Building a National Memorial Matters

By Matt Mccallum

“When the satisfaction or the security of another person becomes as significant to one as one’s own satisfaction or security, then the state of love exists. Under no other circumstances is a state of love present, regardless of the popular usage of the term.” – Harry Stack Sullivan, psychoanalyst and founding contributor to the field of family therapy.

I first saw this quote while pursuing graduate studies in relationship and family therapy. Each time I read it, I think of military veterans. I think of great love amidst great violence, of laughter and tears, of adrenaline and exhaustion, of sweat and blood. I think of being twenty-four years old and deploying to Afghanistan with 40 of the finest and bravest people I have ever met. I feel goosebumps each time I remember how hard my platoon worked in the months of twenty-hour work days and field exercises leading up to deployment, during seven months of dangerous 24/7 work operations, and in the days and months and years after the deployment. There was a cohesion, a love, that sustained our morale and helped us support each other through austere, uncertain, and hostile conditions. The security of each member of the platoon was as important to each of us as was our own. And this love was so powerful that it extended outward to include the security of all of our loved ones, friends, and neighbors back home, wherever that was for each of us.

While all members of my platoon made it back “safe” from my first deployment, that term can be inadequate or even misleading. I came home safe then, and now I live with PTSD every day. Some of my former platoon-mates have experienced instability in housing, employment, and finances, some have experienced addiction and mental health challenges, and likely there are many more service-connected difficulties than I am even aware. Most of us went on to at least one more deployment. I deployed to Afghanistan a second time, and that tour proved far more complex and challenging for me than the first. Seven months of chronic stress, high demands, limited resources, physical danger, frequent tragedy, limited grieving opportunities, moral ambiguity, limited connection to family and loved ones across the earth, and deep questions of effectiveness and purpose left me with psychic and spiritual wounds from which I am still trying to heal.

That is what this blog post is really about – moving toward healing. I believe that this is an individual path for each of the more than 2.5 million veterans of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). I also believe that healing entails engaging in an individual process requiring some degree of vulnerability and integration that stands in stark contrast to the military culture of team-centered stoic compartmentalization from which we came. While we must all navigate our paths to healing on our own, there are physical places that we can create along the way to serve as rally points to gather together, grieve together, reflect together, and support each other on our post-military life journeys. A memorial on our National Mall for GWOT veterans and their families is one such place.

I, like many other veterans, have lost several friends to training accidents, combat, and suicide. At least six of my former coworkers who survived deployments overseas have died by suicide. This hurts by itself, and it hurts even more to know that more will die this way. I wake up frequently with the thought, “has anyone I know died today?” This is as scary and tragic to me as September 11, 2001, my original impetus for serving. I have even experienced the soul-wrenching paradox of continuously fearing and preparing for the next suicide that will occur while actually forgetting deaths of friends that have already occurred, only to be surprised and horrified all over again (though this time the horror becomes recursive, as I hear my inner voice ask “my God, how could you forget?”). This brings me closer to the title of this post; why memorializing the sacrifices made by veterans, fallen service members, and the families of both during the GWOT matters to me.

I need this memorial because of mornings exactly like this one. I had set aside a Sunday to write a blog post that I thought would be relatively simple and straightforward. I woke up with a strange sense that something felt slightly off inside me. I could not be sure, but it felt like a dull, deep sadness. Initially, I thought of my grandfather. He had passed away over 16 years ago, and while his death was particularly difficult for me then, I have not struggled much with it since. I felt the dull deep sadness rise from my stomach to my chest, gaining warmth, gaining sharpness. Tears welled in my eyes but did not fall. My thoughts drifted from my grandfather to writing this article. And then all hell broke loose for me, emotionally.

Cutting, unanswerable questions began flooding my mind:  how many more will die in combat and training; how many more will die alone here in the US; where’s the sense in the deaths of so many wonderful people; what the hell can I do about any of it anyway. A vague yet powerful feeling of rage acted as electricity to the water of my dense sadness, igniting a wash of even larger emotional sensations. I felt my whole body convulse and my chest and throat start to gasp. I encountered the increasingly-familiar experience of “falling apart” and began to sob deeply as I felt the suffocating weight of so much death and violence and powerlessness. Whimpering was not a sound I was familiar with until the past year when I started giving myself permission to go to these emotional places. I could see myself in the mirror crying, but for a moment I felt no connection to my own face. I then came back into my body and spent the next hour or so going in and out of this state. One moment I’m collecting my belongings to bike to a coffee shop, the next I’m back in the bathroom, tears dripping into the toilet bowl.

One of the bewildering aspects of my life since serving in the military is that I sometimes feel emotions deeply, without warning, and with even less understanding of why they are coming up now or where they originated. I have taken a year and a half of grad school coursework in relationship and family therapy and participated in my own personal therapy for over a year in an attempt to become more familiar with my experience. My current understanding of why these “grief quakes” pass through me from time to time is that I have a lot of unprocessed hurt from two combat deployments and five years of high-tempo military service, on top of everything in life that came before that. I believe that my feelings of sadness, anguish, rage, and loss are natural given my experiences, and that I have chosen to interfere with the processing of these emotions several times previously because the setting or culture did not foster healing. In large part, this makes sense. I find war to be inherently tragic, but the demands and stakes are such that feeling some of the more challenging emotions while deployed can be non-adaptive and even dangerous. The mission continues, the danger remains, and we push onward together. It is only in the years afterward, where there is space, safety, and time, have I been able to feel the full depth of my feelings related to my war experiences. And for me, sometimes these can be scarier than war itself. Certainly sometimes lonelier.

I am not alone in having these kinds of experiences. Though public and governmental support has been generally overwhelmingly positive for active duty military personnel and military families, our support for veterans has been patchy. One form of support that veterans of the GWOT lack is hallowed ground on our National Mall to memorialize their fallen comrades, and an image of that memorial to carry in their heart to reference during darker times. While I imagine that visiting such a place could be life-changing, I also recognize that many veterans and their families may never have the means, ability, or opportunity to make such a pilgrimage. Even still, I believe I would take comfort in the knowledge that such a place exists, that our country cared enough to build it, and that other veterans, families, and civilians are benefitting from it.

As a veteran, I have felt constrained by the old narrative that warriors are stoic and expected to “not talk about it.” Holding these burdens inside left me feeling so alienated, so disconnected from the people and country that I had placed myself in danger to protect. The message I held was, “you’re hurting, but nobody wants to hear about it. Even if they did, you’re not strong enough to go there.” Trauma often runs deep and dark; I was afraid that if I started crying that I would never stop. Instead, I swallowed my sadness, feeling increasingly sicker with each gulp. What kind of choice is that:  cry and risk a feared psychological breakdown, or deny myself and plunge further into my sense of loss and loneliness. I believe a national memorial could serve to transform the scourge of a silencing and isolating discourse toward one with more compassion, openness, and connection.

Even in the context of a therapy program, where all of my professors and classmates are trained counselors and among the most supportive and compassionate people I have ever met, I felt like whatever my emotional burden was, it was too ugly to share. But the damning thing of it was was that it was also too big not to share. During my toughest moments, which often came completely unexpectedly, I would walk, sometimes run, to the cemetery on campus. Regardless of the trigger, I would often cry because I felt guilty for being alive when my friends were dead. I would cry because I felt guilty for experiencing beauty when they could not. I would then cry harder because I knew how sad I felt, and I knew how many people loved me and wanted to help me, but I felt so unreachable. I felt sad and I felt alone, and then I felt sad about feeling alone, and then guilty for feeling sad instead of grateful to be alive. I knew people wanted to help, but I thought sharing might leave me worse off than I already felt. I thought I would be a burden to my loved ones. Then I imagined if one of my friends was crying by themself somewhere and how I would want to hold and embrace them, and my heart would break a little further.

Since those times, I have found some measure of solace and healing first in writing my experiences down, generally in short poems, and sharing them through social media or open mic presentations. I cannot express the value I experience in having a public forum to share my burdens with a supportive audience. Encouraged by those experiences, I have become more comfortable speaking with friends and even publically about them. I no longer feel the same measure of shame that I did in feeling sad, as if there was something wrong with me for mourning the loss of so many great people to tragic circumstances. Panic attacks have become less frequent. All of this is wonderful. Now, when I am feeling depressed, I know that I need not shoulder this alone – I am fortunate to have friends and family that I trust to listen compassionately to my struggles, to remind me that these experiences are hard, that it is okay to feel whatever I am feeling. Even with all of this, I still found myself whimpering in my bathroom this morning, hunched over my toilet with tears burning down my cheeks.

This memorial matters to me because I need more than sobbing alone in my bathroom as a means of processing my military traumas. I need a symbolic and real gesture, a physical place, that recognizes the hardships so many of us have endured, that acknowledges the sacrifices we have made, and that gives us refuge to grieve together, to be in solidarity with one another, to feel connected to and supported by the populace we served. I also believe that each war must be examined critically by the public, and that a national memorial can serve as one such forum for reflection. The decision to use violence to achieve a goal is among the most ethically challenging and important issues we face as a nation; the effects and costs range far, wide, and long into the future. Veterans have important experiences to consider, experiences that will continue to benefit the nation long after the veteran has taken off the uniform. Peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh describes the integral relationship between veterans and the nation they serve in this way:

Veterans are the light at the tip of the candle, illuminating the way for the whole nation.

If Veterans can achieve awareness, transformation, understanding and peace, they can share with the rest of society the realities of war.

And they can teach us how to make peace with ourselves and each other, so we never have to use violence to resolve conflicts again.

When you touch fire and your hand gets burned, it is not the responsibility of the hand alone.

It is the responsibility of the whole person.

The hand did not touch fire by itself.

It was commanded to do so by the brain, and the whole body got hurt at the same time.

Art is an expression of the soul. It has a power that can support and enhance medications, talk therapy, and other healing modalities. Public art can unite communities and foster a deeper sense of integration of experiences. In my opinion, now is the time to come together, to reach across the “civil-military gap,” to re-unite, to salvage, process, reflect, and heal from so many years of violence. A memorial alone may not be enough to transform a mountain of hurt into a mountain of healing, but I believe it is a large step in the right direction.

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