Veteran and poet, Ben Weakley reflects on life after service in this special Veterans Day blog post.

As we approach Veterans Day, I’m re-visiting Phil Klay’s book of short stories, Redeployment. Perspective changes with time and distance, and my current experience with Klay’s masterful stories of combat and homecoming set amid the height of the Iraq War is no different.

When I first read Redeployment, these stories grabbed my attention with raw, visceral descriptions of combat violence and the spiritual rending it inflicts on its participants. This time, however, I’m noticing the emotional distance Klay puts between his young Marine characters and the well-meaning civilians they interact with after war.

With my own wars 11 years behind me, the theme still hits home. Klay’s veteran characters seek, and struggle to find, something in their relationships with civilians that speaks to my own want.

I don’t pretend to speak for all veterans. But what I want, what I think many of us want, is intimacy – to be seen for all that we are. Yes, the trials we overcame and all that we still have to offer. But also, the ugly parts. Even the war stories that don’t fit easy-to-digest popular narratives. Even war stories we might not be proud of.

I’m not looking for absolution, forgiveness, rescue, or adoration. Just see me.

Part of the struggle, though, exists in expressing the unspeakable.

In his story, “Bodies,” Klay’s protagonist is a Marine just home from a tour in Iraq spent processing the remains of dead American and Iraqis. When he opens up to a guy in his hometown bar about the time he handled the charred remains of a young Marine, the well-meaning civilian’s response misses the mark. Klay’s Marine reacts:

I took a sip of my beer. “I don’t want you to respect what I’ve been through,” I said.

That confused him. “What do you want?” he said.

I didn’t know. We sat and drank beer for a bit.

“I want you to be disgusted,” I said.

“Okay,” he said.

“And,” I said, “you didn’t know that kid. So don’t pretend like you care. Everybody wants to feel like they’re some caring person.”

He didn’t say anything else, which was smart. I waited for him to say something wrong, to ask me about the war or the Marine that died…. But he didn’t say another word, and neither did I. And that was that for me telling people stories.

It’s tempting to think of silence and isolation as being inflicted on veterans by an uncaring society, but the truth is more complicated. Just like Klay’s Marine, when faced with our inability to put the unspeakable into words, sometimes we, the veterans, turn away from intimacy.

What to do, then, with the unspeakable things that happen in war and traumas that happen in service outside of war?

For those of us who want to build a community of intimacy, who want to build an identity after service that integrates our experiences, the arts can be a container for what we carry, a medium for expressing the ineffable.

My art is poetry. When I couldn’t say something to the Army psychiatrist treating me for PTSD, I could write about it in my journal or tap it out in the notes app on my phone. Later, when I couldn’t tell my wife or friends, I could put it in a poem. Others I know find oil paint and canvas, clay pottery, or photography to be their way to express big things. Whatever the medium, the act of creation is the ultimate empowerment, even if the outcome isn’t perfect.

Creating intimacy implies a sense of collective safety that allows everyone to be vulnerable. When veterans and civilians come together to create and share art in a place of collective safety, something magic happens on both the individual and the collective level. 

Over the last three years, I’ve seen this magic firsthand in workshops held by Community Building Art Works (CBAW) for veterans, families, and civilians. As a participant, I found myself writing through the ugly parts and into beauty. As a workshop facilitator for CBAW, I’ve watched people from military, military-family, and civilian backgrounds form deep bonds over time and distance through the simple act of shared creation. I have witnessed these bonds spill over from virtual and in-person workshops into relationships that combat the loneliness and isolation that are endemic not just to the veteran community but to modern American society as a whole.

Practicing being vulnerable, exercising the skill of creating intimacy with others not like me in creative workshops has spilled over into the rest of my life with healing and enriching effects.

I’ve built deep and meaningful friendships with people who will never understand what Iraq and Afghanistan were like for me. I can take a leap of faith to trust them with my stories. They’re brave enough to ask questions that could offend me or make them look silly. In return, I give them more uncensored truth, the kind that isn’t always pleasant or flattering. I see them and I am seen. Bit by bit, exchange by exchange, we build intimacy, belonging, community.

Now that the most visible and public parts of America’s post-9/11 wars are over, our communities, our country, and the world need our voices and our stories to preserve the memory, the truth, of what happened. No one else can tell your story of service. It is uniquely yours, and if you’re willing to tell it, we need to hear it.

Opportunities for engagement are everywhere. Organizations like Community Building Art Works (CBAW) bring together talented artists and teachers for free programming online and in-person for veterans, families, and civilians.

I’m still searching for intimate community in the new and unfolding parts of my post-service life. I think I’ve found a path, though. I’ll keep telling my story in new ways. I’ll look for opportunities to be vulnerable, to connect with people who couldn’t possibly understand me but want to try. I hope you’ll do the same; we just might find ourselves in the same community.