COLCHESTER — Veterans shared stories with community members at a town hall event at Saint Michael’s College in honor of the approaching Veterans Day holiday.
Some veterans discussed post-traumatic stress and the difficulties of reintegration; some talked about survivor’s guilt; others described combat in detail. While community members often seemed to hold their breath, eyes stinging and glued to the podium, the room also burst into laughter when confronted with stories of lost toes and being an army cook.
The town hall event, held on Sunday, Nov. 3, was organized by Kristen Eaton, with support from the Community College of Vermont and St. Michael’s College Military Community Services and Student Veteran Association.
This is the third year that Eaton has coordinated the veterans town hall. According to a press release, the event format was inspired by an article in a 2015 issue of Vanity Fair magazine, in which author Sebastian Junger suggested “making every town and city hall in the country available to veterans who want to speak publicly about the war.” This would “return the experience of war to our entire nation, rather than just leaving it to the people who fought,” wrote Junger.
On Sunday, at the McCarthy Arts Center at St. Michael’s College, event host Jon Turner conveyed the same message. “We’re here to listen,” he said. “We are here in order to support the health and vitality of the community as a whole.”
Each speaker was allotted 10 minutes to share. Although stories often went overtime, no one seemed to mind.
Turner served three deployments with the marines from 2003-2007. According to his bio, Turner has worked extensively with communities to help with veteran reintegration “from paper-making to outdoor recreation,” since being honorably discharged. Turner is also the founding and former chair of the Vermont chapter of the Farmer Veteran Coalition.
In his opening remarks, Turner noted that his relationship to conflict is not necessarily the same as other veterans: “This is my way of healing,” he said. “We all have our own paths in life and the opportunity to walk along that or veer off. The path might be misconstrued at times but that doesn’t mean that’s the rest of your life.”
The press release likened the event format to the tradition of “warrior storytelling.”
“Having an opportunity to gather with community members to be heard assists with the reintegration process and makes it possible to find trust in those whom we did not serve with,” Turner said in the press release.
Veteran Maureen L. Dwyer has spoken at the town hall for the last three years. For Dwyer, who served as a military nurse from 1967-1970 during the conflict in Vietnam, military service seemed like a “no brainer.” She graduated college with a degree in nursing at the height of the Vietnam War in 1968. Since the army paid for her senior year of college, she owed years of service post graduation. At the time, many of her contemporaries were being drafted. “Why wouldn’t I try to help with the skills that I had?” she asked.
When she got her orders to go to Vietnam, Dwyer was 23-years-old. She described a special kinship between the nurses and patients. “We were often the last people they would see,” she said. “No matter what side you were on, everybody had injuries. Vietnamese soldiers, allies, or ‘the enemy’—they suffered the same kind of pain as our soldiers.”
She realized as a nurse that it was her job not only to tend to the wounded, but to witness the wounded. “We are witness to others and their lives, even when you don’t know how long they’ll be in front of you,” she said. “The great equalizer in life and that profession is, whatever you stand for—in war or in life—we’re all subject as humans to be injured or ill.”
Ultimately, Dwyer said that through her service, she realized that there is much more that unites people than separates them. In closing, she noted her “incredible gratitude and respect” for her comrades and patients. “Their names are engraved in my heart,” she said.
When veteran Lena R. Airoldi approached the microphone, she said that she hadn’t planned to speak at the event, but something compelled her to share. Airoldi served in the air force during the Cold War in a communications capacity and recalled loved talking on the phone to people across the globe. For her, the military was an opportunity to move forward. “Equal pay, equal rights,” she said.
The G.I. Bill changed Airoldi’s life. “We become a part of history,” she said, recalling the sounds of people cheering when the Berlin Wall came down. For her, the roar of jets is the “sound of freedom.” To this day she still loves that sound.
But in addition to seeing the military as an opportunity, Airoldi also brought up the need to better address mental health issues in veterans. “Mental health issues need to be looked at and make less stigmatized,” she said. “It isn’t always about war. We all have problems. A soldier shouldn’t be punished for that.”
According to a report conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs, an average of 20 veterans die by suicide every day.
Other speakers also touched on this, discussing their experiences with anxiety, depression, and PTSD. One veteran said that his work in Veterans Services to help others stay alive, keeps him alive. “Too many friends have pulled the trigger,” Turner agreed.
Some speakers shared Airoldi’s experience, with the military acting as an opportunity and a catalyst for a career post-service. For others, signing up wasn’t even a question—it was a way of life.
For veteran Thomas Anderson, he knew he wanted to be a marine since he was six-years-old. Anderson recalled touring the San Diego base where his dad was going to bootcamp and asking him, “How much does it cost to be a marine?” to which his dad replied, “It’s free.” Serving in the military was part of Anderson’s family history, going back to the Revolutionary War. On his seventeenth birthday he enlisted, serving during the Cold War from 1981 to 1985.
“Much to my chagrin, I found out I was going to be a cook,” Anderson told the crowd with a laugh.
After working as a marine cook, Anderson recalled acting as a driver for a family who had lost their son in the Beirut bombing of 1983, the deadliest single-day death toll for the U.S. Marines Corps since World War II. “The mother who had lost her son asked me, ‘why did he die in Beirut?’” Anderson recalled. “I’m still trying to answer that question.”
When he was discharged, Anderson recalled wanting nothing to do with the military. “It wasn’t until years later that I realized the big impact,” he said. “It’s part of our duty to support veterans and their wounds of war—physical, mental spiritual, moral.”
In his remarks, Turner read the last three stanzas of a poem by Wilfred Owen, a World War I veteran killed in action in France, 1918. The poem is titled, “Apologia Pro Poemate Meo.”
I have perceived much beauty
In the hoarse oaths that kept our courage straight;
Heard music in the silentness of duty;
Found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spate.
Nevertheless, except you share
With them in hell the sorrowful dark of hell,
Whose world is but the trembling of a flare,
And heaven but as the highway for a shell,
You shall not hear their mirth:
You shall not come to think them well content
By any jest of mine. These men are worth
Your tears: You are not worth their merriment.
Veterans Day is on Monday, Nov. 11.