Finding ways to bring our veterans back home

Half a year after Gen. Peter Chiarelli told a packed audience at the UW that Seattle must take specific steps to help veterans cope with the lingering trauma of military service, how are we doing?

Family Reunion

Family Reunion Courtesy of King County Community and Human Services

General Peter Chiarelli, Vice Chief of Staff, U.S. Army

General Peter Chiarelli, Vice Chief of Staff, U.S. Army Courtesy Office of External Affairs, University of Washington

At a town hall meeting last May Gen. Peter Chiarelli urged his Seattle audience to do two things that work best for returning veterans. Reach out to them instead of waiting for them to ask for help. And create central points of connection among programs in the region to give vets better access to the variety of services they need, as well as to build more powerful programs in concert than any agency could develop alone.

Not doing these things would have serious consequences, Chiarelli said. The emotional isolation and alienation from society that so many military service members feel when they return from war will persist, and will keep them from seeking the support they have earned and deserve.

A remark from a young veteran during the closing Q&A at the town hall pointed to the need for proactively drawing veterans and their families into a wrap-around community embrace.

"We are different,” he said simply. “We need people who are getting a method to deal with us. We are different."

His words came back to me in June when I read George Saunders’ fictional story “Home” in The New Yorker, which captures the disturbing estrangement from family, former self, and homeland that afflicts a returned marine professionally trained to kill.

During Mikey’s tour in Iraq he was disciplined for an unspecified act of violence. Back home now, he finds his mom dying of heart disease and being evicted from his childhood home. The mother of his children has divorced him and married his old high-school pal, who has moved into the house that once was Mikey’s and who won’t let him see his own kids when he visits unannounced early in the story. Everyone is walking on eggshells.

At the story’s climax Mikey, simmering with lonely rage and helplessness, pays a second visit to the home of his children. He wants to see them and confront his ex-wife. He finds the entire clan, including his mother, and his sister and her infant son and in-laws, gathered there, perhaps to discuss what can be done about him. They nervously eye his every move — and Mikey's sudden impulse is to mow them all down. His mind is boiling:

What are you going to stop me with? Your girth? Your good intentions? Your Target jeans?... Your belief that anything and everything can be fixed with talk, talk, endless yapping, hopeful talk?... My face got hot and I thought, Go, go, go….

Then suddenly something softened in me, maybe at the sight of Ma so weak, and I dropped my head and waded all docile into that crowd of know-nothings, thinking, O.K., O.K., you sent me, now bring me back. Find some way to bring me back, you fuckers, or you are the sorriest bunch of bastards the world has ever known.

We sent them, and we must find some way to bring our former military members back. The extreme situation in Saunders’ story brings home larger truths not only about our veterans (including the vast majority who ordinarily manage to be at least as kind, gentle, and balanced as civilians manage to be) but also about our own responsibility.

Have our “good intentions” and “hopeful talk” led to ways of bringing Washington state’s 650,000 veterans (including our “Mikeys”) home in all possible meanings of the word — emotionally, physically, educationally, socially, and financially? Are Seattle and the region making progress on Chiarelli’s two major recommendations — reaching out to veterans and linking services?

Veterans, who are famously stoic and reticent about their troubles, can be hard for civilians to reach out to with concern. And working against the grain of the general’s second recommendation is the American “can-do, take-charge” ethic, subtly encouraging us as individuals and groups to operate as autonomously as possible.


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