November 2017 was named National Veterans and Military Families Month on Nov. 1 by President Donald Trump.
While November was proclaimed a veterans month, Nov. 11 is a special day, said Victoria Brahm, Tomah VA Medical Center director.
“We honor them on this day because it is on this day, Nov. 11, at the 11th hour, of the 1th month of 1918 that the guns of World War I fell silent,” Brahm said. “Across Europe America’s doughboys started coming home, and we began to support our returning veterans.”
The peace did not last, Brahm said. More wars were fought, and ordinary men and women stepped up to serve and acted extraordinary.
“That is the story of the American veteran − ordinary men and women that have stepped up to claim independence, protect our freedom and help others in their struggles against oppression and tyranny,” she said.
Those people have protected the United States everywhere, said keynote speaker and 23-year Navy veteran, Capt. (retired) Connie Walker. She said their soldiers perform their service close to home and far away, and they do it every day.
Everyone who has served is a veteran, Walker said, no matter what they did.
“I didn’t serve in a combat zone. I was part of that tooth to tail in terms of war fighter and logistic support that goes with that,” she said. “I was that logistic support back there. The most serious physical injury I ever sustained was a paper cut. So this inclusion of all veterans in our conversations is extremely important.”
It’s important because as service members, they become part of military culture, which is unlike any other culture in the U.S., Walker said. It creates a bond between services members of every branch of the military, and she said once a soldier leaves, it can be hard to integrate back into civilian society.
“Once you leave the military, you can miss it profoundly,” she said.
Walker spoke of an “isolation that can envelop some when they’ve left a culture that they’ve been such a big part of for so long. It’s also military culture, that beast with 1,000 horns that can make it so extremely difficult for men and women to ask for help when they need it in terms of post-traumatic stress or any invisible injury that results in symptoms that aren’t quite visible when those things aren’t diagnosed and treated.”
Those invisible injuries can happen to service members anywhere, not just in combat zones, Walker said.
“The wounds left behind by military sexual trauma — sustained by both men and women — moral injury, and those things can happen anywhere, not just in combat zones,” she said. “We tend to focus on combat zones because of all the various places that we go those are the most urgent, those are the most visible. But in any given month in the news, if you really look you’ll see training accidents across this country or ship collisions that resulted in deaths − not in combat zones. It’s an inherently dangerous business no matter where you are.”
She said it’s important to recognize that everyone who serves is a veteran, Walker said, and to recognize that family members and loved ones also become a part of military culture and that they deserve to be recognized as well.
Walker said she did not realize how much being a member of military culture affected her family until her son spoke out.
“(My son) said to me in the heat of passion that he would never wear a uniform, never take orders and never force his family to move around the country the way that I forced him and his brother to move so I could pursue my Naval career,” she said. “It never occurred to me, until he leveled with me in such a profoundly open way, to look at it from his perspective, to that degree. This is from someone that did what amounts to employee assistance programs for the Navy for half my career. ... I never had a real sense of empathy for what every family goes through until my son made me focus on that ... I never appreciated, until he said that, what I had asked of them.”
Understanding and help among the population are needed to fully honor veterans, Walker said.
“If we’re going to reach out to and connect and help those who need it, we have to be united in recognizing that this is going to take everyone to join in to make these invisible injuries and illnesses be things that are viewed as what they are,” she said. “These are manageable injuries, manageable illnesses, they’re the same as any other battle scar that you can see. So with an all-volunteer force, in which less than one percent of our population serves, it’s vitally important for increased and sustained public awareness so the community out there in Tomah and in the surrounding counties and in Madison and the surrounding counties can be engaged.”