Walking a mile in the shoes of a war veteran doesn’t have to mean pulling on a pair of combat boots and trekking through a vicious jungle. Sometimes a simple conversation and a little concern is all you need to have more appreciation for a former soldier of war.
Students at California Lutheran University are connected to many more veterans than they may realize and it will be easy for them to go through yet another Veterans Day without much more than brief recognition on social media. While this day of appreciation is commonly used as a reminder to give a former soldier a tip of the hat or even pay for their lunch, veterans can offer others multitudes of lessons to learn and perspectives to gain.
“War is not glory, it’s not a movie. It’s just a lot of pain and loneliness,” said Cal Lutheran Theatre Arts professor and Vietnam War combat veteran Michael Arndt. “You don’t know what to do with the emotions you have, it’s traumatic.”
Much of the public’s opinion and perception of war has been distorted by not only profit-driven media but also a lack of words capable of depicting the trauma of war.
“Nobody wants to end a war more than a soldier does,” Arndt said. “I think that there is nothing more horrifying in this world than being ordered to take someone’s life.”
A plethora of challenges exist for veterans from the moment they step back into the civilian world until even decades past their time of service. According to the Wounded Warrior Project 2014 Alumni survey, the five issues most commonly experienced by veterans of war include insomnia, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, back, neck and shoulder problems, depression and anxiety.
“Even those who don’t have physical damage have significant mental damage… many of these people are coming back without a support system,” said Arndt, who personally experienced emotional trials as a veteran. “Vietnam drastically affected the rest of my life. The future didn’t exist for me. Only the present existed for me,” Arndt said.
Veterans often find it difficult to explain war and what combat is like to those who haven’t experienced it. Even if a soldier only serves for a short period of time there are challenges associated with post-service life that go unrecognized. They must ultimately seek support from other veterans, regardless of which war they served in or how and why they became involved with the military.
“The experience of people in war is the same, there is a connection between the men and women who have experienced the military,” Arndt said.
“It’s strange when you’re back in the civilian world and you’re back with your family, you actually feel more alone because they can’t relate to the challenges you’ve had,” said Sara Bergeron, a student at Cal Lutheran and former aviation structure mechanic in the Navy.
Both Arndt and Bergeron have used their experiences as inspiration to spend countless hours creating opportunities for veterans on campus and in the community to relate to each other, find support, and transition back into civilian life.
“When I was in Vietnam, I had a meaningful experience which sort of altered my perception of what I was doing and increased my resolve to try to express the experiences of veterans across all generations,” Arndt said of his 2010 journey to Vietnam to retrace his time there during the war.
Shortly after, he wrote and directed, “Under Fire: Stories of Combat Veterans across generations,” a multimedia theatre piece based off of interviews from veterans of various wars. He aims to write even more experience-based pieces with the goal of fostering healing from war through sharing, as well as translating the traumas of war into an attainable appreciation for those that do not understand it.
“There are a lot of young men and women that don’t want to talk about it, it’s too painful, too emotionally raw. But I believe strongly that until you acknowledge your experience and your feelings, there’s not going to be healing.” Arndt said.
Bergeron has devoted time and experience to the Veteran Resources office as well the veterans club on campus to serve the huge array of military affiliation at Cal Lutheran. Choosing to attend school as a Veteran can be a confusing and frustrating experience, and she aims to provide a helpful and understanding presence for those who come to Cal Lutheran. The Veteran Resources office is currently planning Cal Lutheran’s very first Veterans Day celebration, and encourages everyone at Cal Lutheran affiliated with the military to attend.
“Even just having someone to relate to is really important,” Bergeron said.
It may seem difficult for a student to fully understand the intricacies of war and the wide amount of sacrifices that veterans have made. However with the purpose Veterans Day in mind, it is not necessary to. Simple honor, thanks, and humanistic appreciation are often all that are needed to aid in healing.
“Be aware of the veterans among us,” Arndt said. “If you know of a veteran, don’t be afraid to go up to talk to the person. It will be much appreciated”
There is a deeper emotional element of simply thanking one for their service on Veterans Day than a normal civilian may realize.
“It’s not something I did for glory or for recognition. I just had a desire to do something greater than myself,” said Bergeron, “There’s no praise. For someone to stop and go out of their way to thank me for something that is a very thankless job is very moving to me.”
“Once you’re a veteran, you always are. My uniform is just underneath my skin.”
“I think all students should have that exposure, should talk to veterans, should understand what it really means to commit your life to something beyond yourself.”
Published November 5, 2014