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Vet uses music to heal -- but says he's no `hero'
Monday - 7/9/2012, 7:40am EDT
By MARTHA IRVINE
AP National Writer
GLENDALE, Calif. (AP) - Don't call Iraq War vet Jason Moon a hero. Don't phone him on Memorial Day or July 4th or Veterans Day to say thank you.
Instead, just listen as he strums his guitar and sings about the "things I've seen I won't forget," about the sacrifices, emotional and physical, that a warrior must bear.
It can get raw, as it did one evening in a backyard in suburban Los Angeles, a recent stop on a concert tour that has taken him all over the country.
"All this welcome home, good job, we're-so-proud-of-you bull---- is wearing thin," he said, half-singing, half-speaking, as firelight flickered on his audience's faces.
There was a brief pause, then laughter _ a moment of understanding shared veteran to veteran.
To some of us, words like those _ and a rejection of hero status _ might sound ungrateful, even disrespectful. We live, after all, in an era when "supporting the troops" has practically become a requirement to prove one's patriotism. We put yellow ribbons on trees and magnets and stickers on our cars, or at least we used to. We talk about heroes and bravery.
Americans haven't always embraced their war veterans, so we've been determined to get it right this time.
There is, however, a sense among many of today's vets, and those who deal with them, that we often haven't done so, despite the best intentions.
"When I was in Vietnam, nobody welcomed anybody home _ or they spit on you, or worse. Now everybody has a parade, or welcomes you. But it loses the impact," says Larry Ashley, a Vietnam veteran who's now a professor specializing in combat trauma at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
"It's like a pendulum. It's like we're overcompensating for a guilty conscience."
As some see it, calling them heroes has become the easy way out. "We want to tidy it up. We want to put it into a larger narrative of what we've achieved on the battlefield," says Brian Matthews Jordan, a doctoral candidate in the history department at Yale University, who has studied the treatment of Civil War veterans. "We often make veterans the objects rather than the subjects of their homecoming."
We embrace the notion of the hero, he says, but know little about the human beings behind that facade, or their struggles.
Moon knows this all too well. A combat engineer who served in Iraq on multiple tours of duty, he came home to his native Wisconsin, hoping to fit back into life, but had a difficult time of it.
He would hear the kinds of questions most veterans often face _ "Did you see any action?" "How many people did you kill?" _ but not the ones most want to answer.
And then there's the assertion that veterans are heroes. No, Moon and other veterans try to tell people, they are not heroes. To them, a hero is someone who has gone above and beyond the call of duty. As they see it, they simply did what was asked of them, though often at personal cost. Others have survivor's guilt.
All of it widens the disconnect between veteran and civilian.
"Because we call them all heroes," Jordan says, "we think they don't need our help or our understanding because they can come back and negotiate the challenges of daily life just as they negotiated the challenges on the battlefield."
That translates to an underlying feeling that heroes _ or those perceived to be them _ aren't supposed to talk about the hard stuff.
So homecomings are still followed by confusion, fear, and anger _ often on both sides _ as too many newly arrived veterans struggle with unemployment, mental health issues and homelessness, just as many of their predecessors have.
"Many people gave up their marriages, relationships, jobs, lives, limbs, friends to go fight in defense of their community," Moon says. "And then they come back and they have to isolate from their community because the community doesn't know how to act around veterans, because they weren't aware of the consequences of war."
Suffering from what would later be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, Moon, too, began to withdraw after he returned. He stopped writing the music that had been so much a part of his life since he was a teenager, and that had helped him cope when he was in Iraq.
Eventually, in 2008, he tried to kill himself _ an attempt that would finally lead him to the help he needed.