Friday, June 24, 2011

Cultural Immersion

In many ways, I feel like I signed up for some sort of cultural immersion program here at ECAD.  I fear how privileged this may sound, but I will choose honesty over image.  In the past 2 weeks, I have gotten to know more veterans than I met in the previous 23.5 years.  Growing up in an upper-middle class suburb, I know 5 people from my high school class of 500 who went on to Harvard, 3 to Yale, more than 20 to other Ivy League schools, and none to serve his or her country in the armed forces.  While I was taught respect and acceptance, I was not taught nationalism or to "honor our troops".  Whereas many mothers would find comfort knowing their daughter lives with a Staff Sargent Major (the highest possible enlisted rank in the Army for those as naive and I am about these things), my mother finds this cause for concern and worry.  And here I am at ECAD, where I am surrounded by veterans as colleagues, clients, roommates, and friends.  Most of them are loud, some hotheaded.  They talk at you, not with you.  They do not desire to be challenged or debated, the way my ivory tower brethren do.  And they are all suffering.  Every last one of them.  They suffer from PTSD, from anger, from the devastation that has been wreaked on their bodies and lives.  They share a hatred of the VA, seemingly going there too often and too infrequently, waiting weeks for an appointment only to get there, wait 5 hours, and return home unseen.  They suffer from a sense of entitlement and joie de vivre (depending on my mood), believing that because of their service and subsequent suffering, they should get free admission to Sea World, speak anything that comes to mind, and flirt shamelessly.  "When you've seen what I've seen, and you've been through what I've been through, you don't hold back."  Alrighty then, I guess I can't argue with that one.  They share a story of war, pain, families being torn apart.  Unable to cope with re-integration into civilian life and lacking the support they require from the VA, they self-medicate, become suicidal and depressed.  Having alienated their families and friends, they have nowhere else to turn.

And then they walk through the doors at ECAD, where they are greeted by Crisco, Sprinkles, Honey, Blip, and Shiloh.  Big, goofy, animated, bounding dogs.  All of a sudden these people who talk at you, not with you, these suffering recluses, are whispering in Honey's ear as they brush her long golden hair.  They are laughing trying to get a toothbrush into Shiloh's mouth.  They are a part of something bigger than themselves and their problems, and for just a few seconds, minutes, or hours, they manage to forget the outside world and feel safe among their two- and four-legged comrades.  One of the younger veterans told me, "This place is like my church.  It's the only place I can let my guard down and feel safe."

So no, these are not 'my people', but I kind of like them.  I'm getting used to not cowering when they talk at me.  I'm getting used to talking back when they greet me with a "Good morning, gorgeous", reminding them that while they have "seen it all", I am not a "hey there, gorgeous" kind of girl.  And every day I am more and more impressed by their individual lives, their individual stories, and their individual strength to fight for the help they need and to walk through those doors vulnerable and with their guard down.  I'd say I've come a long way in these first two weeks of cultural immersion, but I still have a long way to go.

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