Memorial Day is supposed to be about honoring our nation’s fallen, and I would like to write about them. I want to write about people who have given their lives defending our country, and their loved ones. However, I don’t know anyone who died in a war. In fact, I currently know one person who lost their loved one in a war. One.
My family has served. My uncle Greg served in the navy in World War II, and his wife Adelaide was a WAVE. They met at a Navy base in Pensacola, where they worked training soldiers for combat. My Uncle John served under General Patton and stormed his way through Europe, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. I barely know any of his stories. We lived far away and saw him infrequently. When we did get together, my uncle was not telling war stories around the dining room table. His generation saved the world, came home, and just got on with their lives.
My father served; he was drafted into the army after college. My dad was a gifted musician and a sensitive guy. The army took one look at him and knew he was no fighter. First, he trained to be a telegraph operator, but the dots and dashes always sounded at the same tone, which drove my musical father batty. He asked to be transferred. My dad finally settled in as the conductor of the chaplain’s choir at Fort Dix. For three years he conducted and wrote fantastic 3-part men’s arrangements of songs (“Tommy’s Gone to Ilo,” “The Leaky Boat”) That was my father’s service: quirky, charming, but entirely safe.
I don’t know anything about what it is like to fight and die for this country, beyond what I saw in Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. As a psychologist, I do know about what soldiers have to do emotionally to fight. I have worked with many men who learned to quash their emotions to survive. In battle, it is imperative not to be awash with panic and terror. The only way to accomplish a battle objective is to keep focusing on the goal. If a person stops to say, “My god, this is awful. How did I get here? I’m terrified!” he/she will never be able to do what the entire unit is counting on him to accomplish.
So, soldiers learn to push those feelings down. They learn through repetitive drilling. They learn through arduous training. They learn through role modeling, which can involve mocking the sensitive. They learn how not to feel, but it comes at a cost.
Many a war veteran has landed in my office, with a disappointed spouse. Their wife (it is usually the wife) is looking for emotional connection, for intimacy, and sharing. The veteran no longer even understands what his wife is talking about. “I’m reliable. I support us. I don’t have any feelings to talk about. I’m fine. Why aren’t you?” Once people learn to suppress their feelings to survive, it can be hard to turn their feelings back on again.
I worked in a rehabilitation hospital in the 1990s. Quite a few of the patients were aging World War II veterans, and some of them had developed dementia. I remember one proud veteran who talked non-stop about France, Belgium and Germany. I heard many gruesome battle stories about his buddies who died and how he managed to survive. Later, when I met his family, I remarked on the veteran’s vivid battle tales.
“He talked to you about that?” asked his wife, with a shocked tone.
“Yes, he was spell-binding. Doesn’t he talk to you?”
“We have been married for 50 years and I never heard those stories.”
I don’t think this veteran shared his war tales with me because he was grateful to have psychotherapy. I think he talked to me because he had mild dementia, which lowered his learned inhibitions, finally allowing him to talk. He no longer remembered the military training of “we don’t talk about feelings.” This training had fallen away, and now he could finally share what he had seen and been through.
I don’t know what it is like to serve. I know that I myself would be terrible at it. I am too emotional, too sensitive, and I have never even been in a fist fight. I don’t know what it’s like to lose a loved one to war. My family fought, but we were fortunate. Conducting the Fort Dix choir is not a death-defying act of service.
Aren’t we lucky, all of us who don’t know what it’s like to fight in a war? Aren’t we lucky to feel secure in our homes, able to feel our feelings, able to go on with our ordinary lives and ordinary problems? Other people carry that load for us, other people, and other families.
If there is anything in this piece that sounds ignorant about wartime, I apologize in advance. I truly am ignorant about wartime. Despite this ignorance, I honor the military; I know that my ignorance is a privilege.
To all the military and their families, thank you for your service. May we always remember those who laid down their lives for us, on this Memorial Day, and on every day.