Julie Gillis believes we need more empathy and less disposability regarding our veterans, citing a Hollywood producer’s amazing story of helping a man through an apparent psychological breakdown on a JetBlue flight.
A few days ago I went for my morning walk. I’ve been trying to walk each morning when it’s still and reasonably cool outside, when the world isn’t entirely awake. During that time I listen to a podcast, usually focused on ethics, spirituality, or meaning and let my mind and heart wander. I’m a fan of “On Being” because it ranges from the secular to Pagan to Christian and back again and I always learn something very valuable about how humans are, how I am, how I want to be as a person in this often very difficult world.
I listened to this podcast, which was released in 2006 and featured an interview with Chaplain John Morriss about the toll war takes on it’s soldiers, on their hearts and minds and souls.
He pointed out, among other things, that we take civilians and, over the course of 6 months, prepare them to be able to kill on command. Then we place them in a situation that tests those skills and preparations. After their tour, it can take as little as 300 hours to get them back to the states, back on the street.
Think of that. One hundred and eighty odd days to train a person to be ready for war. Three hundred and sixty five (or more) of battle. Twelve days to get them back in civilian world.
I cannot say what has changed from 2006, or if the process of bringing people home is longer now (and please tell me in comments if you know and offer what systems you’ve heard of for helping vets), but given those numbers is it any wonder that our vets are having an extremely hard time reintegrating?
I walked and listened and felt a heavy weight in my chest. The Chaplain had amazing things to say in his interview on “On Being” about the ideas of sacrifice and service and how wrenching it is for those who fight, especially upon return to a culture that doesn’t always value that same idea of sacrifice and service. Or mocks them. He discussed the differences in decades past from Vietnam to WWII, though PTSD was always a part of those returns. I am progressive and liberal in my politics, so I’ve never really been a fan of the military for a number of reasons, but here’s the thing, here is what weighed heavy:
This is shameful. Beyond political parties, beyond how one feels about war, how we as a culture and nation treat those who give their service to us is important and they should not be abandoned.
Yesterday I read the BuzzFeed article on Cassian Elwes and his experience with Marcus Covington, which he tweeted immediately after it happened.
What I was struck by was how listening and engaging Marcus was what kept him connected and stable enough to get the plane landed without additional incidents.
I don’t know jack about Cassian Elwes, other than what I’ve read. Seems clear he works in Hollywood where managing and massaging egos and emotions and group dynamics is a very important skill.
I don’t know jack about Marcus Covington, either. Seems clear he is deeply troubled, in great pain, potentially a Marine Vet, and someone who took meds for bi-polar disorder. He’s someone who feels disposable.
I’m relieved that empathy and compassion was utilized during the flight as an intervention during an extremely stressful, and I’m imagining frightening, situation. I’m happy that the tweets have brought this particular form of intervention to the public so quickly through social media.
We need more empathy. More compassion. More cooperation. More stewarding and tending of each other rather than casting each other way once we think we are done.
These things, empathy and compassion are not “soft” skills. They require heroism and fortitude and strength. They demand ferocity and determination. Connection in the face of danger (hell, ever) is not for cowards. Radical empathy is vital and yes, even politically dangerous. Just watch this Ted Talk on sociology and empathy and the experiment Sam Richards engages his audience in on relating to Iraqi insurgents. Hard work.
Vital work if we don’t want to wind up a world of sociopathy and selfishness.
I keep coming back to The Soul Of War and those 300 hours. Twelve days to get back to being a civilian after 18 months of being a warrior, being asked to do things that I for one cannot imagine being able to do (though who knows, that’s what the training is for).
And I think about bottled water, and individual packaging, and lay offs and throwing away so many useful things to buy new things. I think about consumption and the world we’ve found ourselves in, created for ourselves through our systems and cultures and politics and desires. We consume much. We dispose of much.
I wonder how this experience will change Mr. Elwes and the people he’s reached with social media. His tweets are a story aren’t they? Complete, concise, very clear on the anguish. One noted, “I realize the point is these wars are fucking with our children’s minds. A whole generation is being sent home screwed up.” Yet it’s even more then that isn’t it?
And what of Marcus Covington? Will he get real actual help? Yes, he’s broken laws and justice must be served, but I hope there’s going to be compassionate justice done. Yes, he’s troubled and is suffering from mental illness so I hope he gets fierce support in his healing so that those amends he must make can be done well and with dignity for his humanity.
Sometimes empathy seems all around us and so easy. Case in point, I know a lot of people who work with rescue animals. I tell you, there are stories of kittens with no eyes, found covered in parasites. Dogs needing amputations. Volunteers there day and night bottle feeding puppies and kittens, homes fostering difficult animals and getting them used to people. More and more you see No Kill Shelters with every measure taken to save these little creatures to the point they are overflowing. Why not just dispose of them? Because they matter.
Well, why dispose of actual living people? This confounds me. There are glib answers to that, I get it. Kittens are adorable and grown men drunk and agitated on planes are not? It’s more complicated to heal a person’s soul and mind then it is to foster a puppy? It’s harder to fix the systems that break down where humans fall through the cracks?
Sure as hell is. It’s damn hard.
But that means we should do MORE work to make sure those souls and minds avoid harm and MORE work to make sure our systems avoid breaking, even when it’s damn ridiculously hard.
We do not need to dispose of each other. We need to keep each other. That moment on the plane when Elwes decided to just…talk to him? And listen to him? Hear and tell his story? That’s what keeping looks like.
(Author’s Note: I’d love to see resources listed for veterans here in the comments, both secular and spiritual. As an example, here is a link to tips “Beyond the Yellow Ribbon” for how churches can help support returning soldiers.)
Read the entire story of Cassian Elwes and Marcus “Marco” Covington at Buzzfeed, or on Elwes’ Twitter.