Big Hollywood contributor Gary Graham spoke with actor Ken Wahl about the meaning of Veterans Day, how Americans can show their appreciation to the men and women of the U.S. Military and a unique way that pets can help veterans heal from their emotional wounds.
Gary Graham: Ken, tell me your thoughts about our military on this Veterans Day, 2013.
Ken Wahl: I just want to say how much I appreciate them and wished more people appreciated them …and that in most cases … it doesn’t take much. Did you hear about the impromptu celebration at O’Hare airport the other day, when a group of Marines were coming back from Afghanistan … and just spontaneously a huge crowd of people in the airport started clapping for them, and went up to them and shook their hands? And it was so heart-warming, because you could see it meant the world to these guys. And that’s really been my message the whole time–all you gotta do is show these guys that you appreciate them. Because, God forbid, where would we be without them? And being that this is Veterans Day weekend…going all the way back to when Veterans Day started, which started out as Armistice Day, November 11 think of all those thousands, tens of thousands of guys that fought and died for us … it’s pretty humbling when you think about it. That’s the whole point–it would be great if more people would think about it and show their appreciation, 1918, the end of WWI, when America really gained its prestige … and to …
Graham: Yes. And one way to show our appreciation is by not squandering that which they fought and died to provide for us–our freedom.
Wahl: Very well put. There is no way, had I not been born in America, would I have been able to do the things I have done in my life. And I am just so grateful for that every day. To have that freedom to do what we want to do, when we want to do it. And it can be so easily taken away–I think that a lot of Americans don’t realize that. Freedom can be taken away and gone before you know it.
Graham: I think it was Reagan who made the famous statement, about freedom can be lost in one generation …
Wahl: And boy, was he right. It was only 24 years since the Berlin Wall fell. That’s a generation. And look at where we are now. How far we’ve gone in the opposite direction…
Graham: A reminder to all of us … that no matter how many victories for freedom you’ve won, you can never sit back and relax. We must be ever vigilant…and always pressing hard daily to preserve and secure those freedoms. That brings us to our military–and their endless job they are entrusted with of protecting us. I’m glad to see the public treating them with their due respect. As oppose to the way the anti-war movement treated the returning Vietnam veterans.
Wahl: They were spit on … called “baby killer.” It was disgusting.
Graham: And these were guys who hadn’t volunteered, they were drafted! It was either go in, go to jail or run off to Canada.
Wahl: Yeah. It’s changed–and I give a lot of credit for that to social media. Obviously, it’s easier to spread the word that way, but I’ve seen much more appreciation and gratitude for them in recent years. That’s very heartening to see that.
Graham: And you’re right–that there are so many things we take for granted. Success and opportunity might not be impossible in other countries … but they’re certainly not as prevalent and easy to secure as in this country to make a success of things, given whatever circumstances into which you are born. I remember a Croatian actor I met on a movie set in the former Yugoslavia who said, “The thing I love about your country is that America is a ‘meritocracy.'” It doesn’t matter where you come from or how you spell your last name … you are judged by what you do–restricted only by your own ambition and creativity.”
Wahl: Meritocracy. I love that.
Graham: You’re involved with a program to help vets with PTSD? (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)
Wahl: And TBI – Traumatic Brain Injury. I’m not directly involved, just an advocate.
Graham: Tell me about the program with getting animals to vets.
Wahl: Yes, and again, I’m not officially connected; I’ve just done the research and have found this group. You see, the government used to provide returning vets with animals as pets, as ‘comfort animals’… but Obama stopped all that…for whatever reasons. But this organization “Guardians of Rescue – Paws of War” hooks up an animal that is suited to the individual returning vet suffering from one of these disorders; this combat-traumatized vet that has lost his sense of mission, his sense of mattering to anyone. And he bonds with the animal — dog, horse, cat, whatever–and develops this sense of being needed. It’s a great symbiosis because the animals need him and he needs the animal.
Graham: We talked about that before, that restorative, therapeutic, healing sense of mission. They’re so used to, under the most stressful situations possible, the theater of combat, the soldiers, the Marines; they depend upon each other to survive.
Wahl: And beyond that, beyond just surviving–their mission is to protect and defend. When that ability is taken away from them, that’s one of the things that is so horrible and depressing … which adds to their PTSD. These are tough guys who are trained for the most stressful situations … and then in a flash, all that is taken away from them. Then to get back home and realize they don’t have that ability anymore … they just sink further into despondency. And that’s where the animal thing comes in. Here is this thing that needs you–not just you need it–it needs you. And I’ve heard testimonials … interestingly enough, not so much from the guys with PTSD or TBI … but from people around them, the mothers, the wives, the brothers, the fathers. They’re the ones monitoring the situation so they can see the difference. They say things like, ‘He’s coming out of his shell … he’s coming back.’
Wahl: And the way I got involved with that–not to compare myself with our veterans who have been hurt in combat–but after my severely debilitating accidents I fell into that funk. I went from being able to help out my family and my friends, and I don’t mean just financially but emotionally too, to being a burden. After I got hurt–one of the worst things about that is not just the physical part, but the mental part–where you feel like you’re just a burden to everybody. And you start to have no sense of value anymore–and you think that you’re just this injured lump taking up space. That’s the depressing part. And an animal … well many animals … helped me back on the road to recovery. And again I don’t mean to compare myself with these guys who have been in combat.
Graham: I understand.
Wahl: But I will say that having had a severe injury, I knew how animals helped me to return to a more normal situation. And I just thought maybe that can help [the injured veterans] too. And it’s been born out, by hearing from the people around them.
Graham: Parting words to the veterans on Veterans Day?
Wahl: Happy Veterans Day. We love you, we appreciate you and we need you. And … you know that spontaneous ovation that happened in O’Hare airport? I wish that didn’t make the news. I wish that was so common it happens everywhere, every day.
Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.