Thank You for Your Service
I would like to tell you a war story, one from someone who’s never set foot in a warzone. It is not a story about a battlefield, nor is even from my time in the service. It is a story about my summer vacation, and it is about the Weight of war. It is a heavy story, yes, but I’d like to share it with you, and ask that you help me carry it.
Three years after my discharge, I’m standing in a Sun & Ski Sports on South Padre Island with my family. We’re having a beautiful summer vacation on the water, looking for souvenirs to remind us of these good times together. The large showroom is mercifully cool compared to the heat of the Texas summer outside, and the various shirts and hats with their repeated declarations of the importance of salt, life, and fishing have lulled me into a sort of banal contentment – it feels good to be a tourist in a tourist shop doing tourist-y things. It’s nice to be a simple thing, with no past or future, but just existing in the moment. I feel Weightless. My brother picks out a pair of sleeveless shirts, and my father has found a large Hawaiian-style button-up, and as we approach the counter, my mother mentions a sign she notices: “Oh, they have a veterans discount.”
Suddenly, I am no longer a tourist without a past, but a veteran whose current state of being is defined by their past. I don’t have a veteran’s ID, but the girl at the counter is kind enough to believe that I am, in fact, a veteran, and my father and brother both receive ten percent off their purchases. I trail behind my family as they walk outside, still tourists talking about their plans to go parasailing later over the open ocean, but I can only think now about what it cost me to give them that paltry discount, to even be on this vacation: what it costs to be a veteran. I think about the two men we lost at sea during a training exercise when they jumped out of a falling helicopter into the open ocean. I wonder if they would have enjoyed parasailing, or if they felt a similar thrill flying over the water, safe and strong until that water reached up to swallow them. Until we couldn’t find them among the swells. Until we left them behind. I wonder what percent off purchases their lives should add up to. Was ten enough? Should it have been twelve, maybe? Or fifteen? I contemplate the value of a pair of human lives, factoring in discounts, and my own college tuition, and how much mental and physical healthcare must cost individuals and the VA, and the nearly trillion-dollar annual military budget…and the enormity of these forces which conspired to make those two men die, which all collectively label me as a veteran, is enough to buckle my knees – enough for me to finally feel the Weight that necessarily rests on the shoulders of every service member who makes it out alive. I have a breakdown in the parking lot of a Sun & Ski Sports because two men died to help pay for my family’s souvenir shirts on our summer vacation.
A year later I joined PCVI and it’s helped me to begin to understand the nature of that Weight. I can see its shape now: the places where there’s spikes and it can’t be touched, and the places where it’s smooth and rounded from where it sat on the shoulders of millions of veterans before me. I understand also that it can’t be put down, and that it can be heavy enough to crush someone who attempts to carry it alone. I can see, as well, the hand-prints around the edges, the indentations of fingers where it’s been lifted time and time and time again by those willing to help others carry it. I have learned, no, that it cannot be put down, but that it can be shared among those who can also see its shape, and know where to lift it.
We read a book in my first semester written by Tim O’Brien called The Things they Carried. O’Brien is a Vietnam veteran, and his book is a collection of fictional stories about that war which serve as an attempt, not to tell the truth of the war, but to show the shape of its Weight to others. The most important chapter in the book is titled “How to Tell a War Story,” and by the chapter’s end, O’Brien has left the reader with the sense that there is, in fact, no right way to tell a war story. The truth of the story doesn’t matter, and the details don’t matter; as long as whoever is hearing the story can somehow feel what the teller feels, then the story is successful in its goal. The point of a war story is not to convey the details, but to describe the shape of its Weight, and in doing so, to offer it in part to another, so that they might ease the burden a bit by taking it on themselves.
We also discussed, in my second semester, the works of Otto Dix, a German painter who was intensely critical of both World Wars in his art. His paintings depicted battlegrounds, where the fires, and the bodies, and the rubble, and the landscape all bleed into one another so that you can’t tell where one ends and another begins. He shows that war is not a thing that happens in a time and a place, and then ends, but rather a thing that fuses irrevocably with whatever or whomever it touches. In Otto’s paintings, he told us that wars can begin, but they can never end – we carry them with us forever onwards, fused to the very land we walk and the people we meet. Otto Dix attempted to paint the Weight as he saw it, and though perhaps he could only see its spikes, when we look closely at those spikes ourselves, we can see the rust and erosion where hands like his have grappled and bled to help lift it in places where few others have had the courage to do so. The Weight is large and dangerous, but no part of it is untouched by someone willing to lend a hand and lift its burden.
In PCVI, this is the lesson that I’m left with at the end. We discuss art, poetry, philosophy, and history, starting all the way back from Ancient Greece and coming up to the modern day. But we don’t just talk about war, we talk about veterans, and movements, and revolutions, and the effects those things have on the world and on ourselves. We acknowledge the Weight, we attempt to define it, and show its curves and its points and its edges, and by doing so, together, we also help to lift its burden from one another. PCVI is a group of veterans discussing the philosophical nature of the word that defines and unifies us, and which many of us felt separated us from others, and sometimes even from each other. By engaging unflinchingly with this material, both mentally and socially, PCVI brings forth meaningful discussion on both an emotional and an intelligence level that one would be hard pressed to find in any form of school or therapy alone. Simply put, it is both, and its value cannot be stated in dollars, but rather can only be understood through the changes it invokes in the lives of those it touches. PCVI exists to help lift the Weight, and is an uncommon good in a world that is often far too heavy to bear.