerful read; going back and looking at it now, from the other side of military life, is even more meaningful.
In a further attempt to help keep the awareness of veteran mental health in the conversation, I thought I might go through what, in my experience, veterans carry today. This won’t be anything close to what Tim O’Brien writes, and it’s not a half-hearted attempt at flattery disguised as imitation, but it might be intriguing to you.
The main things that veterans today carry are names…the names of places. A lot of those names are well known: Baghdad, Ramadi, Kabul, Kandahar. They are places from less well-known deployments: Slavonski Brod, for example. They are even names from deployments long past, some slightly well known, such as Chosin Reservoir and the Ia Drang Valley, and some not very well known at all. Veterans carry the names of the places they lived, such as FOB Rustamiyah, Camp Leatherneck, OP Bari Ali. The carry the names of the places they fought: the Arghandab Valley, the Dora Market. Sometimes the names of the places they lived were also the names of the places they fought…COP Keating, Wanat, USS Cole.
Veterans carry the names of their units: The All American Division, The Screaming Eagles. Sky Soldier. The Big Red One. They carry the names of their mascots (both approved and unapproved) as both badges of honor and targets of scorn. They carry the names of their operations: Desert Saber (First Gulf War ground campaign), Hastings (Vietnam, ’66), Anaconda (Afghanistan, ’02). They carry these names in their thoughts, hanging on their walls, tattooed on their skin, in their dreams.
Most of all, veterans carry the names of the men and women they served with. The ones who made it back, and definitely the ones who didn’t. They carry with them the names of the battle buddies who did make it back, and then didn’t. I know veterans who are younger than thirty years old, with multiple deployments, who have lost more buddies since getting back from combat that they did during combat…and they carry that with them, too.
They carry memories with them. Memories they want to keep forever, memories they want to keep away forever, and painful memories that they never want to forget. Veterans carry the weight of their experiences, of which there are many, and which are heavy. Sometimes, sharing those burdens…sharing those memories…can make them seem less heavy, for a time.
If you know a veteran who is struggling, help them find a counselor or therapist that they can connect with. If it doesn’t work out the first time, keep looking, because when it finally does happen, all of the time searching will be worth it.
What names are you carrying? I’d like to hear what words you are still carrying with you, whether it has been three years, thirty years, or fifty years. Chances are, you’ll find someone who is carrying the same thing…and your veteran world will grow just a little more connected. Join me in the conversation, share with your networks and connections, me continue the mission, and let’s continue to keep #veteranmentalhealth in the conversation.