In the years since this country switched to an all-volunteer military force, the division between veteran and civilian cultures has become vast. Civilians do not pay attention to faraway conflicts, because they don’t have skin in the game. They are not going to receive deployment orders, so they don’t need to understand the outcome of some distant battle. They can let somebody else worry about it for them.
What I wish for veterans who have returned after serving a year in Iraq or in Afghanistan is that they could come home to a country that understood what they have gone through. The lives of veterans would be easier if, when they got home, they met only people who knew the names of the foreign places where they have been posted. If they spoke only with people who could follow a conversation in which they said they had lived in a CHU, and driven an ASV, and dodged an RPG. But usually, that’s not the case.
The act of translating military experience for a civilian audience is wearying. When I imagine a better future for the veterans of Indiana, when I envision the next Indiana, I see a place with less division between civilian and military cultures. It was with that goal in mind that I told the stories of three ordinary and yet extraordinary women who served in the Indiana National Guard. All had enlisted before 9/11, and none had foreseen lengthy, multiple overseas deployments. They are still trying to explain to their families and their friends what exactly happened to them while they were gone. And what they need most, now that they are safely back at home, is for the rest of us to understand. To know what it meant for them to leave their homes and their children, put on uniform, live in a conex, and drive up and down the highways of Iraq, even though they were littered with bombs. It’s a hard thing to explain, but this world will be a better place when the rest of us know their stories, when we understand what this country asks of its veterans. Only then can we properly welcome them home.
Helen Thorpe is an award-winning journalist who lives in Denver, Colorado. Her magazine work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Texas Monthly, and 5280. Her first book, Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America, was published in 2009. It won the Colorado Book Award and was named one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post. Her second book, Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War, was published in 2014. TIME named it the number one nonfiction book of the year, and The New York Times said: “Through minute, almost claustrophobic, detail — using military and medical records, as well as therapists’ notes and personal correspondence —Thorpe achieves a staggering intimacy with her subjects.”
This post was written as part of a series celebrating the Next Indiana Bookshelf, a program of Indiana Humanities and the Indiana Center for the Book. “The Indiana Chant” is featured on the shelf. Views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of Indiana Humanities or Indiana Center for the Book. Check the Indiana Humanities blog throughout 2016 for additional posts by authors detailing their vision for the Next Indiana.