During one of our visits to San Diego, California, my family and I visited the Shamu show at Sea World. The thing I recall most vividly about that day wasn’t the tricks performed by the orca, or those limp dorsal fins that speak more eloquently than any words about the immorality of their lives. What made the deepest impression on me was a request made by the announcer prior to the show. If you’ve been to Sea World you’ll know the one I mean:
“Ladies and gentlemen, please give a round of applause to those men and women of our armed forces, past and present, and those of our allies”.
Now, I know San Diego is a major U.S. Navy and Marine Corps base, but I have never experienced anything of that nature here in the U.K.; garrison town or otherwise.
The sad fact is the British do not hold their armed forces in the same high regard as do the Americans. The recent experiences of our troops in Afghanistan is slowly changing this, perhaps, but we are a long way behind the U.S.
My father arrived home from the battlefields of France in 1945 on a hospital ship. He’d been badly injured at Nijmegen in Holland. Three years earlier he’d come home in another hospital ship, also badly injured, this time in Malta. My dad just did not get along with the Germans.
He never talked about the war, at least not until the last year or two of his life, when he began to open up about his experiences. When the boys came home from the war, he told me, nobody wanted to know what they’d been through. Anyone who tried to talk about it was seen as a bore. A blowhard. So they learnt to bottle it up and get on with life. But what they’d seen and done stayed with them all their days.
Many years ago, in the course of my work, I visited an old Highland croft house in the back-end of beyond. The house was occupied by an old brother and sister – a Highland Derby and Joan – neither of whom had ever married. As the sister led me into the living room her brother scuttled into the kitchen, and remained there until after I’d left.
“You have to excuse my brother,” said the lady. “He’s never been the same since he came home from a German prisoner of war camp in 1945”. He had been captured in 1940 with the rest of the 51st Highland Division at St. Valery in France, and had spent much of the next five years slaving in a Polish salt mine.
It broke my heart then, and it breaks it now to think of it: a soldier of the 51st, one of the finest divisions in the British army, reduced to this. Perhaps if he’d had counselling, been encouraged to talk about his experiences, the depression would not have taken him in his later years.
My father has been dead a long time now, but I am so grateful for the hours I spent listening as he unburdened himself. So, if there is a moral to this story it is this: If you are fortunate enough to have a family member, still alive, who served in WW2, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, The Falklands, The Gulf, Iraq or Afghanistan, then talk to them. Today. Don’t listen to this rubbish that they won’t want to talk about it. Lend a sensitive ear and they will unburden themselves.
It could be one of the most profound experiences of your life.