Every Day Is Memorial Day

May 28th, 2018

Conversations with veterans of war will teach you one thing quickly: for many, the only true “hero” is the one who didn’t come home. Thus, for so many combat veterans who have lost someone in war, the duty to keep the memory alive of the “true heroes” can become a lifelong, sacred mission lived out daily.  

Sadly, failing at this mission on the home battlefield also can be fatal; Survivors’ Guilt is one of the main contributors to veteran suicides that continue to plague this country. Living with the fact that you survived when so many others did not then means every day becomes Memorial Day. 

For many combat veterans, the survivor’s guilt, or the belief that you have done something wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not, can be debilitating and disturbing. Survivors of all sorts of traumas will question, feel guilty, and often even begin to believe their survival makes them responsible for the other person’s death. 

“Why did I survive?” 

“I stepped one way and my buddy went another. He took the bullet.”

“I switched seats with another pilot and he was killed. It should have been me.”  

“If I’d leaned forward, I would have been the one hit, not him.” 

The grief of losing those under your command or knowing that another person died saving you is a particularly heavy burden, but even just returning when so many others did not can feel like too much to bear. Remembering and honoring those whom veterans consider the only real heroes then becomes the new mission.  

“Survivor’s guilt is a complicated kind of grief and treating it needs to be very individual,” says counselor and combat veteran Lantz Smith, Executive Director of Soldiers And Families Embraced (SAFE), a free counseling program near Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home to the 5th Special Forces Group and 101st Air Assault. “Treatment looks different for everybody,” he says, “which means trying to settle on a blanket approach is not going to be effective. Those who want to help need to be good at listening.”

In addition, he says, it is often true that the kind of complicated grief carried by war survivors is never finished. Certainly, he says, there seems to be no straight progression through the many stages of grief, and little hope of a linear process ending neatly with a resolution or sense of closure.  

Pastors and counselors working with these combat survivors often are challenged by the nature of this grief/guilt, which is prolonged and exhausting. Being allowed to share often is helpful. Ask any combat veteran and they will tell you whose memories they personally are keeping alive. No response is necessary other than a thank you for being honored with the sharing.

“Quite often," Smith says, “survivors of combat are more afraid of forgetting than anything else. Their fear is that NOT feeling grief intensely is dangerously close to forgetting, and forgetting would be unforgivable.”   

In his invaluable Warriors Return, Dr. Edward Tick of Soldier’s Heart explains, “Survivors shape their lives and suffer their nightmares as ways to not break faith with the fallen. Canadian Lt. Colonel John McRae’s World War I poem, ‘In Flanders Fields,” reads, “If you break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep...’” 

“Civilians taking oaths of military service become bound to serve and sacrifice no matter what is asked of them, even unto killing or being killed,” says Tick. “Combat also binds, producing an intense intimacy between brothers-and sisters-in-arms and with foes. Survivors often take oaths to remain loyal forever to those with whom they have shared the experience of hell. They strain to honor the memories of their fallen, prove themselves worthy of their sacrifices, and fulfill last promises, such as delivering messages home,” he explains.

Helping these survivors find ways to remember a fellow service member’s death without constantly emotionally reliving the trauma is the challenge for trauma counselors.  

Pastors, counselors, co-workers, neighbors and family members who want to help would do well to recognize the complicated and deep nature of this kind of grief, and not set veterans up for failure by requiring they get past it.   

Knowing that their response to surviving is neither unusual nor new can help ease the intensity. The Scriptures are full of examples of the toll war takes on warriors. King Saul was driven mad. David turned his violence towards his family and friends. Recognizing they are part of a centuries old response to surviving the hell of war is often comforting to veterans.  

While many combat veterans will never finish the healing process after they return home when their brother- or sister-in-arms did not, they can find ways to make peace with and live with this new mission in life. Memorializing is one effective method, says Smith, which involves creating places and activities to hold part of the grief and help the veteran find a healthy way to keep their buddy’s memory alive.  

A fighter pilot stacks hundreds of pennies and regularly holds them to feel a physical weight to accompany the emotional burden of those whose lives were lost in bombing raids. A sailor who cannot unhear the voices of those who could not be saved from drowning becomes a counselor to help those who are drowning emotionally like he once was. A young soldier, haunted by the child whose body he carried to the burn pile, plants and tends a tree for her. These rituals will never erase the profound sense of loss or the survivors’ guilt, but they can keep the veteran from turning the grief and guilt inward in destructive ways, Smith says.  

The rituals also serve as regular reminders that survivors were likely spared for some reason. These acts and memorials become the new missions that can help combat survivors bear the saved duty of remembering. Accepting their new mission, embracing this sacred duty to remember and honor, can, with the help of families, friends, counselors and ministers, ease the survivors' guilt enough for today and help them cope with the fact that, once a combat veteran returns home from battle, every day becomes Memorial Day.  

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