Veterans' Gifts 

The veterans headed for Pikes Peak in glows of anticipation ... The Fifteenth Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry, with its regimental banners and captured colors flying, lined up four abreast and marched smartly out Pikes Peak Avenue from the Antlers under the twirling ribbons of the decorated streets.

-- Marshall Sprague, Newport in the Rockies

It was prophetic -- given Colorado Springs' strong military flavor since the mid-20th century -- that the first celebration honoring veterans here took place 11 years before the end of World War I, on Armistice Day, which evolved into Veterans Day.

Gen. Palmer, paralyzed in 1906, was forbidden by his doctor to attend his Civil war regiment's 35th reunion in Pennsylvania the following year, so he brought all 280 veterans to Colorado Springs.

I grew up with the Vietnam War, from early horrific newspaper images of self-immolating Buddhist monks far away, to the ever-present question dominating all my teenage male friends' lives: the war. My circle of friends opposed it. Enlist? Be drafted? Prison for refusing? Canada? Conscientious objector status?

Our family had no military tradition; my father had been too young for the First World War and too old for the second. My brother's birthday came up No. 1 the first year of the draft lottery -- but a bicycle accident that kept him in a coma for three weeks with a head injury kept him out of Vietnam. For years, Veterans Day was, to me, somebody else's holiday that came with too much flag-waving rhetoric.

Loving a combat veteran opened my mind and my heart, and changed my life. I've learned something, not about war, but about what veterans have gone through and live with, the gifts they bear and the paradoxes they endure.

Before, I could hear a helicopter while hiking and just be annoyed at its noise; now, I hear the load of gut-level memories and feelings it carries. Sounds, sights, smells can take the veteran right back to Vietnam ... Korea ... Normandy. With Colorado Springs' enormous military community (active duty, reservist, retired), how ironic it is that holiday celebrations meant to honor veterans instead often trigger flashbacks. Fourth of July fireworks can bring, unbidden, the body's intense survival alert: hard-wired memories of tracers, the pop of flares, the whistle and scream of incoming artillery. Parade (or football-game) flyovers may stir patriotic fervor in some people; for others, they usher the past's intensity, fear and loss into the present. To some veterans, traditional Memorial Day barbecue aromas bring back the smell of burned bodies.

How crazy and surreal it must have been, to be taking life one day, because it's either him or you; maybe the next day, bringing life into the world, helping a village woman deliver a baby; and maybe the day after that, feeling your buddy's life ebb away in your arms, a victim of "friendly fire."

Most veterans couldn't wait to return to normal life, only to find there was no such thing. When her husband was having a nightmare and strangling her in the middle of the night, one veteran's wife figured out that all she had to do to wake him was turn on the light. An ex-POW who survived on rats can't stand even spoiled food being discarded. A musician, a former medic, found himself flat on his belly -- onstage, during a gig -- because his survival instinct kicked in when his amp blew.

Some veterans are maddeningly perfectionist, having been in a place where they were either perfect or dead. Many miss the brotherhood of absolute trust -- reliance on each other for their lives. And the clarity -- life or death, without fuzzy nuances. Yet simultaneously, the question: "Why did my friends get killed, yet I survived?" A Vietnamese woman in the documentary Regret To Inform, recalling choices she had to make, cries, "How could I, a child of 14, have the power to decide who lives and who dies?" Many veterans, barely out of their teens when they fought, harbor the same question, however deeply it's buried.

Visiting veterans memorials with a vet taught me, as an artist, the true power of what art can be. The soaring spirit at Angel Fire, NM; New York's etched-glass memorial where veterans' words shine from within; the Wall in Washington, D.C., which -- because it goes straight to the heart and nobody thinks of it as "art" -- is one of the most important works of art in America.

And in the process of learning to understand my veteran friends' experiences, my own artwork shifted and deepened. I began acknowledging old emotional wounds and how experiencing loss in my youth has shaped my life. Hearts began appearing in my work -- torn, punctured hearts, surrounded by barbed wire and velvet.

Despite patriotic platitudes which monopolize Veterans Day, there's another aspect we should consider. Every culture has legendary archetypal heroes who go into danger, bringing back light and warmth. Veterans who returned from the dark journey bring heart gifts at gut level about what's really important. Having endured much death, they carry an awareness of life's fragility, so swiftly expendable. In the closing words of Platoon: "Those of us that did make it have an obligation to build again, and to teach others what we know; and to try, with what's left of our lives, to find a goodness and meaning to this life."

A worthy thought for all of us, this Veterans Day and beyond.


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