For the first time in twenty years, Americans will commemorate Memorial Day this year in peacetime, and in the shadow of the two longest wars in U.S. history. As we honor and remember those from all of our wars who did not make it home, we should also view those veterans who did in an accurate light.
For many veterans, Memorial Day is a time of mourning that brings difficult memories of losing friends. It can bring feelings of guilt for surviving when those friends did not. It can even bring reminders of other painful events experienced on the battlefield.
While they have endured physical and emotional suffering, we should recognize our veterans not just for the burdens of the fight, but for having emerged from it even stronger. They are warriors, not hapless victims.
After I lost friends in Iraq and was injured there, people often told me things like: “If it was going to happen, it couldn’t have happened to a better person. You had the strength to overcome it.” This appears to be the conventional wisdom about trauma: that it is almost always harmful to a person and usually produces lifelong misery and maladjustment, but that a brave few are naturally endowed with enough resilience to face life-altering adversity and overcome it. Hollywood, politicians, and the media fuel this stereotype, often portraying veterans as fragile, psychologically damaged victims.
But I see it differently. Retired four-star general and former secretary of defense James Mattis does too. “There is one misperception of our veterans and that is they are somehow damaged goods,” said General Mattis, speaking at the Marine Memorial Foundation in 2014. "I don't buy it."
To be clear, many veterans have indeed been damaged by war. Some are even at risk of homelessness or suicide. They deserve the support and care of a grateful nation. But the veteran-as-victim trope portrays veterans as fragile and deserving of pity, which is not how veterans feel – even those struggling with the physical and mental wounds of war.
Despite the indisputable grief and personal loss experienced by many veterans, most return home and build a new life – a life with a noble purpose that would honor the sacrifices of their fellow service members who did not get that chance. Their experience points to a different conclusion: that human beings are naturally resilient.
Most of us grow from losses and find meaning in them. Everyone talks about post-traumatic stress, which of course is very real and difficult. But, as General Mattis reminded us, “there is also something called post-traumatic growth, where you come out of a situation like [combat] and you actually feel kinder toward your fellow man and fellow woman; that you are actually a better husband, father; you actually have a closer relationship with your God.” While stress after combat or any traumatic event is inevitable, it can be the precursor to growth. Overall, “you come back from war stronger and more sure of who you are,” Mattis said.
Many of us fear we could never overcome tragedy because we would never choose it willingly. But when the illusion of choice is taken away, we find that we can not only survive it but even grow from it because that is our only path forward. And human beings are wired to survive and move forward.
General Mattis has a theory about why so many want to paint veterans as victims. “While victimhood in America is exalted, I don't think our veterans should join those ranks,” he said. Given the coveted status
of victimhood today, it is no surprise that well-meaning people would seek to bestow that special status upon veterans. But our veterans want no pity. And the truth is that it would only hold them back. They already have the growth and meaning that comes from serving a noble cause and overcoming real tragedy. They know that seeking pity, from themselves or others, would only hinder their ability to succeed in their new life missions.
This Op/Ed was published in the Clarion-Ledger on May 29.
Aaron Rice is an Iraq War veteran and a Purple Heart recipient. He is also the director of the Mississippi Justice Institute, a nonprofit, constitutional litigation center and the legal arm of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.