Veterans Day 2013 was remembered at Eastern Mennonite University with 242 dog tags hung from a tree along a well-traveled footpath near the center of campus.
Two graduate students, Michael McAndrew and Katrina Gehman, began hanging 22 dog tags per day at the beginning of November, marking the average number of U.S. military veterans who commit suicide every 24 hours, culminating in 242 tags hanging on Veterans Day.
“I wanted to open a line of conversation between the world that I was in and the world I’m in now,” said McAndrew, who completed his service with the U.S. Navy earlier in 2013 and began pursuing a master’s degree in conflict transformation at EMU this fall.
McAndrew said the idea of covering a tree with dog tags occurred to him after he heard some male students at the EMU gym talking about how awesome it would be to be a Navy Seal or to go to a war zone. “I was like, ‘These guys don’t know anything.’ I wanted to do something to show the real cost of war.”
Raised differently from McAndrew, with a pacifist Mennonite family background, Gehman’s knowledge of veterans was acquired through interacting with friends after college who returned from military service and reading about the reintegration of veterans into civilian society. She also conducted interviews with veterans this fall as part of her graduate research at EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP).
“People who have been hurt and who are suffering within the military community need to be shown compassion and support, values that Mennonites have, ” she said. “I want to bring attention to veterans who don’t feel they are being seen.”
McAndrew and Gehman found common cause in a program in September called the Journey Home From War, a specialized workshop under STAR (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience). It’s designed for veterans and people in their families, communities or congregations looking for ways to support them.
Gehman, who is a classmate of McAndrew’s in CJP, has a strong interest in the invisible wounds, “the moral injury,” borne by many returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – wounds which don’t get as readily acknowledged and treated as do physical wounds.
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” said McAndrew. “I wasn’t a combat veteran. I have a wife with whom I have a strong relationship, and the day I got out I immediately integrated into a new community [at EMU]. I care about the ones who aren’t as lucky.”
In a gathering at EMU’s coffee house on Veterans Day evening, CJP professor Barry Hart spoke up about the disconnect veterans often feel between the constructed meaning of their military service and life apart from that construct. “People have to find meaning in community, meaning within themselves.”
Gehman gave a presentation in the coffee house on the myriad reasons for veterans’ loss of meaning and difficulty reintegrating into civilian life. She stressed the need for communities to play an active role in meeting their needs and supporting their reintegration. In response, an audience member recommended the Community Blueprint Network, consisting of volunteer efforts in communities across the nation in support of veterans, military members and their families.
Veterans Day at EMU concluded with about 30 people holding candles in a circle around the tree bearing 242 dog tags, soberly acknowledging the loss of many lives to war and its aftermath.