When I was a youngster, Remembrance Sunday seemed to be dominated by “the men with the medals”. I would watch from the choir stalls while these men processed to the chancel steps and lowered their flags in solemn remembrance of fallen comrades.
It was very moving. We looked on in awe and wondered what acts of daring and bravery the soldiers had performed to earn those medals. All we had to rely on were the films we’d seen. Were these the men who had blown up bridges, shot down enemy aircraft and survived prisoner of war camps?
As the men with the medals have dwindled in number, we’ve started to acknowledge and marvel at others who contributed to the war effort alongside them: the women who worked on the land and in the factories, those who nursed the wounded on the front line overseas, or in hospitals at home; the animals – war horses shipped out to carry ammunition, – donkeys and mules to carry food and water, canaries to detect poisonous gas, and cats and dogs to hunt trench rats.
We’ve learnt to remember not only the men but the boys,our boys, caught up in more recent conflicts. Young lads and lasses on active service in Korea, Bosnia, Kosova, Afghanistan, Iraq. And we’ve leant to remember the wounded and the traumatised.
The men with the medals didn’t talk much about their experiences. Only in the past few years have we heard their stories, perhaps encouraged by more recent generations of service people publishing their accounts and campaigning for better treatment and care. We also now remember their families, the military wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends and children.
Returning from combat and surviving the trauma of war is as old as war itself. Part of Homer’s Odyssey, the oldest extant piece of western literature, written possibly as early as the 8th century BC, describes the ten year homecoming of the eponymous Greek warrior famous for his exploits in the Trojan War.
Odysseus encounters innumerable obstacles and traumas en route for home; he is blown off course in severe storms, is repeatedly haunted by visions of fallen comrades and returns to a wife who thinks him dead. Worse still, she doesn’t even recognise him since he is a changed man, a man in a new guise, who has to win his way back into the household and into her affections. Furthermore, there is no happy ending to the tale, as Odysseus fights with his son to the very end of his life.
There is much anecdotal evidence to draw on with regard to the problems returning soldiers have experienced in adjusting to “normal” family life; to wives who’ve had to learn to survive independently in their absence, and in redefining themselves both as husband and father who may have missed out on the birth and early years of their children.
We probably all know of soldiers who have returned from war as changed people, unrecognised, traumatised, angry and depressed, and once the initial euphoria of the homecoming has subsided, the consequences of their internal struggles have then gone on to threaten the fortunes of their families for generations.
In 2009 eight and half thousand veterans were serving sentences in UK prisons and a further eleven and half thousand were on probation or parole.
In 2012 in Britain, more soldiers and veterans killed themselves than died in combat in Afghanistan.
An average of six veterans a day over the last few years have requested treatment and are said to be suffering from PTSD Disorder.
The return from the conflict brings no immediate peace for countless veterans, who along with their loved ones have to weather the fallout of mental illness on a daily basis..
Likewise, there is little peace for us. Learn the lesson: life’s battles against injustice, evil, inequality and prejudice affect us all. Like Odysseus and returning veterans, we are all trying to find a way home to ourselves; our way home to God.
We should honour and take as our models not only those who have survived both the physical and mental scars of war in direct combat, but also the many partners, siblings and parents who have helped to nurse their traumatised loved ones back to health
They too deserve to stand alongside “the men with the medals”