To celebrate Veterans Day, I spent a few hours this week talking to former members of the U.S. Armed Services. The conversations ranged from political—they were understandably eager to debate Colin Kaepernick and #TakeTheKnee—to deeply personal. When I brought up the recent mass shootings in Sutherland Springs and Las Vegas, they clued me in to how differently veterans and civilians experience the domestic acts of mass violence. In today’s issue, I’ll explore that divide. Then I’ll share a few veterans’ definitions of a word that has become increasingly charged in American culture: patriotism. And after that, if you want to read more from veterans, check out The Atlantic’s new project, “A Veteran’s View.”
Register now for our call with Caitlin Flanagan. We’re talking to Atlantic contributing writer Caitlin Flanagan on Monday, November 13, at 1 p.m. EST. Register with this link, and you’ll get the dial-in instructions. We’ll be talking about the dark side of college fraternities—a subject Caitlin confronted in this powerful piece for our November issue. Email me any questions you’d like me to ask her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
HOW VETERANS EXPERIENCE VIOLENCE ON U.S. SOIL
Today, there are tens of thousands of active-duty troops stationed in combat zones overseas, yet the violent events that consistently drive the most press coverage occur within our own borders. Four of the five deadliest mass shootings in American history have taken place within the last five years. This is challenging for all citizens, but can be especially difficult for veterans. When veterans return from overseas, they can struggle to recognize that they’re no longer in a combat zone. Particularly when domestic acts of mass violence are looped on prime-time television, it can be hard for some who have experienced trauma to compartmentalize.
“When veterans come home, they often experience a sense of being on alert,” said Charles Morgan, an associate professor at New Haven University who specializes in veterans with PTSD. “Hypervigilance is what promotes your survival when you’re in a dangerous situation, so their bodies’ alarm systems are heightened.” Approximately 15 percent of U.S. veterans suffer from PTSD, but many more exhibit hypervigilant behavior once they’re home.
When Jeff Ewert returned home after five years in Iraq, he didn’t go out much. Traffic and crowds made him nervous. If he had to leave the house, he always mapped out a direct route to his destination. Occasionally, he’d take his young daughter, Riley, to the movies. Then a shooter killed 10 people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. “I don’t want to go see Up and see gunfire.” Ewert said. “I never carried a gun to the movies, but now I do.” In the Marines, Ewert was conditioned to check every space before entering and position himself so he could always see the door.
On his second day back in the United States, Ewert says he heard a loud noise in the middle of the night. Immediately, he grabbed the .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol he kept by his bed, and ran down out the front door in his boxers. When he saw kids playing in the woods outside his house—the clear source of the noise—his parents told him he started muttering, “They were here, they just left.” As Ewert sought treatment for the PTSD he’s struggled with since his deployment, the doctors all told him the same thing: Relax. You’re home. You’re safe.
“Veterans with PTSD see danger in their environment. And when they see these violent attacks, it’s evidence that they’re right,” said Rich Tedeschi, professor of psychology at UNC Charlotte.
Veteran Uma Mishra Newberry, now a teacher, has experienced this, too. Traumatized by reports of the shootings at Sandy Hook, she gets flashbacks every time she does a lockdown drill at her school. “It can be extremely triggering,” she said. “As soon as it starts, my military training kicks in. I’m hyper aware of where the door is and where the wall is—because it’s harder to shoot through a wall than a door.”
It doesn’t matter that, statistically, any one veteran is extremely unlikely to find himself in a mass shooting situation. When a combat veteran—particularly one who suffers from PTSD—hears about an attack at home, the natural reaction, said Morgan, is to link it to one’s experience overseas. “It can be hard for them to put it in context.” Often, being near family members when they hear about another violent incident can make that second-hand trauma even worse. “They volunteered to do something dangerous themselves, but while they were at war they assumed everyone at home was safe.”
When Newberry watches footage of mass shootings on TV, she told me she feels disheartened and, despite all her best efforts, powerless. It makes sense to Tedeschi that veterans would feel that way. “They’ve done all they can to protect all of us,” he said. “And despite that, these things still happen.”
Ewert is frustrated by the increasingly politicized conversations that always seem to follow domestic acts of mass violence. He says he could care less about the debates over gun control and immigration—they never seem to go anywhere, anyway. “As veterans, we just want to know, what are we actually doing about this? We were fighting for the good of everybody, and we don’t want anyone else to die.”
WHAT DOES PATRIOTISM MEAN TO YOU?
Through its social-media channels, The Atlantic invited veterans to share their conceptions of topics such as patriotism. We got over 700 responses, and followed up with a smaller group. Some of those reflections on patriotism were featured on Radio Atlantic, and we’ve shared a few more here. While these excerpts don’t necessarily represent the views of all veterans, they reveal just how hard it is to define who is a patriot.
After returning from Vietnam, Bernard Seiler realized Americans have very different definitions of patriotism.
After I finished my tour in Vietnam, I flew to San Francisco. As I got off the plane, a protestor of the Vietnam War approached me, hurling insults. As he got closer, he hocked a loogie at me. This is a stark example of how divergent our views of patriotism can be. Later, when looking for my first job after leaving the military, I was told by multiple recruiters that it was a shame that I had wasted three years in the service because it made me a less desirable candidate for jobs. The fact that I had managed over 50 people in combat situations had no relevance to them. Nothing prepared me for that level of hostility.
Today, communities are still very divided on definitions of patriotism. At least now people are less inclined to blame the warrior for a conflict. However, this has presented some issues as well. For example, I now hear on a regular basis, “Thank you for your service.” I know it’s meant well, but I find it to be a hollow comment. You can see in the eyes of the person saying it. They feel uncomfortable. They’re more mystified by what you’ve done than grateful for it. The saying serves to reconcile their definition of patriotism with yours. Even more rankling to me is when I hear someone in the media using a cliché like, “the fallen soldier who died for our freedoms.” It may be true on one level, but my experience tells me that it’s much more complicated than that. The soldier likely died for his comrades—his brothers and sisters in arms—rather than the more collective, “our freedoms.”
Over the 20 years he spent in the Marine Corps, John Daily never felt like American values were under threat from enemies abroad.
I never once woke up in the morning and thought, “I’m going to protect the rights of my fellow American citizens today—the right of the free press, or the right of free speech." I don’t think those rights have been threatened from without for a considerable amount of time. I see bumper stickers every day that say, “If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you can read this in English, thank a veteran.” You don’t need to thank me for that. I don’t think I had a whole lot to do with that. The problem, I think, is not that our rights are being threatened from without. It’s that the right of free speech is being threatened from within—from both sides of the political spectrum. If I was to fight for a right, I’d fight to make sure we had our opinions heard, especially opinions that are different from our own.
Michael McNeill worries that too many Americans have an excessively macho conception of patriotism.
I’d love to say that I joined the military because of 9/11, but it was mostly to have a steady job and learn a foreign language. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, there began to emerge an image of the 21st century American soldier: Sun-beaten man, mismatched camo, armed with every tactical weapon he needed to burst down the door and take down the terrorists. This image was being imitated by civilians across the country—with a special emphasis on the weapons. I dismissed this because most of the soldiers I knew were just footsore 19-year-olds who just wanted to go home and alternately watch porn and South Park until four in the morning. But I shouldn’t have dismissed them because the image just further solidified. And soon this image became the quintessential image of patriotism. But it was all image, no substance. My own version of patriotism, which is more about civic duty and shared American values of civil liberty is often discounted as un-American.
TODAY’S WRAP UP
- Question of the day: How do you define patriotism? Has your understanding of the term changed over time?
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