Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Why vets can't forget

I was sitting in Starbucks writing, trying to beat the deadline imposed by the paper. It was a rainy day and Grace had just brewed a perfect cup of black tea especially for me. She knew that I preferred a ceramic cup.

“Dr. Joe, I hope you enjoy your Veterans Day,” remarked a friend.

“I’m not sure any veteran can enjoy Veterans Day when considering what it takes to become one,” I said.

“Are you writing about Veterans Day?” he asked.

I hate being so darn predictable. “Why, yes I am,” I replied.

He pulled up a chair and began to explain the plight of the veteran. “A major part of healing is forgetting and moving on,” he said. Although he understood the importance of Veterans Day, he stressed that in order to progress, veterans must find some resolution with the past and consequently let go.

“Why do so many veterans cling to pain?” he asked. “There’s nothing you can do about the past.”

His analysis was prophetic, but all I could lend to the conversation was a simple smile. Jack knew I liked quotes, so he left me with a good one from the Tao Te Ching: “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”

Jack is a writer and a professor who knows the field of psychology; his opinions are consummate. His argument was inclusive of the intellectual jargon found in the subjectivity of philosophy and psychology. In a perfect world he had found the path toward emotional peace. His implication was that the veteran needs only to follow it.

Maybe there’s credence to Jack’s contention that forgetting brings peace. But, it’s not a perfect world, is it?

I contemplated Jack’s remarks, trying to bridge the gap between his textbook solution to the morose reality of going to war and returning as a veteran.

“Hey, Joe!”

I looked up; it was my buddy Lenny Torres, who is married to Valley Sun columnist Anita Brenner. Lenny is a Vietnam vet who served with Marine Special Forces. I anticipated some conversation, hoping to alleviate the heaviness that I felt. However, as a prelude to Veterans Day, Lenny spoke of the transitional difficulties that current veterans will have and the subsequent effects on society.

“Because of protracted wars, and the hundreds of thousands who have served, veterans will become a social movement,” Lenny said.

“As a country, we must honor the veteran,” he said. He spoke about the immeasurable sacrifices that soldiers have made. Brain injuries, post traumatic stress disorder, and a loss of life and limb will have debilitating consequences to America.

Lenny spoke of a disconnect between the plight of the soldier and mainstream America. Since fewer than 2% of the population has served, there are no words that will intellectualize a soldier’s sacrifice and pain. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s book, “On Combat,” examines what it takes to perform, cope, and survive in the toxicity of deadly combat as a soldier in a foreign land. But the colonel preaches to the choir. Thus, we’ll soon forget two Marines recently killed in Afghanistan.

I'll leave you with the words of Eugene Sledge from “With the Old Breed,” his memoir of the Pacific War:

“Every time I looked over the edge of the foxhole, that half-gone face leered up to me with a sardonic grin. It was as though he was mocking our pitiful efforts to hang on to life in the face of constant violent death. Maybe he was mocking the folly of war itself: I am the harvest of man’s stupidity. I am the fruit of the holocaust. I prayed like you to survive, but look at me now. It is over for us who are dead, but you must struggle, and will carry the memories all your life.”

Jack, you wonder why vets can’t forget.

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at

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