I spent Thanksgiving on Okinawa, Japan, visiting a friend who is on a year-long assignment as a social worker with the Marines. This was my first trip to Japan, other than changing planes on the way to and from the Philippines. Like the area I visited in the Philippines, Okinawa has significant U.S. military presence.
My friend is working at Camp Hansen, a Marine base in the middle of Okinawa. On Thanksgiving Day, we served dinner to the Marines at Camp Hansen’s USO, which was a privilege and an honor for me.
The next morning, my friend and I reviewed the previous day. In my family, the post-event review is almost as significant as the event itself. For me, it is through the review process that I can see what really touched me.
We talked about the Marines we spoke with and she filled me in on who the other servers were, including several of her work colleagues, two military chaplains and some volunteers from a local church. I thanked her for the opportunity to serve; the whole experience was a great blessing for me.
Then I said, “I dated an ex-Marine when I was in college.”
“There is no such thing as an ‘ex-Marine’,” she corrected. “Once a Marine, always a Marine.”
“In that case, I dated a Marine when I was in college,” I said.
College was a long time ago, and I had not thought about that Marine for many years. But, being on a Marine base, among hundreds of Marines, it is understandable that he came to mind.
The Marine I had dated had been wounded in Vietnam and had flashbacks and other issues from his time of service.
As I talked about him, I remembered one of the Marines at Thanksgiving dinner the day before who was wearing a t-shirt with four letters on the left chest: PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder. The back of the shirt had a message about PTSD awareness.
My first reaction when I saw that t-shirt was that it took courage to wear it; wearing that shirt was making a statement about a reality for many people who have been to war. I was impressed. I don’t think that we have always done a good job of helping returning service personnel heal from PTSD.
Acknowledging PTSD is admitting that war does not end when the troops leave the battlefield but can haunt military personnel long after the war—like the Marine I had dated.
On retreat a few years ago, my retreat director suggested that memories often bring more than just the memory itself, but also a new insight or invitation. This memory reminded me of Vietnam vets and my fears of getting too close to someone who was adjusting to life after war.
Perhaps the invitation in this memory is for me to be more compassionate to people’s back stories and not let my fears get in the way of connecting and caring.