Posted in Fragile Life, Insight, Takes a Village

Veterans Day-talking to sons about soldiers & war

Gonzales, detail,

“Why do they have to keep their eyes facing forward?” my son asks. We’re watching the film, Annapolis.

“They have to keep their focus,” I say, though what do I know of soldiers or navel academies?

My best guess is that the Mid-shipman is trying to see if he can provoke the plebes to react, testing their strength in the face of anger or fear.

I don’t typically share movies about soldiers with my boys, but we are heading to my father’s new home in Annapolis for Thanksgiving and I thought this DVD might lend a sense of place.

As a young teen, I lived on the army base at West Point. Soldiers ran in the woods behind my house in full fatigues with heavy packs and boots–in the heat of summer.

I saw the heads of plebes shaved in the courtyard outside the barracks when they arrived, and I was there the year that the first women were admitted to the Academy.

You could drive right into the heart of the campus then, and even years later when I returned to visit the base, before 9/11.

I watched soldiers march on winter weekends in the cold snow, paying off demerits. I saw them faint in summer pageantry. I knew that plebes couldn’t date. I’d eaten in their mess hall and witnessed the hoops there were simply to eat.

Despite this intimacy with a soldiers training, I don’t respect the job of killing. I’d like to see our military be creative with their talents and resources.

I know it isn’t always this simple, but I did stumble upon something that shed some light inside my own troubled heart around what soldiers do. It came from the question my young son asked.

Why do they have to keep their eyes facing forward, stayed with me all evening, and was there again the next morning when I woke.

This inquiry led me to explore a deeper connection with a soldier’s training.

“Facing forward” lends presence to what is right in front of you–without succumbing to the distraction of  fear, anger, exhaustion, and no doubt, self-doubt.

In this way, military training might be very Zen, although I’m not an expert there either.

In the film Annapolis, my sons witness the steady focus demanded of soldiers, in the face of spewing insults, assaulting weather, pain, fatigue, hunger, and whatever else the human mind can conjure up in the form of suffering.

I don’t know how they’re able to carry this type of focus into the battlefield, but I’m sure it serves all who do. With deep presence, there is an absence of resistance, fear, escape.

I wonder, however, how much are they able to salvage from this gift of presence?

Fedotow, detail,

From what I know of veterans, they simply can’t remain present to all they saw or did or endured.

They turn away. They compartmentalize. They anesthetize. They experience or inflict pain. They reap heaps of punishment on themselves, becoming their own drill sergeant. And sometimes, they become the enemy itself, taking their own life, or the lives of their comrades, or the lives of those they’ve sworn to protect–their families or community members.

But what if like my son so aptly witnessed, they were able to keep looking forward?

What if their training included such presence after their service was complete?

What might come of that?

Great healing I suspect. In being present, even to that which horrifies us, we release and soften and accept, and then all there is… is love.

This truth is echoed in the lives of soldiers who “live” to share their stories and fight their way toward peace, on the inside. And in that discovery, each lends his voice to those who proclaim the futility of war through the generations.

With clear vision, a soldier’s astounding ability to focus could be taken into the world in service–in the kind of service, that she doesn’t have to turn away from when he comes home–in the kind of service that he can look in the eye without shame or hatred–in the kind of service that can change the world, one heart at a time. One soldier at a time. One pair of eyes looking forward at a time.

I recently attended the premier of the film, Taking Root, a documentary about Wangari Maathai, the activist, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental action in her country of Kenya. Wangari was present at the viewing, as were the filmmakers who live in our town.

In the great breadth of her life’s work on behalf of the environment, Wangari convinces the military that their job as protectors, includes the land, and so they too join her in her campaign to plant trees, reforesting arid land, and improving lives around them.

Bosch, detail,

This kind of rethinking about the role of protector is just a drop in the empty bucket of the terror faced around the world, but this is how change is watered.

As I revisit this piece of writing following a rise in military suicides, a son of our own arrives in Iraq. Joseph is not a biological son, but a son of our community, a young man I’ve watched grow up.

He came to this country from Ethiopia as a boy, and has now been sent across another sea as an American soldier.

I know his beautiful spirit.
I know some of the pain his young life held.
I know he lost most of his family to AIDs.
I know he watched both parents and his grandmother die.

Though Joseph was welcomed into our small rural community with open arms, he faced hatred when he went to high school in the neighboring town for the color of his skin.

Perhaps becoming a Marine after graduation was his way of finding place. I know that his childhood dream was to return to his Ethiopia and help the children there.

He wanted to buy a farm and raise cows, like those he tended as a boy in mountains of Ethiopia.

Carpaccio, detail,

But America doesn’t fund those kind of dreams, not for teenage boys, particularly those with less means. Instead we train them to kill others in far away places and then expect them to return “home,” and live as if it never happened.

These same crimes would land Joseph in jail in the states, and it is he who will have to come to peace with that incongruency.

And it is WE, who hold the responsibility of sending our children to such places of anguish outside–and inside–themselves.

And so the military will hire more therapists and increase spending to support soldiers with their mental health or their missing limbs or lost comrades or visions of death while the rest of the country will worry about the economy which relies so heavily on perpetuating this machine of hopelessness and cruelty.

I wonder if it might help if we all did that to which my young son bore witness–face forward. Can we find a soldier’s strength to face forward in our lives and do the work that needs doing.

And to let that work be of service to others–the kind of service that lends itself to other “drops” of change…

Until the bucket of terror is tipped,

And we have watered a lush new world.

(November 2007)

2012 update: More US soldiers are losing their lives to suicide than from enemy forces, the Pentagon reports… at a rate of about one per day, with 18 attempts daily.

2013 update, from Remembering American’s Veterans in 2013

  • Veterans account for 20 percent of national suicides.
  • An estimated 22 veterans committed suicide each day in 2010, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
  • Nearly 35 percent of deployed service members experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, according to Stanford University estimates.
    • 27 percent of Army soldiers met the criteria for alcohol abuse in three or four months after returning from Iraq, according to a 2011 study by the National Institute for Drug Abuse.
    • A 2009 Pentagon health survey found that one in four soldiers had abused prescription drugs.
    • Combat veterans are 31 percent more likely to begin binge drinking than service members who do not experience combat.

2017 updates:


Lifelong educator, writer, retreat & journey leader, yoga & yogadance instructor.

7 thoughts on “Veterans Day-talking to sons about soldiers & war

  1. Another thought, if I may…

    If military training included what you call “presence after the task at hand,” it would be very poor training for combat.

    The blind obedience to orders is all that makes a fighter effective. It saves people’s lives. It is not meant to, nor is it useful to, better them.

    Many soldiers have become great humanitarians, but it is through lessons learned in war. Lessons about all kinds of suffering and the action needed to address it. Basic training is not the place to build humanitarians.


    1. Your thoughts echoed here by Isabelle Allende, from her novel, The House of Spirits:

      “The military were a breed apart, brothers who spoke a different dialect from the civilians and with whom any attempt at dialogue would be a conversation of the deaf, because the slightest dissent was considered treason…”

      “Soldiers are not made to shine in times of peace… War is the soldier’s work of art, the culmination of all their training, the gold medal of their profession… a chance to put into practice what they learned– blind obedience, the use of arms, and other skills that soldiers can master once they silence the scruples of their hearts.”


  2. Respectfully, Kelly, I must tell you that your concept of “presence” is not as relevant as you make it.

    Military training is not Zen. It does not teach us to free ourselves from fear or fatigue or anything else. It teaches us only that we damn well better act in [i]spite[/i] of anything we feel or know.

    The drill sergeant’s job is to make sure we feel absolutely miserable and scared – and then make sure we know we can act in that state.

    It is 0 per cent mindfulness and 100 per cent simple gut obedience. Not the mind overcoming itself, but instinct and habit overcoming the mind.


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