These two smaller pictures are of my friend, Matt.
One is at our senior prom and the other is in Iraq – you can probably guess which one.
Often when I sit down to write these letters, I can find some clever framing device for the cover subject, or I can employ an interesting point of view as a jumping off point, but this month my perspective is much more limited; that’s the reason why I am bringing Matt along with me. My friend since third grade, we shared phone calls and emails through four deployments (three in Iraq and one in Afghanistan) over nine years. While I was eating beef jerky in my car and learning to be a better journalist, Matt was dodging bullets in Baghdad.
He is my only real personal tie to what is arguably the single most misunderstood segment of our generation – the modern combat veteran.
Now, I don’t mean that as a country we don’t “support the troops.” In the post-9/11 world, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t appreciate the massive sacrifice given by the men and women of our armed forces.
But that doesn’t mean civilians really understand them – especially when thousands of soldiers like Matt are now back in Ohio, facing the challenging and alien task of reintegrating into a world that has shifted several times during multiple deployments.
This month’s cover package, “Body of War” (page 79), was in essence an editorial exercise driven by personal interest: my respect for the modern veteran (or any veteran) is only matched by my inability to truly relate to their experience.
With Veterans Day approaching, I thought of the disappearing ink that used to be devoted to countless headlines a day from Afghanistan, now replaced with the ominous threat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. I thought about how quickly the tide of war can change, and when it does, will it potentially wash over an equally serious issue here at home?
We won’t be the first to tell you that, beyond those we have lost in battle, there are an even greater number of potential casualties of war – long after tours are served and deployments have run their course. Reports of veteran suicides and divorce and bankruptcy and homelessness are increasingly commonplace, yet they get far less of the ink that war stories do.
What we are here to share with you is an honest discussion for those interested in better understanding the mind, body, and soul of the “whole warrior.”
To be frank, I never knew how to talk to Matt over the course of those nine years. I was never sure of where the boundaries were – what really could help him (or if he even needed it). Typically, we would discuss sports, our mutual taste in shitty hip-hop, and he’d talk about who had the filthiest banter on Army walkie-talkies.
Reading the personal, in-depth answers to our questions in this issue, I’ve been enlightened by the four local veterans willing to share their stories.
Namely, that they’re willing to share their stories.
That certainly doesn’t apply to everyone. The veterans in this issue, my friend Matt, your cousin, your friend’s sister – they’re all carrying a different narrative with them when they return home. But it is about questions, perhaps even the ones we – the civilians – ask ourselves.
How can we help? How can we better understand? Beyond bumper stickers and 5Ks and firm handshakes, what are real, tangible things the civilian world must understand and absorb in order to help these men and women who left pieces of themselves in a desert on the other side of the world?
After working on this issue, I don’t plan for those to be rhetorical. This experience has made me reflect on whether I should have asked Matt more questions over the last decade, and fortunately, I still have the chance. If you are so lucky, I urge you to do the same.
Travis Hoewischer, Editor-in-Chief