To Those Who Show No Mark of War


Updated: 10/4/2021

Dear Sailor:

I was unspeakably rude to you at a party last week. You bear no mark of war. So I must have sliced you with my thoughtlessness. Will you please forgive me?

I was that stupid woman who heard you were in some kind of medical field in the Navy then insisted on telling you how I failed out of nursing school for flinching.

“I couldn’t listen to what was wrong with the patient on a film strip,” I shuddered. “I can’t even watch that YouTube video with the skater with the broken finger. Do you guys get a lot of stuff like that? Do you get the gruesome stuff?”

A stupid thing to ask anybody, I know. At that party moment, I honestly expected you to tell me nothing worse than about how some guy puked blue for three days. I expected Profound Weirdnesses of the Human Body 101.

I forgot that you were in the military.

I forgot how Navy medical personnel could be assigned as combat medics with the Marines.

I forgot we had been a nation at war for 20 years.

You remembered. You could not forget. You started telling me about the things you had seen during two combat tours in Iraq in profound detail. You told story after story. I flinched. Your friends flinched. Your friends urged you to stop.

“I think people need to know what war really is,” you said fiercely.

So we all listened. Maybe part of the process of getting through war includes quite a lot of telling and quite a lot of listening.

I hope you left that party and forgot me immediately. I still haven’t stopped thinking about you.

Because I wonder if you realize that your war experience is virtually invisible to the naked eye? I wonder if you know there is no mark of war upon you. There is no outward sign that warns a stranger where you have been and what you have seen and what you must bear.

Although your experience may feel burned into your flesh like an animated tattoo on a continual loop around your forehead, the rest of us cannot see it. We are not blind. Unless you suffered a bodily injury, unless you are wearing a dress uniform covered in medals, we simply cannot see.

I don’t know whether the invisibility of the mark of war is a blessing or a curse. It may be a blessing because it gives you your privacy. You don’t have to answer rude questions from strangers.

It may a curse because that invisibility means I am not careful of you. I cannot treat you the way I would if I knew what you had been through. I can’t show the respect I feel.

Instead, I act as if you are whole. I act as if the broken places in you will heal. I act as if you already have what I want you to have. And that isn’t always the right thing to do.

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