2017-10-22 / Community / JT Beacon

Support the troops

By NIK CHAROV
Columnist

I have never been to war. I wasn’t alive in the 1960s. But last month, I watched every minute of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War” on PBS to try to understand what it was like. So many helicopters, I marveled, flying low over that emerald landscape. Those soft rice paddies, that lush misty jungle – how could such a beautiful place have held such horrors?

“In war, no one wins or loses. There is only destruction,” intoned one of the documentary’s subjects. Those who die may be the luckier casualties, for what really happens after the conflict ends and the supposed peace returns?  We have spent a generation wrestling with the demons of that misbegotten South Asian war. And then, ignoring the lessons of history, we launched a War on Terror 16 years ago this month that has turned into the longest war our country has ever waged. The destruction goes on, and not just “over there.”

Of the two million soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, almost 30 percent are estimated to have returned with PTSD or traumatic brain injuries (TBI). Along with the hundreds of thousands of Vietnam Era veterans, there are now at least 500,000 new veterans battling nightmares, anxiety, and isolation. Suicide and drug addiction rates are higher in the veterans’ community. The wounds are raw and deep, but mostly invisible.

Part of the pathology is today’s thin membrane between combat and society. War, children, is just a flight away. The placid month-long voyages of troop ships back from World War II have turned into overnight flights from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. That is nowhere near enough time to decompress or re-normalize. In Ancient Greece, it took Odysseus a decade to return home from the Trojan War, and even after 10 years he wasn’t the same man who left Ithaca. 

Compounding the rush home is a jarring disconnection of purpose. A soldier’s job is to seek and destroy. It may be seen by some as a defense of life, but to wage war is definitely not to create. Once the fighting recedes, what is the soldier’s purpose? Destroyers cannot build civilization and society. The Biblical verse from Isaiah is pretty, but how do we actually beat those swords into plowshares?

Well, we can start with a peaceful place. A veteran on the staff of the Wells Reserve at Laudholm, Sue B., once summed it up to me: “When I was in Iraq — gritty, hot, dusty Iraq — I settled myself to sleep each night thinking of the coast of Maine, of the quiet salt marshes and the wind across the green fields.” Sue sent her mind to a happy place, a not-war place. It helped.

And then, at that not-war place, we can offer the opportunity to create. At the Wells Reserve this year, we’re testing a program to find out if the opposite of destruction — creation, specifically of art — can soothe, and even salve, the savage soul. Our new “Art & Nature for Veterans” program, starting on October 28, aims to use a peaceful, safe place to host free and open studio art workshops for military veterans and their families. Our program partner Art HOPE invites them to come, to make, to start fresh, and even, perhaps, to heal a bit. There is copious evidence that art and nature can make a difference in the lives of veterans. We want to try.

At this time, in this divided country, we feel compelled to do something. Instead of battling over who should stand for the National Anthem “to honor our men and women in fighting uniform,” let’s, as a country, actually do something useful for veterans. Art and nature can be balms for our warriors’ wounds; let’s apply them. The second best thing we can do for our vets is to help them repair themselves once they’ve returned from destructive wars. 

Of course, the best thing we can do to “support the troops” is to never send them into those wars to begin with.

— Nik Charov is president of Laudholm Trust, the nonprofit partner of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells. His attempted monthly column, “Between Two Worlds,” ventures forth from the intersection of art and science, past and present, war and peace. More at wellsreserve.org/twoworlds.

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