The citizens of the United States are only civilians when distinguished from the country’s military personnel. Movies have depicted the difference between the two citizenship experiences – the civilian before he or she enters the military and the soldier who returns home.
Some returning soldiers are better for the training and discipline they learned and practiced in their service to the military, others are not – but all are changed, regardless of their extent, branch or kind of service.
Military personnel earn the title of veterans after their service ends. They are civilians again – veteran civilians – people with a military past living in a relatively peaceful society. They have a way of thinking, speaking, and acting that has been forever altered.
When you meet a group of veterans, no matter which branch of the military they served, there is a connection they have, even if they don’t agree or like each other, and the civilian stands outside that connection looking in, as if observing a display at a history museum, lacking the experience of military service, leadership, expectations, or battle to fully comprehend the connection being witnessed.
Each person’s military experience is different and depends on a complex web of culture and values. Even though our U.S. military personnel are all American citizens, and we share the same constitution and similar laws across states, we are a nation of global proportions and our military reflects our Nation’s ethnic and cultural demographics.
Each region, each state, each reservation, and even each city or town consists of its own cultural groups shaped by their religious or spiritual practices, ethnic traditions, socio-economic status, personal life choices or interests, education, and/or language.
Shared experiences unite people, and the military is a shared experience that unites veterans. Civilians recognize the personal sacrifices veterans made during their years of service officially each year during the national holiday of Veterans’ Day.
What we typically see and hear on Veterans’ Day is very patriotic. We fly the American flag; we say the Pledge of Allegiance and sing the National Anthem; we salute and pray – giving thanks for those still here and for those who died in service to their country either in private or in public ceremonies.
But being a veteran does not just occur one day a year. It is an everyday existence and a mixed bag of heroism and villainy, because our veterans are human beings impacted by a system requiring a specific skill-set that is ultimately aimed at defending the Nation and – if need be – destroying the enemy.
Every veteran went through basic training, and every military service person signs an agreement to follow the orders of their commanding officers without question. In addition, every military person knows that death is an imminent threat should he or she be called to the field of battle – either death threatens the soldier, or the soldier threatens someone else with death.
To be at the mercy of that thought – to know that the call of duty brings with it a constant threat to life – fundamentally changes a person. Some people are able to compartmentalize that change and call it up when its needed. Others cannot.
In addition to the understanding the soldiers have about their short distance from death, and for many, their dance with death, they give up a level of freedom that civilians often take for granted, and that loss of freedom can haunt a veteran in ways that may seem to others a lesser struggle than those who have experienced combat, but can be devastating for the person who prior to service, did not realize what sacrificing personal freedom really entailed.
There are thousands of veterans who speak of their service years with mixed feelings of pride and shame, honor and pain, love and disdain.
Military experiences are so varied, and civilians and veterans all weigh in on what we think about service to United States military. Our varied perspectives are grown in our homes and through our experiences and connections.
For example, Nancy Anderson, business manager for the West River Eagle, has had her own brush with the military. She shared her experience:
“My ex-husband was drafted five months after we were married. He chose to go into the Air Force rather than the Army. I did not agree with the Vietnam War and neither did he. He was not in combat ever, but it took four years of his life and messed up his focus of what field of work he wanted to go into.”
He was interested in and was actually working at a job in Littleton, Colorado tool and dye company (where they were designing and manufacturing steel parts etc.). He lost his focus in the military and all the controversy that was going on with that war — and was never the same again.
“It was not really PTSD, but it was a form of that because of the feeling that he was dodging the draft, but not really, still serving his country, but not really.
He was never the same, and I believe part of it was because he never felt free again. He felt forced into service. He was willing to support the military, but it was not something he wanted to do. It is not for everyone.”
Our country is filled with people who understand the necessity of the military, and who would willingly defend the nation and its people if called to do so, but who also do not support various military campaigns – people who have concerns about who we fight and to what end – and people who question the effectiveness of our military training in relationship to the health and stability of soldiers who return home from service, especially those who return home from having experienced or suffered in combat.
Even soldiers battle with their own ideas of right and wrong while on the battle field and following orders that seem dubious. Their personal battles are not always so easily left on the battle field and leak out into the civilian world through the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, such as nightmares, violence, mood swings or chemical abuses.
Veterans are people who sacrificed the person they once were to become the person they needed to be as a soldier, and then returned to the civilian world for better or worse.
Regardless of their experiences with their military service, and their current state of living, all veterans are honored for the sacrifices they made to become the soldier our military requires to protect the land we call ours.
This edition of the WRE is designed to give honor to the vets on or from CRST, alive or buried, who served in the military. While not all articles in this edition will cover all aspects of military service, it is meant to speak to the many people on CRST who served, and the many people impacted by that service by giving voice to issues and organizations here on the Cheyenne River Reservation designed to unite, assist, and honor veterans.