Thursday, May 29, 2014

Veteran Isolation: Conversations with the Old Vet

The Valhalla Project “Old Vet” is Gordon Cucullu, co-founder. His comments are based on real-life conversations we’ve had with Valhalla veteran participants and will appear frequently on our page. If you have questions or comments about decompression, transition, dealing with troubling issues, or things related, please send them to us.
Then: With SFC Harold Lane, Korea, 1970

Now:  Skills practice at Valhalla - 2014

“I feel like I’m all by myself, isolated with nobody to talk to. I never talk to my family or civilian friends about my experiences,” a veteran told me. “They don’t understand and never will, so I just avoid the subject.”

We hear this repeatedly from contemporary vets. So often that it has become a mantra. Why is this such a universal phenomenon?

It isn’t just with today’s veterans. This been a common thread at least throughout living memory. My grandfather, a veteran of both the Mexican Expedition to hunt down Pancho Villa and World War I, never spoke of his experiences. I only learned about his history in the most cursory manner by cleaning out his footlocker of military orders, decorations, papers, and memorabilia after his death.

When I was a kid every male adult I knew who was my father’s age had served in the Second World War. None ever discussed their experiences with family save for a few humorous anecdotes. The only times I ever heard about the “real war” was while hanging around them when they were with relatives and friends who had similar experiences. Even then I was cautioned not to repeat anything I heard to my mother or to my friends.

What makes your situation today different – and this trend has been growing in our society since the Korean War – is that fewer and fewer of your friends back home have shared experiences. Compared to WWII with 16 million-plus Americans in uniform, Korea – with far fewer – was treated by the country as a sideshow. No one particularly cared about their experiences and few of their contemporaries shared it.

Vietnam saw a larger uniformed group directly involved in the war, although still a relatively small proportion of society compared to WWII. On return they found a society both hostile and indifferent. Stumbling into people who openly castigated them for a plethora of myths promulgated by hostile elements in the political, academic, entertainment, and media class, they mostly clammed up or even hid their service.

While there was widespread public acclaim for the military after the Gulf War it was short-lived, as was the conflict, and many ascribed the public’s over-reaction as societal guilt over the crappy treatment given to Vietnam vets. Regardless, the war started and ended quickly with relatively few casualties, a characteristic that appealed enormously to short-attention-span Americans.

Now, almost 13 years into a post-9/11 attack series of war, the American public has been neither asked nor required to sacrifice an iota of discomfort. Yet you volunteered to make a sacrifice and that makes you very different in the eyes of your fellow citizens. And your being different makes some people uncomfortable.

With less than 1% of the population having served, many of you will inevitably feel a sense of isolation from your civilian friends, neighbors, and even family members. At times some of you may become overwhelmed by this sense of isolation while at the same time missing the comradeship that came with living and working alongside battle buddies who shared a common purpose far away from home.

This is absolutely normal and understandable – I certainly felt this way myself after leaving the military after two decades. Yet few civilians understand since they have lived under very different circumstances.

For any civilians who are reading this article in a quest to comprehend what our vets are experiencing, try to imagine taking a person out of combat during which he has lived with the most intense emotions (including an indescribable bonding experience with his fellow unit members), place him back in civilian life where he is often viewed with suspicion and morbid curiosity, isolate him from his comrades, then perhaps fill him full of a witch’s brew of prescribed psychotropic drugs. 

Pile on a load of additional factors: high unemployment with little chance of finding a profession that affords either the intense emotional experience of combat or the brotherhood that results. A society preoccupied with trivia and entertainment, blissfully ignorant of world affairs and without an inkling of what military service entails or the experiences that it generates. Friends and family who have moved on with their lives while he is deployed and have little interest and less understanding of what happened while he was gone.

And we wonder why the suicide rate is so high? Let’s talk more about this in our next conversation.


P.S. If you see yourself having some of these issues maybe a stay at Valhalla Project can help. Contact us by email or phone and we’ll talk.

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Just getting a project like Valhalla up and running has required a significant investment in time, money, and labor. With roughly $500,000 already invested over the last two years into the Valhalla Project for property acquisition, feeding and housing Soldier participants, infrastructure and facility improvements, animal purchases and feed, tools and building supplies, forest and pasture management expenses, and much much more, resources are running thin. We need YOUR help to keep Valhalla functioning efficiently - while at the same time expanding vitally important programs to assist post-9/11 combat Soldiers and war zone civilian workers to transition back into the civilian world. 

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1 comment:

  1. I just found your site because I'm making my own keyhole garden. I just want to thank you for what you are doing. My much beloved older brother is long term US army. He has served three tours of duty in afghanistan. One as a 240 gunner on a convoy, two as a medic running with spec ops teams. I watched him strugle to re-adjust to civilian life every time he came home, knowing that in another 18 months he'd be going back. I watched him struggle not to dive behind shelter when firecrackers went off, and listened to him sheepishly tell me that they sounded just like an AK 47. I listen to him and I know that I can never really understand. He has made the adjustment to come back to us, but I saw how hard it was, and I know that there are so many who can't. What you are doing is so needed. you will bless so many service members and so many families. All of us who love those who serve owe you a debt of gratitude. Please, keep going. I will be following your progress with interest, and I hope that some day in the future I can donate.