Sunday, May 29, 2011

Coming Back Different

Francis Xavier Stevens

Some people never come back from war, of course—but of the ones who do, it is easy to see the difference in a missing finger, foot, leg or arm. Outward signs of tragedy remind us of the seriousness of the journey our young people departed on when they signed up for this event called the tour of duty.

Though they may not have sustained injury and even though we cannot see the signs, every one of them comes back changed. That is part of the price of bravery.

One day, Chris’s Chicago aunt got to talking about his dad’s return from World War II. Since Chris was a young child when he lost his dad, his uncle and aunt have always insured that they provided him with a picture of who the man really was.

“He just wasn’t the same,” Chris’s aunt would tell him. Frank Stevens left home young, fun-loving, sociable. But he evidently also had a sensitive side—a side that took in much of what he saw in his years in the Pacific. He never really found a way to set it all down on the front porch of his mind when he returned home.

He hasn’t been the only one trying to leave the war behind. That became the story of many vets returning from World War II, I found out. A few years ago, I came across a documentary commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the battle at Iwo Jima, which captured the crux of veterans in the process of making that same self-discovery.

The concept of the DVD, The League of Grateful Sons, was to bring some of the survivors of the battle back to the island, along with their family members, and to share their retrospective commentary on what has become the insignia for difficulty in battle.

In the “Making Of” section of the DVD set, the producers observed that, in talking with the veterans, they heard many confessing that they shut up those memories, never wanting to mention the horrors they endured. After sixty years, though, something had changed these vets' minds and now they wanted to tell their story.

In preparing for the journey, the producers’ curiosity had been piqued by the emotion-laden response of many—soldiers and descendants alike—giving them a heart-felt “Thank you for telling my story.” And yet, many of these same veterans admitted that, throughout most of their lives, they didn’t want to talk about it.

That reaction was not an isolated symptom of just one war. A returning veteran from a much-less popular—though more recent—war made much the same confession.

I can only image what stories Chris’s dad took with him to his grave. His letters from the ship where he was stationed were carefully sanitized by a son concerned that he not alarm his poor mother, and then meticulously scrubbed by censors so no telltale signs would compromise their collective safety. Whether Frank never got the relief of releasing some of those thoughts into the open air, took the chance to pass them along—or did, but his son was too young to comprehend it—we’ll never know.

Wherever we can, though, let's talk about it.

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