The Many Sides of Veterans Day

Happy Veterans Day just doesn’t feel right to me.

I mean, it’s a day I want to honor. And it is a happy occasion for many veterans: a day they can look back with pride on their service to their country, perhaps a day they can celebrate the educational and professional doors their service opened.

But it’s a complicated day for many others: for vets who still suffer from the physical, emotional, and spiritual wounds of warfare; for vets who are still struggling to make that difficult transition back into civilian life; for military families who experience today as a keen reminder that their spouse or parent or child is not yet a veteran, but still deployed — separated from their loved ones who know the risks they face.

Most of all, Veterans Day is difficult for families whose veterans are no longer with us. I confess that I’ve been one of those people who rarely gets through November 11th without mentally correcting the world, It’s not the same thing as Memorial Day. But I’ll be honest: today is the second day during the year when I wake up thinking of my cousin Mike, an Iraq veteran who committed suicide six years ago.

My cousin Mike's grave at Fort Snelling National Cemetery

Finally, there’s the most pertinent fact: most Americans experience this day at some kind of remove. We might remember and celebrate family and friends today, but most of us have not served ourselves.

Between active-duty and veterans, just over 7% of this country’s population has spent time in the military at some point. That was in 2015, when the veteran population was just under 21 million men and women, but the VA estimates that it will decline to 12 million within the next 25 years.

So increasingly, most Americans — myself included — are wishing someone else Happy Veterans Day, without knowing firsthand what it feels like to hear that greeting ourselves.

A Veterans Day parade in Pittsburgh, 2011 – U.S. Army

So let me share some resources that I taught last week in my Fog of War class.

In a week dedicated to the Psychology of War, my students first heard from my colleague Steven Lancaster, an Iraq veteran himself who often works with that population, studying military identity, post-traumatic stress disorder, and what’s called moral injury — the psychological effects that soldiers (and others) can experience as a result of transgressing a personal moral code.

To get some sense of how psychologists have worked with returning veterans long before PTSD became part of the vernacular, Steven recommended we watch a remarkable 1946 documentary called Let There Be Light. Filmed by the great director John Huston and left undistributed by the military until the 1980s, it documents WWII veterans who received treatment for wounds “of a neuropsychiatric nature” at Mason General Hospital in New York.

Then to turn to the deeply troubling problem of military and veteran suicide — still much higher than the national average, even as that overall number rises — last Wednesday we also watched portions of a 2016 TED talk by Richard Doss, a clinical psychologist who works in suicide prevention programs for returning veterans. Strikingly, while Doss starts with a story of moral injury resulting from an incident involving marines in Iraq, he quickly pivots to an unexpected research finding: suicide rates are not correlated with the experience of combat. In fact, most military and veteran suicides stem from stressors common to many Americans, like strained relationships and financial troubles. The problem, says Doss, is not necessarily military combat itself, but military culture.

Watch to the end, and Doss will suggest a simple, straightforward way for all of us to serve our neighbors who are veterans on this Veterans Day.