This Veterans Day will mark the 12th year our nation has been at war. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have brought America millions of new veterans, among other things. They have served under conditions unthinkable just one generation ago: deployments as long as 15 months, multiple tours and greater combat intensity over longer durations than most other wars.
I am one of those people, one of the other 1 percent. When I was 22, I went to Iraq. In exchange, the government is subsidizing my education. When I graduate next year, I will have two degrees under my belt and not a dime of student loans to my name. However, when folks ask me if I “enjoy” Duke, I know I cannot give them the uncomplicated answer they expect and desire.
I cannot lie to them. I cannot say that my time has been easy. I have to tell them the truth, I have to tell them that Duke University still struggles to understand how my experience makes my time here exponentially more difficult than that of your average student. I have to tell them that I hesitated participating in Campout because loud noises in the middle of the night are not exactly healthy for me. I have to tell them that I avoided LDOC festivities because I felt the use of cartoon bombs disparaged the solemnity of war, that it made war a game, something to be toyed with and caricatured. I have to tell them that at the University’s oft-ignored War Memorial, names are missing from the Iraq and Afghanistan panels, in wait of funding to add new memorial plaques.
I have to tell them when they ask, because honesty and integrity are virtues I would die for, virtues I have seen others die for.
So they stop asking.
If the wars my generation is fighting are brought up on the radio or on television, people change the channel. They have better things to do with their time. I understand. Who wants to think about such things?
Not me. Not my television screen. Not the front page of my newspaper.
The difference between veterans and the rest of society, however, is that we don’t have that choice. We don’t get to turn away. The wars are often fought right there within us. Ignorance is a luxury that the few of us who have shouldered this burden do not enjoy. We would forget if we could, but someone must carry the memory of those who have made that luxury possible, right? Silence is not an option; it is a betrayal.
This Veterans Day, do not be silent in word or deed. It is likely that someone you care about has served in the military, and if not, you can easily cross Erwin Street and visit the V.A. Medical Center. Statistics suggest that veterans are more prone to depression and loneliness than their civilian counterparts, and veterans commit suicide at a higher rate than non-veterans. In one day, even on Veterans Day, 17 veterans will end their own lives. For actively serving troops, suicide is now the leading cause of death in the army.
Silence is a vote in favor of the status quo of moral isolation, self-doubt, depression and, ultimately, suicide. Your vote is not restricted to Election Day, you vote everyday with your words and deeds, your silences and omissions. Do something. Say something. Duke is an incredible institution, and it can always improve—but it cannot without your help. Don’t accept the status quo, vote for veterans this year. Now it’s your turn to serve; we need all the help we can get to win the battle here at home in our own hearts and minds.
Logan Mehl-Laituri is a second-year student in the Divinity School Master of Theological Studies Program and the president of Duke Vets.
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