Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Generations of Veterans

During my Chaplain Residency at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital and Rainbow Hospice, I was required to conduct a research project for possible publication. After going through many ideas, I settled upon a project of providing clinical guidance to social workers, nurses, and chaplains (among others) in how to listen to the stories of veterans. The project idea actually began during my ministerial internship at the Unitarian Church of Evanston, when the Church Historian and I conducted a project to record the stories of the veterans in our congregation.

While the project details a listening style designed to privilege the story of the veteran and challenge the listener to set aside their own pre-conceptions and assumptions, as I have given the workshop on it in multiple locations it is not the listening style itself that seems to be what most people find important. No, each time I have presented the workshop, people come up to me afterward and tell me how profound the idea of different “Generations of Veterans” was for them.

As we approach Veterans Day this coming Thursday, we will be thinking about veterans and the specific issues they face in the coming days. I plan on writing several articles on veteran’s issues this week.

My research in providing clinical guidance for how to listen to veterans led me to the belief that, while generalities among the experiences of veterans will always fail in their specifics, that there were some commonalities among veterans who were in the military during specific combat actions. During the workshop, I go through each of the major wars or conflicts that American troops were involved in during the last 70 years, and I try to highlight some of the commonalities of experience. In doing so, I am also tracing the recent evolution of warfare, and how that shift affects soldiers.

The soldiers who fought in the jungles of Vietnam had a very different experience of combat and war than did the soldiers who landed on the beaches of Normandy. In Vietnam, they were often in isolated outposts or patrols, while in WWII they fought in huge divisional (or higher) formations. In Vietnam the soldiers faced an enemy that consisted mostly of “irregular” soldiers, insurgents, while in WWII they often faced structured and organized formations. The WWII Veterans often had a long, slow boat ride home in which to tell stories with other soldiers, process the experience, and prepare to be civilians again. Vietnam Veterans got on a plane in Vietnam and hours later were on their way back to their hometowns. WWII Veterans came home to tickertape parades and an economy geared for their success. Vietnam Veterans came home to a hostile media and often a hostile public, and an economy that was moving toward a recession.

Is it any wonder that WWII Veterans and Vietnam Veterans sometimes have difficulty understanding each other and connecting with each other’s experience? Their experience of war and of combat were not only different, but diametrically opposed. And yet, in the public mind, they are all often tied up together in the category of general experience we call “VETERAN”.

Nor is the difference between WWII Veterans and Vietnam Veterans the extent of the difference. Korea Veterans have told me that they felt like they were “second-class” to the WWII Veterans, because they never won their war. They were never welcomed home in victory. Now, some of the soldiers in WWII became leaders in Korea, but they had already “proved” themselves. For those for whom Korea was their first combat action, they had looked up to their older brothers and cousins who had fought in WWII, and now this, Korea, was their chance. But there were no ticker tape parades, no victory dances… just a war that was not won, only stalemated.

At least the public remembered there had been a Korean War, however. Ask the Veterans of Bosnia, Kosovo, Panama, and Grenada what it feels like to come home to a nation whose “news cycle” had already moved on from your combat deployment before you even get home… Or how the Desert Storm Veterans felt when the news cycle about their combat experience was focused on whether or not they were faking the symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome.

For a long while, the Afghanistan Veterans felt like second class citizens as compared to those who had served in Iraq. This is still somewhat true in the public perception, if perhaps not so true within the military anymore. I had a soldier tell me that, when he told someone that he had served in Afghanistan, the person replied “Oh, I thought you were in the REAL war!” Now that Afghanistan is getting all the attention, and “Operation Iraqi Freedom” has become “Operation New Dawn”, those serving in Iraq now are feeling some of what the Afghanistan veterans felt.

None of this even begins to capture the full scope of the differences between the different “generations” of veterans. Nor does it include all of those veterans who served in peacetime, or all of those veterans who served in non-deployed roles during wartime. Each of those experiences of being a veteran is also very unique and different from that experience of anyone deployed into a combat zone. Add to it that each soldier, sailor, airman, guardian or Marine is an individual, and that each has an individual experience of their military service.

So, as we “celebrate” Veterans Day (which is what we do in this country, right or wrong), and as we have this generalized and sanitized image of the Veteran, the heroic, stoic, patriotic VETERAN fed to us by politicians and by the media, I want to remind you of one thing.

It is not that simple. Not nearly that simple.

Yours in faith,

Rev. David

2 Thoughts on “Generations of Veterans

  1. David – thank you for this. The faces of family members and friends came into my mind as I read – my late father and his brothers (WWII – Europe), my father-in-law (Korea, though he was posted elsewhere), my cousins (Vietnam), my nephew (Desert Storm), you and a couple others from seminary, others I’ve known over the years. This is important work you’re doing, my friend.

    Thank you for your service.

  2. Pingback: Being welcoming, military chaplaincy, Unitarian humor, and more UU blogging « uuworld.org : The Interdependent Web

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