I have the privilege of providing care for senior citizens on a part-time basis. Two elderly men that I serve in particular are veterans of World War II. This is a privilege, in part, because World War II veterans are becoming scarcer. Many of them are getting up into their late eighties and early nineties.
I always found it curious that many veterans who witnessed military action in war- be it WWII, the Korean War, or the Vietnam War -did not like to talk about their experience in the years to follow. It just so happens that hospices give special training to chaplains and volunteers so that they can properly minister to dying veterans who have suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. This special training is needed because there are two currents that run counter to each other in men who have to live with these disturbing memories:
The first is that there is a strong tendency not to talk about their war experiences; the very experiences that they have nightmares about; the very experiences that changed the way they related to family members. One gentleman that I provide services for stormed Normandy on D-Day in 1944 and made it as far as Hitler’s house in Austria. And the other gentlemen happened to arrive in Europe just when the "Battle of Bulge" had ended. Although he did not witness any action or killing, he was amongst those U.S. soldiers who did. Almost sixty years later he can still recall their faces. He said there were no smiles. No facial expressions of any kind. Indeed, these survivors of the great battle were virtual catatonic. Yet, statistics would suggest that many of them did not talk about it when they returned home.
Perhaps this is why the U.S. military has a high rate of suicide; at least higher than in other demographics or professions. One report stated that in the year 2010, 54 active-duty airmen in the Air Force committed suicide — 13 more than 2009 — the highest rate since 1993. That’s a lot! This leads us to the second current that runs strong in men who saw people die: The need to talk things out.
These two currents- moving in opposite directions –can cause considerable tension and confusion. You see, military personnel are trained to see beyond the hazards of war. Setting aside vulnerability and hence to rise above pain, suffering and the fear of danger are qualities that make for a successful military operation.
Yet, this manly stoicism and toughness (a noble trait and one that is ingrained in military training) naturally continues into everyday life. Nevertheless, the need to talk things out still remains. Indeed, verbally disclosing what is troubling us on the inside has great therapeutic value. But for men- especially veterans -showing any kind of vulnerability is a sign of weakness; one that betrays the duty to be strong. With this vulnerability, there exists the possibility of shedding tears or sobbing while recounting the horrible scenes they had witnessed.
And therein lies the rub. It is why a veteran I used to work with shared with his wife the trauma he experienced in Vietnam a whopping fifteen years after they got married. She just could not understand why he waited so long to open up. What she did not take into account was that her husband was trained in the military- and to an extent, by the culture -to rise above his suffering in order to achieve an objective. What he wasn't trained to do is to talk things out, and in talking things out, make himself vulnerable to the emotions that it evokes.
These two contrary currents- the one to be strong and the other to seek help -are ever so pronounced in men. In order for the average boy to become a man, he has to break with his childhood vulnerabilities; more so than a female. For instance, children cry when they get hurt. They immediately seek help. And when women suffer, they, generally speaking, are not ashamed to cry and to seek help. On the other hand, it is often the case that a boy learns his masculine traits in his athletic activities. For instance, he is taught to “shake it off” when he gets hit in the shoulder with a ball. This, I should mention, is not a bad thing. This is how masculinity is fostered.
However, with every strength there is a corresponding weakness. And the weakness ever so discernible in males is the difficulty in reconciling these two contrary currents-- the one to be strong and the other to seek help. Unfortunately, the ability to be strong when called upon by his country, and the willingness to show vulnerability when in a personal crisis, can mean life or death, stability or instability for the veteran or military personnel.
There is a great need for men who are currently serving in the military, and those who have fought in a war, to not only talk things out but to interpret the traumatic circumstances surrounding death in the context of faith and eternity. And if such an individual happens to be Catholic, so much the better because the graces of the Sacraments and the Communion of the Saints are real forces for good in this respect. Through a good spiritual formation, Christ teaches men how to juggle opposites. He teaches them how to be strong through weakness. As St. Paul said, "I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong." (II Corinthians 12:10)
Like a good soldier of the Faith, St. Paul knew that his strength was really Christ's strength. And the strength of Christ is most accessible when we have no illusions about our own strength. Such illusions are often dispelled during times of crisis, when we encounter our own weakness and limitations. It is then that divine strength is there for the taking.
This is what veterans and military personnel can learn from a soldier of Christ; that power is made perfect in weakness. Far from being a failure or less than a man, the men who served our country or who are currently serving our country in the military, need to know that human weakness is God's chosen instrument for new life. With new life comes a renewed strength.