We just read “Where Cowards Go To Die” and had the privilege of talking with author Ben Sledge on The Table Network Podcast. The book was a captivating, eye-opening look into the complexities and tragedies of war, both physical and emotional, and the post-service challenges of reentry into civilian life.
We realized we didn’t have a full grasp on what soldiers face.
Here are a few things we learned:
The trauma of war has a lasting impact on soldiers.
Intuitively, that makes sense. But Sledge’s recount of his experiences gives greater depth and understanding of that impact. It becomes real and vivid…and heartbreaking.
We started to understand that the burden of PTSD, survivor’s guilt, and the recollection and reliving the horrors of war can haunt veterans long after returning home as Sledge attests.
We heard about a fellow soldier who was severely wounded in an explosion and underwent multiple life-saving surgeries. Yes, he survived the attack and the surgeries, but he was left with permanent injuries and emotional scars that impacted him for the rest of his life.
And, we learned about the gut-wrenching emotional injury and moral conflict Sledge endured after being ordered to shoot an unarmed man during a mission. This experience left him questioning his own values and the morality of war. These are the internal and emotional injuries and struggles that are often left in the shadows.
The cultural divide between civilians and soldiers can be difficult to bridge.
There’s no way around it. There are challenges when returning home after deployment, and one of them is feeling disconnected from the civilian world. Sledge struggled to relate to people who had not experienced the traumas of war. It’s hard to truly understand the scars and dilemmas experienced in war, unless you’ve undergone them yourself.
How many people are faced with an order to shoot someone? It’s a hard thing to relate to.
He recounted a conversation with a friend who expressed support for the war effort but was unwilling to enlist himself. This attitude landed as hypocritical to Sledge and highlighted the divide between those who served and those who did not. The mindsets and experiences are hard to reconcile.
His experiences demonstrated the importance of understanding and empathy between soldiers and civilians in bridging this divide. There must be intention in the attempt for unity.
Veterans face significant challenges when transitioning back to civilian life.
We were unaware of just what a shift and hurdle this may be.
Sledge was very real and honest and let us in on the difficulties he faced finding a job and adapting to a civilian lifestyle after leaving the military. He struggled with depression and alcoholism, which are common issues among veterans.
You may expect some level of lack of understanding and support from civilians, but he also shared about the lack of support from the VA and the stigma surrounding mental health issues in the military. Many veterans, including Sledge, felt that the system fails to adequately address their on-going needs.
Reading “Where Cowards Go to Die” and hearing first-hand from Ben about the challenges soldiers face gave us new resolve to seek to be more empathetic, caring, and united with them as individuals.
It also led us to wrestle with these questions:
Do Sledge’s personal experiences in Iraq push on or challenge how we view traditional notions of heroism and bravery in war? How do his struggles with PTSD and survivor’s guilt complicate or clarify our understanding of the soldier’s experience?
What does the book reveal about the cultural divide between soldiers and civilians in the United States? How can we – as a society – bridge this divide and foster greater understanding, empathy, and unity between these two groups? How can we, as individuals, step into empathy and use this lens when interacting with veterans?
What reforms are needed to better support veterans as they transition back to civilian life? How can we address the stigma surrounding mental health issues in the military and provide better resources and services to those who have served?