Coming Home

Listen to an American veteran of the war in Afghanistan.

Often, since coming home, I’ve had strangers tell me they can’t imagine what I went through. These comments are always made with kindness, with deference and sympathy; but I have always found them disempowering. If somebody can’t imagine what I went through, it means I’ve had experiences that have changed me and yet have made part of me fundamentally unknowable, even inaccessible, and disconnected from the person I was before. If that’s the case, it means I never truly get to return home: I am forever cut off from the person I was before these wars.

Why do we build these memorials anyway? We do it to honor the dead, of course. We do it so veterans and their families will have a place to gather and remember. But there’s something else, a less obvious reason but one I would say is most important. If a memorial is effective, if it’s done well, anyone should be able to stand in front of it and, staring up, feel something of what I felt when my friend J.P. Blecksmith, 24, from Pasadena was killed by a sniper in Fallujah on Veterans Day, 2004, or when Garrett Lawton, his wife and two young sons back home in North Carolina, was killed by an IED in Herat Province, Afghanistan. If civilians can feel that ache — even a fraction of it — they might start to imagine what it was like for us. And if they can imagine that, we come home.

– War and Remembrance, Elliot Ackerman, Smithsonian Magazine, Jan/Feb 2019 (emphasis added)

That’s a lot to expect of a memorial: That it help any civilian feel even a fraction of the ache that combat veterans feel. Maybe it’s even too much to expect of a memorial.

But here’s the thing: It isn’t too much to expect of me that I try. To expect that I’ll read the stories, watch the interviews and documentaries, and visit the memorials. To expect that I will do what I can to understand. That I will leave myself open to imagining what it was like; to feeling what they felt. Even a fraction of it.

And as with war veterans, so, too, with those who’ve suffered in other ways: Victims of all the things that we do to hurt each other; victims of all the ills that flesh is heir to.

If I don’t turn away, if enough of us don’t turn away, then maybe they can all come home again.


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8 Responses to Coming Home

  1. Tom Watson says:

    Last night I was part of a trio that played a few numbers in a concert in Arthur, Ontario. It was a Remembrance Day concert so the songs were all from the World Wars I and II eras. Along with narration the evening was a reminder of the number of people who sacrificed much, even their very lives, in our inhumanity to one another. You can’t listen to songs such as “Green Fields of France” and “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” and “Bring Him Home” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” without being moved to consider how atrocious were the conflicts.

    No, I can’t fully imagine what it’s like to have “been there” but I do owe it to myself to at least try.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – Yes. This morning I heard part of an interview with a nurse-practitioner who retired in 2008 after 22 years with the Canadian Armed Forces. She served in Afghanistan and talked about what it was like as fellow soldiers were killed (16 of them) and injured. And what it’s been like to come home. She also spoke of the personal importance of the general public acknowledging veterans’ service and experience. It was with Leanne Quinn on CBC’s Fresh Air but they don’t have a link up yet.

  2. Barbara Carlson says:

    Read in a novel the feelings of the main character when he visited the Washington, D.C. Vietnam Memorial. As he put his finger up to trace in the many marble names of the men he fought beside, he could sense the others nearby watching him and could their feelings of tenderness for him as he stood there crying. Perhaps that is another (maybe unintended) purpose of a memorial to the dead — it becomes a place to get and give empathy as best we can, to the living.

  3. Dorothy says:

    Sitting on my couch watching various cenotaph services I never felt the connection to the events they were meant to commemorate. But when I went to Vimy and stood in awe of that memorial and found the name of a relative I had never known, I knew then what drew people to such monuments to remember those they knew and those they didn’t. Once I toured the war museums in Europe I came away heartbroken that we could do all of those things to people in the name of what? And amazed that any person could have survived such an event and returned to be a contributing member of our society. I know too why my husband attends every Remembrance day service; to honor his relatives who served and to remember the father he never knew and to make a home for all of them in his heart.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Dorothy – You make an excellent point. TV coverage is important and necessary and might be all we can access, but it isn’t the same. Just two months after 9-11, people came out in droves to their local Remembrance Day services: better together, somehow. And it’s easy to forget the cross-generational impacts, as with your husband connecting to a father never known.

  4. But it is impossible to “remember” what you have not experienced and what is largely being kept secret so that you will not know. Contemporary films aid the imagination but they end in two hours. We humans surely can come up with better solutions than to bear arms and kill one another.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – I believe we can find better ways. I think we’ve done a lot of that already, but there’s no quick fixes here I fear.

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