Thursday, December 13, 2007

Casualties of War

All the survivors of the war had reached their homes and so put the perils
of battle and the sea behind them.
Homer, The Odyssey, line 1

Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.
John F. Kennedy

I have not written an entry for more than a month but there has been a recurring blog in my mind during that time that I have just not been able to put down on paper.

Veterans Day. I had never really felt much significance or meaning when Veterans Day was recognized. I would pay momentary tribute in some form but that was it. There was no deep thought or lasting impression on me.

This year was different. It started when I found myself drawn to the PBS documentary of the Second World War, “The War.” Although my father was in The Philippines during WW II, I really never made a connection with Veterans Day. It really wasn’t relevant. Part of the reason was that I could never remember my father ever talking about the war. Not once. The only memory I had was some obscure article that referenced my father as Mike “Blackie” Housepian and joked about how he couldn’t sleep at night in his tent without getting up and walking numerous times around his tent.

Knowing my own discomfort with unpleasant conditions when camping, I though this was funny about my father and felt some connection with his restlessness. Like most things for my brothers and me, we gravitated to and remembered the humor. But, it was also the only experience that was shared with us. Men were not expected to share their horrors or fears; we only wanted to hear the happy, heroic stories. Who wants to know about the quiet suffering?

It was not until years later that I would better understand my father’s restlessness. I watched portions of the PBS footage in the Philippines and found myself searching for a glimpse of my father. I didn’t see him but I did see him. I saw young men with dark, deep-set eyes with an almost vacant look. Saying nothing and everything at once. I saw the horrors that they saw and the conditions that they survived. I finally learned a little more about what a 21-year-old man was experiencing.

Instead of enjoying a Coney Island hot dog, cold beer and watching a Detroit Tigers game, he was thrown into a world and experience that would forever alter his life. He didn’t know that when he enlisted, he was just a kid. He was just doing what he thought was the right thing, what was expected of young men.

My father did come home but did not put the “perils of battle and the sea” behind him. Part of him was left behind in the Philippines and he carried with him the perils for the next 22 years. He would never be the same.

My mother said he wanted to be a sports writer but ended up a butcher. I remember his battles with life and not finding peace during most of my childhood. He was trying to do what was expected of him but not able to, not for himself, his wife or his sons. Over the years, I held him in my memory too harshly for not meeting my expectations, not being able to keep his job, and not being “strong enough.” I loved him but considered his greatest achievement was selecting my mother as his wife. I never saw him as a courageous figure. I was so judgmental of a person that I really never knew.

I never really understood that his war never ended when he was discharged and contracted malaria. His war finally ended at the age of 44 with a heart attack, 40 years ago from tomorrow. He fought as long as he could. It’s funny when my mother tells the story of how he dropped her off at the hospital when I was to be born as his third son while he went to a bar to watch a boxing match on television. He was the boxer and, finally, 40 years later, I have been able to see him more clearly for what he endured and tried to do.

So, Veterans’ Day has taken on new meaning for me. It is relevant and significant. Often, it seems like we need to have things become ”personal” before we really feel a connection. If you or a family member experiences a disease, injury, disability, racism, then it takes on a new meaning. It becomes personal. People raise money for cancer, form support groups regarding Alzheimer’s disease, speak out on racism, and establish foundations. There is a connection to do something to heal out of something that hurts.

I see the persons that are homeless and feel a connection. Reports show that 25 percent of the homeless population is veterans. That is a staggering statistic. Even more staggering is sorting out all the issues. I am grateful to all the organizations that are trying to help these men and women on their journey. Legal Aid Society tries to help with obtaining assistance, affordable housing and health care. I am hopeful that more and more of our work can be funded to assist these veterans.

Yesterday, Congress was presented with stories and statistics of military serving in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan–more staggering statistics and stories of high suicide rates and “injuries to mental health” for young men and women when they return. They are not leaving their battles behind them as Homer had written centuries ago. Until mankind ends war, we must find ways to try to heal the servicemen and women and their families who are the casualties of war. It is the least that we can do.

As a 15-year-old boy growing up, I didn’t see my father’s courage and strengths when he died. As a 55-year-old man, his humanity still eluded me. It eludes me no more. We can always find ways to pass judgment on others for not meeting “expectations.” But, we can also find ways to lift up and recognize the strengths. We have a choice and it is not too late.


npreslar said...

Healing from past wounds is never easy, especially when they are our parent's wounds. At 55 and the caregiver to a parent who's wounds I doubt I will ever fully understand, I still find healing in the caregiving. Congratulations - we're never too old to grow up a little more.

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