When I began listening to veterans years ago, I discovered the power of this simple act. These veterans are the forward observers for the rest of us. They have encountered the most extreme situations, fought for their lives, seen buddies blown apart, killed other human beings and forged intense bonds with other service members. They have experienced the most powerful emotions — positive and negative — that anyone can have. All of that, combined with the honesty of the veterans who spoke to me, made these sessions sacred time.
An Iraq war veteran who was built like an NFL tackle told me that he had gone to Iraq to protect America, believed that he had liberated the Iraqis and would go back in a moment if he had not been so horribly injured in an attack there. I said nothing, just waited. And then he said, “But every night, I hear a woman scream.” He went on: “There was a woman across the street from us, and we thought she had dynamite and was going to kill us. So I killed her.” Again, I waited. He said, “And, um, it turned out she did have dynamite and was going to kill us.” Again, I maintained silent contact, keeping my eyes on him. “But every night I hear her scream, because, well, I wasn’t raised to kill.”
At some point in the sessions, the listeners would say, “If I had been through what you just described, I am sure that I would be feeling what you are feeling, and that is not a mental illness but a deeply human response to war.” In that single sentence, weight was lifted from the emotional rucksacks they had brought back from war. More veterans than I can count have treasured that statement and held it close.
As veterans open up in these listening sessions, they can more easily give voice to what else they need — from practical help finding jobs, shelter or medical care, to grappling with moral and existential crises, to turning from a culture of defense, attack and destruction to one of connection, creativity and care.
The next step for all of us is to make Veterans Day, 11/11/11, a National Day of Listening to Veterans, as one Vietnam vet suggested to me. If every civilian listens to one veteran’s story, we will become a war-literate nation, a country filled with people who know a great deal about what our 23 million veterans have been through and what many of them still live with. We will become a real community, where veterans know that their pain will be heard and understood.
Paula J. Caplan, a clinical and research psychologist, is a fellow in the Women in Public Policy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She is the author of “When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans.”
Read more from Outlook, friend us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.