When my father, Jack was dying, he shared a story that woke me up to who he was and the reason for his restless soul. I’d never understood this volatile, charismatic Dutchman who’d shared so little of his background gorwing up in occupied Holland during World War II. But one day, a few weeks before his death, as he rested in his favorite leather recliner, much diminished by his lung cancer, I begged him for some stories about growing up in that little village in the Netherlands. That’s when, out of the blue, he blurted out, “You know, when I was 14, me and my best friend strangled a German soldier in our village.” I responded with silence, offering him space: “He (the soldier) was probably only 17 and didn’t know why he was there. But he was the enemy, and we had to take him out.”
My father’s sharing was a tacit plea for forgiveness and a re-humanization of the young German guard he had killed. He’d never spoken of World War II, which he joined after escaping and lying about his age, nor of that most intimate of killings that preceded his full-on plunge into combat. I’m so glad he got to take that one huge rock out of his backpack before he died.
We all would like to leave this life with a clean slate, complete in our relationships, having achieved “closure.” But, for veterans, the moral burden of participation in war can cause immense spiritual pain. I’ve heard Vietnam veterans even say, “I don’t deserve to heal.” For veterans who have stuffed away the horror of war, we often see how all that is unresolved rises up as they are dying.
One in four people who dies in the US is a veteran according to a 2013 VA report. Many of us do not know we are around veterans, and their wounds are equally invisible to us.
This issue of NTM considers our role in healing their soul wounds. We hear from wise teachers, Deborah Grassman of Opus Peace and Dr. Ed Tick of Soldier’s Heart. Alison Perry shares her innovative approach to veterans’ care by reconnecting them to nature on a sheep ranch, and Kandyce Powell makes a difference to the lives and deaths of veterans, including those behind the walls of Maine State Prison. May all our veterans go in peace.