When A Warrior Returns
I’d had friends in high school whose desire and sole mission was to enter a branch of the military and get off the reservation. It wasn’t until my son was fueled with a passion all his own, that the words and intent of “serving your country” invaded my heart and home. Mind you, he was in the first grade when he self-proclaimed he was going to be a soldier. Having that experience early on, I thought it might be a phase of Cowboys and Indians that he would outgrow and I could settle my nerves.
One night a few years later, I was jolted awake by his whimpering and heaving sobs. I sat next to him, trying to wake him from a dream. When he opened his eyes, behind the tears was a dark and heavy fear that he had just experienced. He started to tell me he dreamt he was at war and his best friend had died in combat. His account of the dream was so vivid and the details jarring that I came to tears realizing this was not just a childhood phase, my son had made a life decision in his early years that I would have to come to terms with.
I’m not sure that all mothers, parents or families have the same experience or similar epiphany. I spent a number of moments, like many of you, anticipating the day you’d have to say good bye to the child or children you so carefully tried to mold into a responsible young man or woman, preparing them to be independent with just enough spirit and courage to take risks that will improve the quality of their lives. When you can tell your children apart from the next room by the pitch in their laughs, the way their feet shuffle down the hall or just how quiet or loud the room gets in their presence, it’s hard to imagine their absence. All of these familiarities become the pitter-patter of your heart. Parenting and letting go is nearly as painful as their first moments tearing into this world. Our children are born Warriors.
Fast forward to reconnecting with friends who had gone to war or entered into a life of service. Some went in and came right out when they paid their dues. Others reenlisted and held tight to their commitment.
I’d later come to meet people who were dating or married to military men or who were military themselves. When the occasion arose, I got to visit with friends who returned from active duty and the experience in itself was not as heartfelt as it is to me now.
In my 20’s, brushes of conversations were limited to quick updates and I might have been more interested in where they’d been and what they saw than how they were doing. Not because I didn’t care, I just wasn’t close enough to the experience to be a better friend or support.
My early 30’s wouldn’t have been much different, except that I’d become more interested in making my experiences with people, more meaningful and intentional. I think I’d always had the desire to be connected to people in my life, for any given amount of time, even acquaintances.
My role through this piece as an advocate has me rallying behind efforts, lending my passion to push for results that will benefit not only those close to me, but for indigenous communities with families just like yours or mine who may have sons and daughters who will or have taken on a life of service and may not return as the child they nurtured and adored, however, coming home needing ever more to be loved and understood after the complexities of war or active duty.
What wars are being fought today depends on the unintentional or intentional method of word placement to any given internet search site. Wikipedia hosts a front of documented American Indian Wars while search results for “American Indians prepare for war” draws up surface level interpretations of war paint, symbolism and an artist’s depiction of indigenous people gathering with spears and shields. Closer to home for my community, Wikipedia’s account of The Pueblo Revolt does little to capture the significance of a day or days of revolt amongst Pueblo peoples across New Mexico and Arizona enacting vigilance in acts of war to reclaim their cultures, identity and end the deprecating and invasive practices of the Spaniards. The accounts of this personal war from the mouths of our elders draw anguish and tears, as oral history does not minimize or water down the horrendous events where so many shed their humble lives to afford their children and grandchildren a future rich with culture and humility.
Onward through centuries & decades, across history and wars that paint grotesque pictures of devastation through massacres aimed at the genocide of indigenous peoples, termed rebels and savages, the original hosts of the land we now call America. Throughout these times, many a tribal member has aided the opposition, promised riches or access to the resources that made life in our quiet and remote lands a bit more glorious.
Today, we are moving into new frontiers where our history and warriors are acknowledged for their roles and contributions to past wars. A report published in September 2012 titled, American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) Servicemembers and Veterans does a phenomenal job in the Introduction for acknowledging warriors, followed by a dry presentation of tables that compare the data of American Indian and Alaska Native veterans or servicemen against “All Other Races.” In the area of Veteran Analysis, two bullet points speak to income, educational attainment, unemployment, health insurance and disabilities. Whether you are well read or have a vested interest in the statistics, or the outcomes, of American Indian and Alaska Native people of any age, you know that it is merely a game to interchange the words low/lower, high/higher, lack or likelihood in front of any of those named categories to distinguish minority representation of the data. This is true not just of our warriors of service to America, but our warriors in the classroom in a one-size fits all educational system.
Just as teachers are preparing our children to lead lives of social accountability through civic service, independence, traditional values, character and innovation, our men and women are enlisting in service and sent into conflicts on behalf of an America that once treated them as the enemy in their homeland (and maybe continues to). This is the fork in the road that I’ve come to in observation of my fellow classmates, tribal members and friends who come home with little support for the transition back to a life they once knew. Family is still family, dirt roads remain unpaved, the solitude of a rural landscape does little to quell the war they’ve waged with themselves by strapping on a uniform, shelving cultural values and practices in hopes that the life of service will provide everything the recruiter said it would. An affordable education, employment preference, leadership skills and service to the great America.
In reality, Warriors return home to reservations, with limited opportunities for employment or professional development, and little support for transition back to civilian life. If one has significant medical needs, veteran’s hospitals are located in cities that may require a couple hours for travel time. There may be additional delays in re-acclimation, having compromised cultural values and expectations based on their experiences and conflicts with war and active duty.
While some communities have local veteran’s affair offices that help with applications for specific assistance for veterans, a friend tells me that a large part of the transition lies with the individual. I came into my desire to advocate for veteran services after several experiences of veterans hit close to home. Some of these individuals have left this world while others are still fighting their internal wars.
The most common battle is that of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. I’ve watched and listened to stories of how one’s PTSD has led to domestic violence, inability to communicate stresses, difficulty establishing routines of sleep, rigidity and the list goes on. Friends who have taken prescribed medication and attended counseling have expressed that they dislike the feeling of being on medication and most often resort to substituting alcohol or drugs, which later results in dependency. Counseling is sometimes interpreted as a sign of weakness and if traveling to larger cities for treatment, the cost can become a deterrent. Local counseling is not always favorable with the uncertainty of confidentiality and fears of being judged.
Some have tried local medicine men only to find that this does not help to absolve them of the haunting realities of war and active duty. Church or religion outside of the culture may be frowned upon, so a veteran must be resolute in their attempts at faith in order to seek counsel or refuge of this form. I believe this is true with any undertaking, big or small, personal or professional.
Limited access to adequate care for the variety of dispositions a veteran returns home with can fill one with feelings of hopelessness, inadequacy and maybe just plain resolve that there is no help.
Each year that I hold off on posting this because I fear that there isn’t enough information, maybe I’m shooting too far, perhaps I missed the opportunity to say something profound. I’ve met people who have learned to live day to day, some who have absolved to chalk up their losses in returning home in exchange for life moving forward.
Thank you to the communities at large, advocates and partners who are working their tails off to develop creative services for our Warriors who make it home. Countless prayers and blessing to all who have served… and their families.