Last Wednesday, May 21, I trained to DC to attend a wonderful presentation led by journalists at The Washington Post discussing a series of feature articles entitled After the Wars by columnist Rajiv Chandrasekaran. He was joined by David Finkel, acclaimed journalist and author of Thank You For Your Service, Dr. Caitlin Thompson, Deputy Director for Suicide Prevention, US Dept. of Veterans Affairs, and a Todd Bowers, combat veteran formerly with IAVA and now at JP Morgan Chase, among others.
While it was powerful and relevant, one question from the audience stuck with me: Someone asked Dr. Thompson and Bowers whether all VA counselors to vets should be veterans themselves. Thompson mentioned the importance of vets relating to civilians, while Bowers remarked on the importance of peers – fellow veterans to help a struggling soldier to open up.
These two responses, both true in part, reminded me of the importance of what we do at I WAS THERE. Certainly it is critical that veterans learn to relate to civilians as so many of them are being medically retired as a result of their PTS and other medical issues, meaning they themselves will soon be civilians so they might as well learn to relate with them. That said, Todd’s point is important in that they often aren’t willing to confide in anyone who they don’t perceive as being able to empathize with their wartime experiences.
At I WAS THERE, we achieve both: Most of our film workshop instructors are civilians, but we always strive to have at least one veteran join as either a full instructor (if qualified) or – if he or she has participated in a previous workshop – return to mentor a new participant. It’s all about finding a way to break the ice – to successfully encourage a participating veteran to suspend his or her disbelief in the value of our process and TRUST us. Once that happens – once they see that we do care, and that this workshop is an opportunity for healing and empowering self-expression, they are off and running.
It is my belief that every human being has a deep desire to be understood, to tell his or her story — they just want to tell it to someone who cares – civilian or military. Our job as instructors is to convince them that we care and are worthy of having that story shared with us.
Sincere thanks to Messrs Finkcl, Chandrasekaran and their colleagues at Wednesday’s panel for all they are doing. It’s vital work that will help improve the lives of veterans everywhere.