“Support Our Troops” and “Thank you for your service” are phrases we hear – and see – regularly. But that support for veterans hasn’t always been there.
Ticker-tape parades greeted soldiers returning from World War II but not those who served in Vietnam. And veterans who served in the Korean War often refer to it as the “forgotten war.”
Why the difference?
That question and more will be explored on Wednesday when Spokane County Library District, in partnership with Humanities Washington, hosts an online presentation by Jeb Wyman who will examine America’s relationship to wars and veterans over the last century.
Though not a veteran himself, Wyman, an instructor at Seattle Central College, began hearing veterans’ stories in the classroom.
“For about a decade, I had lots of veterans in my class pretty fresh out of Iraq or Afghanistan,” he said. “Because I teach English, I got a lot of personal stories from them.”
Those stories led to his book, “What They Signed Up For: True Stories by Ordinary Soldiers” (Blue Ear Books, 2017).
Wyman also is the academic director of the Clemente Course for Veterans, a program for veterans who study history, philosophy, art and literature, at Antioch University.
“I drove around the state for six months listening to their stories mostly at vet centers at community colleges,” Wyman said. “It was like popping a cork off a bottle. Often the interviews lasted a couple hours – some required multiple visits. I just told them, ‘I will sit here as long as you want to tell your story.’ ”
In the end, he interviewed more than 70 veterans and included 18 of their first-person accounts in his book.
Stories of a medic in an Army convey in Fallujah and an Army truck driver who can’t ever forget pointing her weapon at a child gripped him.
“I felt that people should be reading these kinds of stories about ordinary soldiers,” he said. “America likes sexy soldiers and uber warriors, and there are those people, but they are the minority.”
However, the topic of this week’s discussion came from a comment during Wyman’s previous Humanities Washington lecture series.
“A Vietnam vet asked, ‘Why do they call veterans warriors now? When I was in, we were grunts, GIs or soldiers.”
Intrigued, Wyman began researching America’s relationship with the men and women who fight its wars.
“We had a great sense of shame regarding Vietnam – a lingering pain,” he said. “But there’s been a swift shift since 9/11.”
In the aftermath of witnessing thousands of people die during the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Americans quickly rallied around the troops.
“The people who were going to make this right needed our blessing,” Wyman said.
His research led him to the conclusion that America is constantly reshaping its sense of identity and history, often burying what doesn’t measure up to its ideals.
“It’s a pattern of social amnesia,” he said. “I think history is the most important of our humanities disciplines. We have to know who we were to know who we are.”
And that means accurately examining the way the country responds to veterans.
Wyman said he hopes discussing how history can get filtered, and how the cult of the warrior is evolving, will spark continuing conversations.
“I’d like people to get a renewed interest in history and to reconsider what they believe about the men and women who serve in the military,” he said. “The way things are now is not the way they’ve always been.”
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