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For most of our veterans, it should go without saying that military discipline and experience give them a moral authority. It is a recognition—once universal—that is too often forgotten in an age when patriotism itself seems suspect to many.
On this day when we honor our veterans, it’s good to recollect both the debt of gratitude we owe and the toll of war on many. A decade ago, the poet Marvin Bell presented a precise image of PTSD in a poem called “Veterans of the Seventies.”
He sat mute
at the round table where the trip-wire veterans
ate breakfast. They were foxhole buddies
who went stateside without leaving the war.
They had the look of men who held their breath
and now their tongues.
The phenomenon of “hyperarousal”—the inability to turn off the “fight or flight” response to danger—means that soldiers might come home without leaving the war. Yet to emphasize the toll too much can actually take away from our gratitude in this therapeutic age instead of increasing it.
In the tributes to veterans today, I want to honor, from the Civil War, my great-grandfather Peter McIntosh; from World War II, my uncles of the “Greatest Generation,” Pete, Bob, and Bill Anderson, my uncle by marriage, Jimmy Pulliam, and my father-in-law, Jim Lombardo; from the Korean War, Lyle Novinski, my friend and mentor; from the Vietnam War, my friends Mac Owens and Bob Spengler; and from Iraq and Afghanistan, my son-in-law Jude Frank and my niece’s husband, Scott Virgil. All these men I have known personally (except for my great-grandfather), and all of them have my great respect and admiration. I am sure that everyone who reads this knows similar men and women.
All of those I have known help elucidate a great passage early in Virgil’s Aeneid. In her savage and unrelenting fury at Aeneas, the goddess Juno sees the son of Venus finally nearing Italy, where he is destined to establish the ancestral line that leads to Rome and its destiny, which includes the destruction of her favorite city, Carthage. Incensed both by the injuries of the past and the future ones she will necessarily suffer, she goes to Aeolus, god of the winds, and bribes him to rouse a storm that scatters Aeneas’s fleet across the Mediterranean Sea south of Sicily. The sea-god Neptune, angered by this intrusion on his domain, rebukes the unruly winds and at once calms the turbulent waters. Virgil’s simile for this quieting of the waters (in the translation of World War II veteran Robert Fitzgerald) brings home my point:
When rioting breaks out in a great city,
And the rampaging rabble goes so far
That stones fly, and incendiary brands—
For anger can supply that kind of weapon—
If it so happens they look round and see
Some dedicated public man, a veteran
Whose record gives him weight, they quiet down,
Willing to stop and listen.
Then he prevails in speech over their fury
By his authority, and placates them.
Like the many trials of Odysseus after the Trojan War in the Odyssey, Juno’s storm symbolizes the major resistance—apparently built into the frame of the cosmos—to a veteran’s simply coming home and beginning anew after the experience of war. The clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay has a highly regarded book called Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming on just this topic. Obviously, not all veterans of military service experience combat, and not every veteran of combat comes home full of virtue, but for most, it should go without saying that military discipline and experience give them a moral authority they would otherwise lack. It is a recognition—once universal—that is too often forgotten today in an age when patriotism itself seems suspect to many.
In the Preamble to the Constitution, one of the stated aims is to “provide for the common defense.” Let me take this occasion, then, to thank the veterans at Wyoming Catholic College and to hold them up to praise for their service to our country. Among the alumni are Dominic Dubravec (2012), Joseph Kuenstle (2013), and Jason Kirstein (2018). On our staff are Colin McCarthy in Advancement and our Registrar, Jennifer Westman. Currently serving in the National Guard are Admissions Counselor Nick Curley (2017) and sophomore Jack Swindell. God bless them.
This essay was first published here in November 2020.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.
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