6.14.2011

I'm paying attention now

I wasn't expecting to see their young faces, glaring back at me a little afraid, a little excited. Mostly just young and bewildered.

Their packs lined the hallway of the airport where I sat, waiting for another Midwestern spring storm to pass its fury. Families scurried around, chasing their toddlers. Tall men in raincoats stood in front of the sliding doors, keeping the foolish from entering in the wilds of the storm. Everyone's mood was slightly tense, pretending to be relaxed, pretending to not care about this storm's potential. But the boarded windows reminded all of us that storms past were not safe and this storm should not be unheeded.

When the all clear came, in announcement and in the exhales of a thousand held-breaths, the young men and women filed out of the USO office. A sergeant, maybe two or three years their senior, commanded them to line up in rows of a certain number, to learn how to count, to answer his commands with a resounding "Yes, sergeant!"

Their civilian clothes and not-yet-adult faces and bodies told me that they were preparing for basic training. Fresh out of high school, on their way out of town, getting their college paid for, each one with his and her own story. It would be wrong or presumptuous to imagine the journeys they have taken, the paths that brought them to this moment, the joys, prides, and pains they felt about standing in this hallway at the end of a terrific storm with a backpack to their name and a sergeant reminding them brusquely that they are no longer their own person.

Military service hasn't been much of a topic of conversation in my life. I never served in the military. My parents didn't serve in the military.  A pair of my uncles did and my grandfathers. But no one spoke about it. When a recruiter for the Army called our house when I was a senior in high school, he asked me what I was planning to study in college. When I told him theology and Christian education, he stumbled a little off script and acknowledged that perhaps the Army didn't have a place for me. I don't have close friends in the active service, a few that are veterans, some that have retired from the service, some that have been discharged.

My ignorance about life in the military properly evidenced, I am willing to acknowledge that my opinions, my worries, my thoughts on the matter are wholly subject to the people and conversations that pass by my way. Nevertheless, as I stared into the faces of these young people, my heart crumbled into a prayer for their protection. Not merely for their limbs and bodies to be kept from the dangers of war, but for their hearts and their minds.

Before I came to school and began to listen to the news differently, I was unaware of the high rate of suicide among service men and women. In March 2011, the National Institute of Mental Health released data stating that the suicide rate of currently deployed soldiers at 18.3 deaths per 100,000. For a note of comparison, the overall rate of suicide in the United States is 11.3. That number should scare you. It scares me. If it doesn't, perhaps the recently reported statistic that 18 veterans commit suicide every day is enough.

We don't like to talk about mental illness. We don't like to talk about whether we see a therapist or need a pill to keep our mind from racing. We don't want to imagine that our soldiers are suffering underneath their camouflage, that they, too, might need some help. I'm told by those from within that the stigma asking for emotional and mental health care is buried deep in the conscious of our military. 

As I stared into the faces of those thirty young people, frightened or maybe energized by tornadoes and their future, my prayer for protection began. Today it has morphed into a cry for more. More voices praying with me. More people in the church paying attention to the wounded soldiers. More care for their hearts and minds. More time and attention in my own life devoted to the people who have lost peace while seeking it.

There is nothing unique about my social ignorance of military life. Any attempt to cry out must be shaped by those with harder stories to tell: chaplains, veterans, pastors, students, therapists, moms, dads. It isn't that no else is crying out, it's that I haven't been paying attention. I'm paying attention now.

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This post is written as a part of a synchroblog among friends on the topic "Where No One Else Has Gone Before." Please check out their writing.

i write to be rid of things, i know this girl
M, no one
Nightsbrightdays, Cheek to Cheek
The Rebel I, Flash FWD Metaphysics
Wordshepherd, Bones on the Mountain, Part I