The country has buried the dead of the recent Fort Hood shooting. A lone bugler played taps to a forlorn tree line and three folded American flags were given away to those dreaded words: “on behalf of a grateful nation.”
Rituals of public mourning typically bring Americans together in the wake of tragedies, but in many ways the reaction to Fort Hood has driven us further apart. The difference between how military and veterans communities dealt with the shooting and the popular views expressed in some media outlets was so vast that it was hard to imagine the two groups were responding to the same event.
So as our conflict in Afghanistan winds down and combat is slowly confined to drunken ramblings in the wooden halls of VFW posts, this apparent disconnect, between media portrayal and reality, has the makings of a monumental struggle for this generation of veterans.
As the guns fade veterans are returning to the lives they once lived and the futures they are building. Uniforms are tucked away in black boxes, hair grows long, and veterans move inexorably forward, away from the wars that will always, in part, define them.
World War II had its parades; Vietnam had its protests; and the War on Terror? A well-produced Budweiser commercial and cable TV’s angry veteran narrative. America’s post-war perception of its veterans returning is intertwined with how the media portrays them. But if this generation is to flourish, a new, fuller story needs to be told that finds a room for veterans in American culture beyond the reductive roles of hero or victim.
The narratives born from the Fort Hood shooting clung desperately to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Even in the absence of any evidence that the shooter, Ivan Lopez, suffered from PTSD, news networks let it dribble out from the beginnings and ends of their sentences. The Huffington Post, awarded a Pulitzer for its work on veterans in 2012, used PTSD-related violence to build an horribly inaccurate map that portrayed veterans as an inherently violent population, when it isn’t (the graphic was later retracted), and McClatchy gave its million-plus subscribers a PTSD hot-zone locator by ZIP Code, likening veterans to criminals.
Today’s veterans ought to be able to define themselves on their our own terms. We live in an age of mass media and mass expression. Veterans cringed at the narratives spewed across national television in the wake of the Fort Hood shooting, yet what did we do to stop it? Many veterans organizations were silent as the media spun whatever story they wanted. Broadcast after broadcast widened the gulf between the small population of veterans and their fellow Americans, not realizing the cost of their words.
The civilian-military divide is is the buzzword for many of today’s veteran issues and the phrase that encapsulates a country that has spent the last decade at war. For those who have served, the divide is everywhere. It’s how you relate to your co-workers, the kids you go to school with. It is how you perceive the world and how the world perceives you.
As veterans we are forcibly aware of the divide, while it feels like our civilian counterparts can acknowledge or ignore it as they please. And that is why, as veterans, the onus is on us to surmount it and bridge the divide. We are obligated to stick our hands out, to tell that 19-year-old in our history class what it’s like to fight in a war, that God willing they will never have to fight themselves.
This is an issue that has no clear answer. No definitive narrative to rally behind. Veterans close to these issues are circling the wagon, seeking to find the right balance in their own words that not only holds the media accountable, but also holds themselves accountable for steering the discussion in the right direction without trying to monopolize the right to speak.
We all have our parts to play, and there is no doubt that in the years to come there will be plenty of relapses into sensational narratives and half-hearted reporting, yet we owe it to our veterans and we owe it our country to do better. We must do better if we are going to move past the heartbreak and bloodshed of the last 13 years, and into a future where those who fought are not isolated as members of a dangerous caste, but understood as part of the common national culture.