At a friend’s dinner party some weeks ago, the guests pushed their empty dessert plates toward the center of the candle-lit table and leaned back in their chairs, chatting and enjoying the ambience. The host asked me about my writing, so I talked about the soldier* stories for a while. I finished by saying how poignant and fulfilling my work with combat vets had been.
Just as I finished speaking, the man seated directly across from me at the table leaned forward on his elbows and said forcefully, “Here’s what I want to know. Tell me this: why the hell would anyone sign up to join the military? I mean, who in their right mind would do that?” His eyes bore into me and his voice was accusatory and harsh, as if a person joining the military was some fault of mine.
I sat still for a moment, wondering how I might respond. It was clear to me from the way he asked the question that he didn’t really want to hear an answer – he was more interested in voicing his judgments of those who served.
The table went silent and everyone looked at me.
I’d heard various iterations of this question many times during my years working with service members. The majority of people who learned about my work were interested, curious, even grateful. But there were always those who seemed to feel a kind of moral offense at anything related to the military.
One hot summer morning when I was in between military assignments, I met a group of friends for coffee. A woman I didn’t know arrived with a friend as we dragged a bunch of chairs over to a big table on the shaded patio. As I mentioned the assignment I’d just left and the base I had worked at, she screwed up her face in disgust and said she couldn’t fathom why someone would be in the military: “Look at what they have to do. Who would do that? Unbelievable . . . ”
Months later, I did a reading in front of an attentive audience. As the soldier stories landed in their hearts, I saw a few people with tears streaming down their faces. I finished the last paragraph and put the excerpt away in my folder, then turned to see a line forming with people who wanted to speak to me about what I had just read. A tall, heavy-set woman stood third in line, and when she got her chance to talk, she said, “I’ve been very active in peace politics all of my life. How can you possibly work in the military? How can you justify being a part of that?” She was almost angry in her demeanor – challenging, confrontational, demanding.
In my next post, I’ll talk about how I responded to these questions – and how they brought me into more compassion for the service men and women I worked with, their spouses and their families.
* I was using the terms “soldiers” generically, meaning the combat vets I had worked with from all branches of the military.
READ PART 2
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Elizabeth Heaney - Author
Clinical Psychologist, teacher, private counselor. She speaks and writes about her work with service members.