Looking at Our Veterans In a Whole New Light

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What are we? Heroes? Killers? Men? Women? Students? Violent? Leaders? Broken? Traumatized? Strong? Suicidal? Selfless? Peers? Invisible? Tough? We are America's veterans, individuals who have served in the military.

An incredible amount of misconceptions and stereotypes surround the veteran. Consider some of the portrayals in recent film, particularly of the combat veteran.

In "The Big Lebowski" (1998) John Goodman plays the character of Walter Sobchak, who, according to Wikipedia's summary of the film, "has a violent temper, and is given to pulling out a handgun (or crowbar) in order to settle disputes ... He constantly mentions Vietnam in conversations." In the Rambo series (1982 through 2008) psychologically traumatized Vietnam veteran John Rambo, played by Sylvester Stallone, is inevitably dragged into situations where he must again fight and kill to survive. Clint Eastwood in "Gran Torino" (2008) plays the bigoted, contemptuous, violent Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski.

The list of popular films casting veterans in this light goes on and on. I challenge you to think of a recent popular film where a veteran is represented in a positive or sensitive way.

One could reasonably conclude from these fictional characters that veterans are tall, tough, stoic, testosterone-driven males with a keen sense of vigilante justice, ready to do violence to perceived evildoers at the drop of a hat. Their military experience has ostensibly made them aggressive, edgy, rough and intimidating, which is a mixed bag; during normal life it is usually a handicap to everyday human interaction, while during heroic clashes with psychopathic villains, this collection of qualities becomes an asset.

Indeed, violence is really the defining characteristic of the veteran archetype. This image, this identity constricts us with its brutality, stereotyping and lack of depth. Life is not a movie; savage physical confrontations are thankfully not an everyday reality for most here in America, leaving us only with the apparent handicap of military experience when living a conventional life as a civilian and veteran.

The idea of a handicap brings me to the other popular perspective held about veterans: that we need to be healed. This certainly seems to be the stance taken by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, concerned mothers, religious communities and other compassionate organizations and individuals.

This perspective implies a certain unspoken assumption, namely that our military experiences have traumatized or otherwise negatively affected us. We generally don't hear many success stories of those who have gone on to do great things, and we don't have a network of mentors or positive veteran role models who can truly empathize with our experience and guide us in the right direction; instead, we encounter constant reminders of "how we can find help" i.e. physical or psychological therapy.

While this information is undoubtedly necessary, pertinent and potentially even life saving, the

message is still largely implicitly negative. Am I supposed to be broken?

Step into the shoes of a veteran for a moment. Upon discharge from the military you find yourself ejected like a spent shell into the water, where you float (or sink) in the complaisant but oblivious civilian population. Well-intentioned acquaintances ask you questions such as, "You were in the military? What was that like?" Maybe some snapshots of a past life flash through your mind: running in a formation, joking with buddies, sweat soaked camouflage uniforms, the cold steel of a rifle barrel, the camaraderie of working with others, the harsh voice of a non-commissioned officer, pride of well-earned medals, noise from the aircraft, heartache of emotional separation, joy of homecoming, the heavy weight of a rucksack.

How can you sum that up? What can you say? "Oh, it was fine." You stay pleasantly detached and keep the conversation mild and easy. And you move on with your life as best as you can, knowing that you are no longer who you were before the military, and no longer serving in the armed forces. How do you acknowledge your past and build on your experience in a positive way? The World War II veteran became a pillar of American society. As a nation we forgot about the Korean War veteran. With shame we remember how we cruelly spat upon the Vietnam War veteran. How will history remember the Iraq/Afghanistan veterans of today?

To join more deeply in this conversation, all are welcome to attend veteran Chris Loverro's upcoming film screening and discussion panel on Saturday, April 9, at 1 p.m. in the Chan Shun Auditorium at the UC Berkeley campus.

Editor's note: This op-ed was written on behalf of the Cal Veterans Group and the Transfer, Re-entry and Student Parent Center (TRSP) at UC Berkeley.


Clark Fitzgerald is a UC Berkeley student. Reply to [email protected]

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