Veterans, Ghosts, and Tricksters

It had to happen. Friday I was visited by the Tricky Ones.

I was at a conference regarding the treatment needs of returning Vets. The primary speaker, a young psychologist and consultant to the V.A., was discussing the challenges of Home Coming, and the various services available to Vets and their families through the Veterans Administration. She was particularly concerned about the high incidence of PTSD and TBI. She also repeatedly underscored the V.A.’s ability, and desire, to help, and suggested the agency delivers stellar services.  At some point, I expressed confusion regarding her comments, as my experience securing  V.A. services for Vets has been abysmal. In truth, virtually every Vet I have worked with who has experienced waits of months, years, or even decades, to have concerns addressed by the V.A..

Enter the Tricksters. While my request for clarification was straightforward, the underlying tone was icy, even angry. I was mortified as I listened to my own voice! (The Tricksters specialize in Truth-Telling.) Colleagues agreed later that I had sounded quite angry. A sense of the uncanny seeped into the room.

I have listened to the growing rage of Vets for years, and have felt anger and frustration on their behalf, but I was not consciously angry with the presenter. True, her words and my experience were at odds regarding services, but we were, I think, considering two distinct populations of sufferers. She was speaking about newly returning Vets; I have been working mostly with Vets who have been out of the Services for from several, to many, years. Fortunately, a Social Worker seated immediately in front of me seconded my comments, and pushing further (we were meeting at a site on the National Guard Base), suggested the government actively sought to avoid paying for services. She had, it turned out, worked in a V.A. satellite clinic!

Earlier, the fifty or so participants at the conference had joined the presenter in a discussion of the complaints brought to the consultation room by returning Vets and their families. One such, a problem I considered mentioning but kept silent, was the presence of the ghosts or spirits of those killed, or those who had committed suicide after returning home. (I was unsure how welcome talk of spirits would be in the discussion.) The presence of spirits and ghosts is a very real issue for some solders and their kin, especially for some Native American combatants and their families. Indeed, this has been a major concern for some families with whom I have worked recently. (Here in Vermont, there is apparently a large contingent of active duty personnel who are Native.) Yet there was no discussion of the unique needs Native solders, men and women, might present. Given I had no desire to be the one to bring up the Native issue, let alone the problem of spirits, I kept quiet. What an invitation to the Tricksters!

As I mulled all this over, I began to remember my Father’s tour of duty in Vietnam. That would have been in 1962-1963. As a result of his deployment, our family moved from rural Illinois to urban Texas to be with my Mother’s relatives.  I had graduated from 8th grade to High School, only to discover myself in a school system where 9th grade was still Middle School. My grades dropped from A’s to C’s and did not recover til college. Socially I was lost. At the time I had no idea my experience was far from unique. Indeed, it is quite common for the children of Service men and women deployed to war zones.  I wondered whether spirits struggling with these issues might also be present in the room.

Before Nam, my father was both a loving, and an angry, man. Although he was not in a combat role, he experienced many of the traumas of non-conventional warfare. While he seldom spoke about his deployment, he repeatedly talked about never really knowing when a Vietnamese he thought a friend, might actually be the enemy. He was traumatized a second time when the U.S. withdrew without assuring the safety of many of the Vietnamese Christians whom he had tried to support over the years, and counted as close friends. As far as I know, he never again heard from those men and women. I found myself wondering whether I was feeling anger on his behalf, and whether his spirit, perhaps in the company of the spirits of other soldiers, might be visiting, along with the Tricksters.

After Vietnam, my father became a quiet, often helpful man. He had few friends, but many people liked, perhaps even loved him. His social life was rich, if distant. He calmed, and demanded the violence in our home end. He was distant, but seldom threatening. If anything, he gave us kids too much freedom. He went on to oppose the war, and, I believe, the abandoning of his friends and allies. How many of those who perished in the North Vietnamese take over of the South joined us in the room?

As the conference continued, I found myself feeling alienated and isolated. I wondered how much of this experience of isolation came from within me, how much reflected the experience of the Vietnam Vets with whom I have worked, and how much belonged to the spirits themselves. When the conversation turned to the co-presence of physical  disability and PTSD, I wondered whose stories would represent disabled soldiers, and the lived experience of disability.

The conference moved on to conclusion. A recently retired Guards Chaplain rose to speak about the experience of being a Chaplain in Afghanistan and Iraq, and his concerns for other returning Vets. He then smiled, and announced a recent Appeals Court decision ruling the V.A.’s handling of it’s one million case back-load unconstitutional. Applause and a cheer arose from the audience.

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