There’s an oft-repeated platitude that’s expressed in the aftermath of military loss of life: “they gave their tomorrows for our todays.” It’s a beautiful sentiment and succinctly captures the sacrifice our service members are too often called to make. Yet, it obscures those who have to live with those todays and all that comes with existing in a world without.
There is very real grief being experienced by many veterans, even by those who did not personally know those recently killed in Afghanistan. This appears to be especially true for the post 9/11 generation of veterans. Whether due to the unifying experience of service in uniform during a time of war or the commonality of loss over the last 20 years, seeing the flag-draped coffins at Dover was a reminder of all that’s been surrendered.
For most, grief is not a linear experience, nor does it move through stages. It is a misconception that you progress lockstep through different phases eventually reaching acceptance. Frankly, the very idea of accepting the death of a loved one can feel particularly insulting. This is likely even more true when that loss was, or feels, preventable.
In increasingly disconnected press conferences, the political leadership at home failed to understand how imperative it was they told the true story of what was happening and help Americans understand the tenuous situation on the ground. There is an obvious risk in combat, it becomes murkier when the mission is presented as a humanitarian one and framed as a success with so much loss of life and uncertainty remaining.
Simply, what was being spouted behind podiums was not what we were all seeing with our own eyes. This departure from reality is particularly problematic for those trying to make meaning out of their loss.
Thankfully, for the Marines in Afghanistan, their company commander seems to understand the necessity of this leadership responsibility in a way that was glaringly absent from our Commander-in-Chief and Secretary of Defense. He recently released a letter to his Marines which appropriately and movingly frames the death of his Marines through the very lens of their values system.
He speaks of there being “no greater honor for a Marine [than] to be called to save Americans.” It beautifully reinforced the actions of SGT Nicole Gee who posted an image of her cradling an Afghan infant with the caption, “I love my job,” days before she lost her life saving Americans and our Afghan allies.
When loss is interwoven and explained through the lens of established principles, it does not feel as overwhelming. This moral alignment helps these tragic moments eventually become burdens for those left behind, not regrets. This matters because burdens can be shared, regrets can be singularly all-consuming and destructive.
Perhaps our leaders have failed to frame it this way because there is no framework that makes sense of leaving Americans behind and our allies to be slaughtered.
Over the weekend, hundreds gathered at the Iwo Jima memorial near Washington DC, to honor those who died, lighting candles and conducting the final roll call. Memorialization is critical to healing, as is a place to grieve with those who understand your shared experience.
Sadly, there is not yet a memorial erected to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan nor did those wars touch most Americans. This latter issue is increasingly problematic as many veterans feel disconnected from the nation they served. What’s often referred to as the civilian-military divide may best be measured by whether or not yesterday’s dignified transfer was the first you witnessed.
On the heels of tragedy is often opportunity. There is a chance for America to move forward and heal this moral injury. It begins by ensuring all of our service members and veterans have access to high-quality mental health care. It ends by our leaders making certain such avoidable tragedy never occurs again and those who were part of this one are held responsible.