One of the largest gatherings to honor those from Keene who have died in service to our nation was held at the Keene Veteran's Memorial near the base of Spruce Hill on Monday, Memorial Day.
The weather was picture perfect. The service was held following a week of revelations and articles in the media about the tragic and expanding number of suicides in the military that has now reached 18 per week and includes more veterans of the Iraq-Afghanistan wars having died by suicide than as a result of wounds for combat.
"I hope we have gotten past the point where war has been an acceptable means of settling disputes to one where it has become too costly in lives lost and damage done," said Tom Smith, a combat veteran of Vietnam and the author of two books on his experiences, the most recent "Facing PTSD." "Veterans committing suicide is nothing new. What is new is the numbers of them doing so as is the length and number of their deployments, and the high percentage of reservists being called to combat duty."
"When you go to war you are taught to react to threats instantly and violently, impulsively and aggressively; this reaction is woven into you as a person as a normal part of your life. When you come home it is very hard to leave that behind. Today those in combat live with constant exposure to threats to their life. It instills anger within you and it conflicts with everything you are brought up to believe. Combatants today live with fear, and from fear comes anger. Within the military culture if you confide such fears you are considered weak. Also many are coming home with wounds that would have killed them in previous wars. Our soldiers and their families are paying a terrible price, our leaders need to find some other way of resolving differences."
"Going to war is a decent into hell. Every combat survivor is a witness to hell and comes back changed by that experience," said Dr. Ed Tick, author of Soldier's Heart.
Joseph Campbell, who studied the history of myths through the ages, described the hero's journey as containing three major parts, the first being the departure from the ordinary wherein one leaves all the rules and expectations of ordinary life behind, where the civilian life is often brutally deconstructed - a transition happens in a brutal way such as through boot camp for the soldier.
The second part he called the initiation wherein one leaves one condition or status and becomes another during a transformative moment; he described it as the death of the old self and the birth of the new. One may be called upon to witness or do some act that causes a fundamental shift.
The third part, and often by far the most difficult part, is the return. The challenge is that the person has radically changed while the society they left behind and now seek to reenter largely hasn't. What needs to happen is for the society to open up and welcome them home, which is especially difficult in the Unites States where less than 1 percent of the population is a part of the military community, and less than 2 percent of all Americans has seen combat (a percent dropping as more and more World War II and Korean veterans pass away). This disconnect is further amplified when one considers that 50 percent of active duty military have served in Iraq or Afghanistan and all of them know one or more who have died or been badly wounded.
"According to traditional American Indian beliefs," said Dr. Tick, "war affects a soldier's well being, and makes it difficult for him (or her) to live in the everyday world. For American Indians, returning home means returning to a place, a land, a community, a family, and a culture that you are part of, a place that you have a special relationship with. Participating in war interferes with your ability to be part of this place. It upsets the balance of life. This is why American Indian cultures developed special ceremonies to help bring the soldier's life back into balance to make it possible for the soldier to once again live in peace and to be physically, spiritually, emotionally, and mentally healthy."
Dr. Tick described PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) as a soul wound, a soul's cry of anguish. Such wounds not only happen to members of the military, but others who work in jobs that contain high levels of emotional stress or by people who have lived through some traumatic experience. People who have been through such experiences need safe spaces to connect to others who have had similar experiences, share their stories, participate in rituals to help their transition home and for society to welcome them, and to find a new mode of service.
Memorial Day services, like the one in Keene and others held throughout our region are an important part of the process, but the healing and listening needs to continue throughout the years and over the course of a person's life.
"Military families are getting messed up," said Charles Smith, a World War II veteran who served with the 10th Mt. Division in Italy. "There is not enough work for the returning vets (26 percent of homeless are veterans). The services they are getting through the VA (Veteran's Administration) are not as good as they should be."
What is true is that thanks to the efforts of Beth Pelkey and the support she and other volunteers have received from the town board, Wade Whitney, Keith Hendrickson, Steve Bowers, Jim Hall and many other dedicated volunteers and contributors to the Keene Veteran's Memorial Trust Fund a beautiful setting and memorial has and is being created to honor all who are serving and have served our nation, and each year more and more people come out to give thanks and prayers to those who have given so much.
In addition, the previous weekend, in partnership with Homeward Bound Adirondacks, and with funds from Strong Bonds, Creative Healing Connections (www.creativehealingconnections.org) held its first retreat for military spouses and will be holding 2 retreats this August for women veterans. Progress is being made.