Opinion: Thank vets, and get to know them

This past summer, while a group of veterans wobbled and spun in kayaks, I stood on the shore of Fontana Lake in western North Carolina with my notebook and camera. The TV guy had set up his camera nearby, and within an hour he’d be gone, having asked quick questions that, to me, seemed obvious and shallow.

As a writer, I knew I should be interviewing the veterans, maybe getting photos, but all I could think was: I can’t do it. I don’t have the right.

The trip was a partnership between Semper Fi Fund and the Nantahala Outdoor Center, and I’d been hired to put a human face on healing in the outdoors, but it was the humanity, I think, that scared me. Finally, I gave up on finding photo ops and slid into a kayak. With a few quick strokes, I was cutting the water and paddling with them.

Often, as we practiced our strokes, someone would steady themselves on my boat and ask why I was there. I’d expected to find them closed off and resistant, tired of being the subject of stories like mine, but their hunger to talk struck me.

Having seen too many movies and Wounded Warrior ads, I was prejudiced into thinking that everyone would have a prosthetic limb or would be battling PTSD, but the problem that many of them kept mentioning was something I’d never considered: social isolation.

The first to admit to feeling lonely was James, who had stood mostly silent as the others joked. He told me that this trip marked the one-year anniversary of his mother’s death. He’d lived with her after being discharged, and after she passed, he’d stayed in the house and avoided everyone.

Everyone? Yes. Pretty much.

Several other participants told me that these trips were a necessity, not so much for the sport but because they got to be around other people who’ve had similar experiences. That was what I heard over and over again: the value of talking to others who understood you.

Still, the question nagged: Doesn’t everyone get lonely sometimes? I mean, when you’re dealing with things like Traumatic Brain Injury, missing limbs, or PTSD, is loneliness really such a big deal?

Actually, yes. For as little as it’s talked about, loneliness has been a known threat to veterans for over two decades. A study in the early 1990s identified loneliness as a major contributing factor for reactivating PTSD symptoms in WWII veterans. By the late 1990s, a study of users of a veterans affairs medical center crisis intervention hotline identified loneliness, in addition to alcoholism and unemployment, as a top trigger associated with suicide attempts.

And even for the less extreme cases, loneliness remains one of the strongest correlates with depression. A 2017 study published in the journal Military Behavioral Health found that veterans who are lonely may be at greater risk for “distorted thinking,” a thought process that makes them vulnerable to “intense bouts of stress and inner turmoil, and subsequent experiences of depression.”

Imagine having served your country, often in a team-based environment, and then returning home to find no one you can talk to. Many of us take for granted that friend who listens to us when we’re criticizing ourselves, but if you’re alone, then that inner turmoil becomes the only voice you hear. Every day it’s just you talking to yourself, exaggerating negative situations, with no one to pull you out of your head. Stress causes depression, depression more stress, on and on.

After talking with the group, I realized how easy it is to dismiss the isolated. Deeply lonely people tend to just fade into the background, a perfect camouflage, and others usually ignore them.

And why not? It’s so much easier to ignore than to engage.

That’s why I started the trip standing on shore, watching the others paddle and laugh. I wasn’t scared of the water; I was scared of them, of saying the wrong thing. At least I knew better than to ask those typical civilian questions: Were you in combat? Did you kill anyone? (Yes, people do ask things like that, and more than you might think, according to Semper Fi Fund’s leaders).

In the end, I took the chance and got in the water with them. It wasn’t much, but I understood them a little better, and maybe for a little while, they felt less alone.

I hope that, this Veterans Day holiday weekend, you’ll take that same chance. Don’t just say thank you. Take the time to get to know a veteran. One day is not enough, but for your first time in the water, it’s a start.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Opinion

Opinion: Gun control about saving lives, not waging culture wars

WASHINGTON — You have perhaps heard the joke about the liberal who is so open-minded that he can’t even take his own side in an argument. What’s less funny is that on gun control, liberals have been told for years that if they do take their own side in the argument, they will only hurt their cause. Supporters of even modest restrictions...
Opinion: Gun politics need less shouting, more persuasion

On one of our trips to Atlanta while living overseas, my wife and I were waiting to re-check our bags after clearing customs. The line was held up by a older man of Asian descent who clearly didn’t speak or read English, and didn’t understand he was supposed to remove his laptop computer from its bag before placing it on the belt to go...

Liberals don’t have only opinions worth hearing Letters like “More than one side of speech worth protecting” (Readers write, Feb. 11) absolutely leave me in fear for the future of our nation. The letter writer stated that Senate Bill 339 protecting speakers on campuses was ill-founded, since First Amendment protections apply only...
The left congratulates Putin on his choice of Trump to help divide America
The left congratulates Putin on his choice of Trump to help divide America

The Kremlin could find no better friend to demoralize the United States than its current president. A roundup of editorials Wednesday takes a look at the issue. 1. From The Guardian: Journalists need to hammer Trump with the same question until he answers it. 2. Trump Is helping to undermine American democracy From CNN: Trump’s tweets...
The right wonders if Mueller is indicting the right people. Spoiler alert: He isn’t
The right wonders if Mueller is indicting the right people. Spoiler alert: He isn’t

Robert Mueller is issuing indictments, but is he indicting the right people? A roundup of editorials Wednesday takes a look at the issue. 1. Silly Russian ads didn't swing voters; federal coverups did From The Hill: Sure, we should take action against the Russians, but what about the leaders in this country? 2. Mueller gets his ham sandwich...
More Stories