by Jessica Wojdak, The War Horse
November 11, 2021
“How does it make you feel when somebody says, ‘Thank you for your service’?” Once those words rolled off the tip of my tongue, I stared into the Zoom space on my laptop screen. I don’t know what I expected in response from this Vietnam War veteran.
And then, after I looked around the room and fixed my hair during the awkward moment of silence that felt like an eternity but was probably only a handful of seconds, he responded.
“It makes me feel taken aback.”
I did not expect this response, but it was understandable. I can only imagine how hearing this would bring back memories. These memories could be both good and bad, and would definitely bring up a lot of emotions. Great things might come up or possibly a traumatic experience.
As part of a school project, I watched films and read books to learn more about war, and then I talked to veterans about their experiences.
I found this veteran’s response intrigued me the most as I embarked on a deep dive into what it means to serve in our nation’s military. I quickly realized that comparing veterans and expecting they would all be the same is like me saying that all apples on the tree are going to be carbon copies of one another. But when I started this project, I thought the veterans would have similar answers and stories because they were from different branches of the military.
In the movies, veterans tend to be tough, male, white, so I expected that, like the movies, I would find the typical strong man who protected our country.
But when I asked Dave Donahue, a combat veteran who served in the Marine Corps and did a combat tour in Afghanistan, how he felt about being thanked for his service, he said, “It makes me feel welcomed home and accepted by society. However, I usually do not know how to respond.” I was both surprised and happy to hear this. I loved knowing that this gesture possibly made veterans’ transition back to civilian life easier. However, I didn’t expect it to be so difficult to answer. I was left wondering, How do they respond? Do their responses end up making them feel awkward? The more I learned from them, the more curious I became.
This wasn’t what I expected to hear as an eighth-grader. I anticipated the veterans would be filled with pride, and I imagined stories of small moments from their service making their whole day better. I thought they would share that they felt honored to serve our country and that they felt grateful that someone took the time to thank them.
Instead, they explained how it often made them happy, but also flustered and speechless. I quickly realized that my only impressions of war and military service was that it was all about training and combat. I had never seen the impact of war until I spoke with these veterans.
Throughout the spring, we immersed ourselves in watching films and reading two books to help us better understand military service, war, and its impact. I read Sunrise Over Fallujah, by Walter Dean Myers, and Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger. I also watched The War Horse. However, although these were all informative ways to learn about this topic in a broad stroke, none of them provided me with as much insight as the veterans and active-duty servicemen and -women.
Inquisitive by nature, I found that asking questions was the most important thing I could do to learn more about military service, war, and its impact. I wanted to know why they decided to join the military and who or what impacted their decision. I took time to formulate thoughtful questions to help gain the deepest understanding possible. After meeting with the first veteran, I realized that if I hadn’t done the original work, I would not have learned as much. I needed to do that background research so that I could ask the right question.
I didn’t want to ask something that would offend them or bring back bad memories, because I know the veterans’ time in service must have been difficult. I thought about the movies, and I imagined time spent in the jungle, bullets flying, and friends lost. It was important to ask respectful and thought-provoking questions. When I feared it might not be OK to ask my questions, I emailed my teacher to get his approval. A few times he said they were totally OK to ask, and a few other times, he helped me reword them so that I could from a place of genuine curiosity. It was helpful to have the right questions because then I was satisfied with the answer.
I was so excited to learn more from someone who lived through all of the experiences I had researched.
I watched videos about them and their time in war, and I looked at any and all articles about them. One of the veterans is still involved with the military as a company commander. He deployed to Afghanistan. Since we spoke, he has worked hard and stayed involved with the military. A different veteran went back to their nine-to-five day job in New York City. All totally changed people: Some had jobs still involved with their past work, and others chose to do something different. Regardless, all of their careers were a world away from their time in the military. Their jobs were less brutal and most likely not as stressful.
The process also made me curious about journalism and sharing the stories of others. Asking questions got me the answers I was looking for. They also left me satisfied with what I had learned and with a great way to end a conversation. I could not have felt this way without doing the previous background research.
I heard often that “a bad day in our life really isn’t a bad day.” This stuck with me because it is a humbling thought. While I complain that I have too much homework, there are people out there fighting to keep my freedom. It made me realize I need to be more grateful for what I have and appreciate those who fight for me.
I now know that a bad day at war is not comparable to one of my bad days.
I was surprised to hear that “leadership is lonely.” I had always thought of leaders as powerful people surrounded by people who looked up to and liked them. Talking to these veterans taught me that sometimes there is no one to confide in. Sometimes the only choice is to believe in yourself and keep working hard.
But I was most shocked when I learned about what life was like when the veterans came back from war. “There is always the fear of the unknown.” The unknown for these veterans was so much greater than for any one of us. When veterans come home from war, there is a huge adjustment period. It was difficult for them to try to understand the civilian world after being gone for so long. Everything that had once felt safe was gone—I could never imagine feeling like that. These veterans returned home, but all seemed foreign. They no longer felt like they had any super close friends, and they often lived far from the people they had bonded with during war. Even though the fear and hard work of war bonded them with their fellow soldiers, it was not as easy when they finally get home.
Now, I have a greater appreciation for any and all veterans.
Even though no one in my family is a journalist, maybe it is the path for me. I had never thought about a career as a reporter, but maybe conducting interviews about war will be my reality.
Veterans, not textbooks, taught me about the real-life impact of war and how a person will never be the same after war. I now understand how difficult it is to come back into civilian life. At first, I thought you came home and resumed life from before you left. It’s actually much trickier than that. Lots and lots of veterans struggle to find jobs and are left unemployed. Had I not met with these veterans in my eighth-grade social studies class, I would not have known this. Maybe I will go on to conduct interviews not only about war, but about life after war.
Whether they were on active duty, got injured in an explosion, suffered a traumatic brain injury, or were a veteran who never left the United States, I valued their time. I felt as though they had not been truly heard by people, but that they had so much to say. They challenged general assumptions and the education system’s bias. They showed us that service is more than what we have ever been taught in school and more than what any average person understood.
The power of asking questions on a Zoom with veterans taught me as much as I could learn without actually going to war myself.