Written by Shannon P. Meehan, IVMF Media Relations and Communications Specialist
A recent debate has sparked over whether or not to hold a ticker tape parade for Iraq War veterans in New York City while U.S. soldiers continue fighting in Afghanistan.
I am a former soldier who would theoretically be honored by such a parade. Yet the idea troubles me — in large part because many men I fought with in Iraq are still in harm’s way.
There’s something wrong with seeing people cheer, hearing bands play, celebrating a homecoming — while a world away, our comrades are facing down IEDs and snipers.
And even putting aside that not insignificant concern, I have been thinking in broader terms about what, exactly, a parade would mean to the men and women who fought.
As someone who led soldiers, I am cautious of the implications of such glorification, because I fear it would only feed the bad habits of a country that is more comfortable saluting or demeaning our veterans than genuinely understanding them.
The stories we tell consistently portray veterans in extremes — either emphasizing vets’ heroism beyond comprehension or their propensity for erratic violence.
Rather than clinging to these parallel, simplistic, schizophrenic portrayals, why can’t we settle on a single, realistic one?
It’s praise — lavish, unlimited, impossible praise — we hear most frequently from politicians across the spectrum, and from certain media quarters, perhaps because it’s what we most often want to believe.
You know the script: Selfless heroes when they served in uniform, veterans are capable of overcoming any and every obstacle when they get back home.
You hear this everywhere you turn.
Vets themselves sometimes contribute to the mythology.
In an interview, Army combat veteran Wes Moore boasts that there “isn’t an obstacle that a vet is going to face when they come back that they’re going to be shaken or rattled by.”
It’s a superhero image, as if the experience of war somehow rendered us incapable of being “regular.” And this, I think, is what motivates most of those who advocate for a parade.
And at the very same time, we are saturated with images of the vet as a scarred, broken man incapable of reintegrating into society.
A USA Today story, “Cops Get Help with Vets Who Are Ticking Time Bombs,” described many vets as “disturbed” and “lost in the fog of emotional distress.” An Associated Press article last month on former Marine Itzcoatl Ocampo, charged with six counts of murder, portrays the man more or less as a monster.
No shortage of stories perpetuate a stigma linking military service to violence and mental illness.
I hold my memory of the war, and those I fought alongside, close to me. I recall wandering between these narratives when I returned home, feeling pressure to fit one.
Ranked the top platoon leader in my entire battalion, I was a successful, up-and-coming officer. I had been awarded the Bronze Star and a commendation for valor in combat, saving the lives of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers.
So does that make me an emotionless rock, unshaken by adversity when I get home?
Well, no. I also suffered from PTSD and traumatic brain injury. Violent, painful memories pervaded my mind. I could not forget sifting through rubble after an explosion killed several of our men; placing their remains in body bags, piece by piece. Memories of children, lifeless; an innocent family I inadvertently killed.
So I have also been the broken vet sitting alone staring out a window, maybe holding a gun, contemplating his reasons for living.
Because of the unreal, formulaic depictions of vets in our culture, we remain distanced from society, leaving little chance that anyone will actually see us as real people with both strengths and struggles.
As a husband and father, now raising two children, I work to ensure the tragedies I’ve endured as well as caused will never touch them. That is my first concern, not getting a pat on the back in another shallow and largely symbolic display of gratitude.
No, I am not saying we should fail to honor vets, nor that we should ignore the wounded and psychologically scarred among us.
But let’s step back from these suffocating extremes and allow veterans space to define themselves.
We veterans wander gently in the gray, lost in the fog between the extremes. No parade can express this complex truth.
Capt. Meehan, Ret., U.S. Army, is a media relations and communications specialist for the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University and co-author, with Roger Thompson of the memoir “Beyond Duty: Life on the Frontline in Iraq.”
This piece appeared in the March 5 New York Daily News.