For lent this year, I am giving up silence.
Some time ago, I was made the poster boy for PTSD, and I protected the interests of people who had not done the same for me. My silence about aspects of this experience also preserved the very social power dynamics that led to my being caricatured in the first place.
Veterans are too often made backgrounds props in their own story, or they are seen exclusively as recipients of care rather than its providers; care becomes a one way street, a non-reciprocal handout loaded with moral inferences about human dignity. I didn’t have the language for this at the time, so when I was contacted about having a bit part in a story focused on a civilian medical professional “deploying hope” to veterans (to me), I didn’t have any reason to object – any press is good press, right?
Sometime in early 2014, I had been in touch with a freelance writer crafting a story about veterans in the church. A VA clinician had interested this writer, and they connected the two of us. We did a phone interview one day a long time ago and I figured the story never got picked up because nothing ever came of it …until I got an email asking me to be photographed for a magazine with a readership in excess of 250,000.
I’ve been a veteran since 2006, and I know the caricatures society has of us. Got Your Six, a nonprofit focusing on the depiction of veterans in mass media, released data in 2014 that suggesting the standard depiction of veterans is in polar extremes; either they are seen as heroes or they are seen as damaged. For more, you can read my Virtues of War homily on Veterans Civic Health, which incorporated this data.
Despite being reassured that the magazine editors were “looking to show [me] realistically”, the language fell squarely in the ‘damaged’ trope, and I was essentially being asked to help them propagate the stereotype. Not only was I asked if I could appear in military attire (which I no longer owned), the design director planned to flatten my identity into my diagnosis, telling me “We want your face to speak to the pain of PTSD …to the darkness of the disorder.”
However, even though it was a result of my “relationship with [the medical professional that] shifted his perception of the field and his approach to PTSD,” the article would not be about my work starting and running a nonprofit for nearly a decade. The same veterans I worked with and for (and as) would literally serve as a background props for the central characters of the story; the civilian doctor helping veterans.
With just a week before their deadline, I appreciated the pressure they must have faced, but I was not willing to get put in someone’s box of what “veteran” or, for that matter “PTSD,” was supposed to look like. I voiced my objections and assured them “my demeanor will be determined by the prayers of the community that blessed our marriage” when I took the name Isaac with my partner.
The editor replied by backtracking the request (“maybe I misspoke before”), adding that they had a family member “who still (silently, for the most part) suffers from PTSD.” It wasn’t clear if there was a formal diagnosis or if this was a case of confirmation bias, in which soldiers and veterans are presumed damaged and treated accordingly. The photoshoot was fun, and I had a great time talking art history with the photographer’s assistant outside the church where John Knox preached a fiery sermon that, legend has it, led to the destruction of the ancient cathedral in St Andrews. I didn’t suspect the pictures would grace the actual cover of the magazine until that day, when it was mentioned by the photographer.
It was months before I saw the pictures that the design team selected, having heard nothing in the meantime. Getting ready to take a shower, I got an alert on my phone that I had been tagged in a photo on social media. When I saw it, I turned the water off and began emailing. I quickly learned that, because the issue had gone to print, nothing could be changed except to the online version. Other veterans who had been interviewed demanded they be written out, but a cover photo isn’t so easy to roll back. In the blink of an eye, I had become the poster boy for damaged veterans “war torn” from PTSD. Even my marriage got dragged into it the fray, with editors describing our name change as “a symbol of [my] decision to move forward from the pain of PTSD.” How brave of me, and of Laura, for standing passively at my side as I made that decision for us…
I suspected they had a lawsuit on their hands if I wanted to press the issue, since I explicitly withheld permission to use my likeness in the way it was, and the design team had to have sorted through innumerable images to find one in which I wasn’t smiling (after all, it was a rare sunny day in Scotland and I got free coffee and conversation out of the shoot). My suspicion that I had legal recourse seemed to be confirmed when an editor got nervous about being on a phone call unless another magazine representative could be on the line as well.
But if war taught me one thing, it was to trust others above myself. The consensus among the veterans involved, the doctor featured, and the author was to use the pressure for leverage to get exposure for the nonprofit (which got written out of the print edition) and hopefully elevate the rock bottom conversation that had been created. It took five months before that work bore fruit. In the meantime, I had shared some initial thoughts with select people, but because I am giving up silence for lent, I have taken down the password protection for related posts.
I will no longer let my silence preserve or reinforce social power dynamics, expectations, or desires that force veterans to the margins of their own story. This robs them not only of their full dignity as creatures of God and productive members of society, but it also robs the church and that society of the gifts we provide.