When West Tisbury resident and Vietnam veteran Steve Maxner hears someone express their appreciation for serving his country, he has conflicting feelings. “When people say, ‘Thank you for your service,’ I’m confused,” he says. “I emotionally shut down. You’re thanking me for my mistakes and misjudgments along with the rest. It’s more complicated for some of us than that. The assumption is that you’re some type of hero who has served your country — well, part of that is true, but there’s more to the story.”
This Saturday, Nov. 18, Vineyarders will get the chance to hear more of the story when a group of local vets and their wives speak about their experiences at the West Tisbury library in a talk called “Thank You for Your Service: A Listening Event.”
Mr. Maxner will be joined by two other Island vets — one of whom served in Iraq and one in Afghanistan — and the three men’s wives. They will share stories of how war has affected their lives. Mr. Maxner, who conceived the idea, stresses that this is not a chance to either glorify or condemn, or promote any sort of agenda.
“What is important to note,” says Mr. Maxner, “is that this is clearly not political, not ideological, not a flag-waving opportunity. It’s more of a human approach to the consequences of sending people to war. We think it’s important to the community to listen to some of the stories of veterans and their wives. This is not patriotic or praising the war effort. We’ll be relating our own personal experiences and explaining our stories, so that our neighbors get a view of some of the decisions we make as a nation.”
The group who will be participating has written up a description of their aim and motivation:
“War is hell, and whether there is such a thing as a good or just war is debatable, but some are necessary. And yet they too leave profound consequences in their wake. Both sides — victors and vanquished — are changed forever. When we say ‘Thank you for your service,’ it is necessary, in our opinion, for the community, who, in essence authorized placing their daughters and sons in harm’s way, to listen, however uncomfortably, to the stories of combat veterans and their families. ‘Thank You for Your Service’ should be a greeting fully offered to the wives, husbands, and children of veterans, who have honorably served their country. It is important for the community to understand more comprehensively the impact that war has on many of their friends and neighbors.”
Mr. Maxner is careful to say that he is speaking only for himself, and not representing his fellow presenters when he says, “I did some horrendous things in Vietnam, as well as some good and productive things. Some of the things that I did I’m not proud of. They trouble me to this moment. When someone thanks me, it puts me in a little bit of a conflicted situation. I don’t know what to say. I expect that many veterans feel that way.”
He notes the difference between the climate of the country during the Vietnam War and that during more recent conflicts. After being drafted at the age of 22, immediately upon completion of his master’s degree in education, Mr. Maxner served as an Army medic in Vietnam during 1969 and 1970. The other two men who will be sharing their stories are considerably younger. One served as a medic assigned to the Marine Corps in Iraq. The other served as an artillery officer in the Afghan war.
“Everyone has a different take, a different war, a different time, a different country they came back to,” says Mr. Maxner. “When I came back, I did everything possible to hide the fact that I had been to Vietnam, that I was a vet. I didn’t want to talk about it. Today, returning vets tend to be treated more appreciatively.”
However, Mr. Maxner stresses that nothing diminishes the impact that the war experience has on an individual, and on the families. “I don’t know any who haven’t had repercussions in their families,” he says. “That’s sort of the gist of the whole thing. When countries send their women and men into battle, there are consequences.”
For Mr. Maxner, the psychological wounds remain. He freely admits that he has suffered emotionally from his wartime experience. “I’ve been in therapy with Tom Bennett [of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services’ Island Counseling Service] for 25 years,” he says. “I’ve been involved with the VA [Veterans Administration] for both physical and emotional issues in my life.” Mr. Maxner has been part of Community Services’ Combat Veterans Support Group since its beginning over 20 years ago.
War takes a toll on families of servicemembers as well, and Mr. Maxner is honoring their role by including the three participating vets’ wives in the talk. “I think the spouses and family are often neglected in terms of the appreciation that the community shows,” says Mr. Maxner. “They deal with the brunt of a lot of this. That’s part of the thrust of this event.”
Most important, Mr. Maxner wants to emphasize that the talk is not just about him and his experiences, but will represent all of those involved. He notes that the event was organized jointly by himself and the others, whom he has gotten to know through the years as West Tisbury neighbors and fellow vets. “I just want to be part of the group. Everyone will have their own opinions or observations that differ from mine,” he says. “I think the veterans and their wives will all be forthcoming and honest.
“We all kicked this idea around for a while,” recalls Mr. Maxner. “I thought that it just seemed like the time was right to take a step forward to see if this is something that is useful to all of us.
“We’re just going to tell our stories. It’s not like a group of guys in a spitting contest, saying I did this or I did that. We’re all just sharing the reality — not glorifying what it was like. When we send our kids off to war, this is what you get. It’s not as simple as some people would like to think it is.”
The speakers and listeners will sit in a circle without a podium or anyone taking center stage. There’s a reason that the layout was designed in such a way. The West Tisbury library describes the event on their website. “The purpose of this event is to provide a forum that demonstrates the connectedness of communities and veterans. As the community listens in silence, without comments or questions, veterans will endeavor to tell their stories, neighbor to neighbor.”
“We’ll start out that way,” says Mr. Maxner. “At the very end, for maybe 15 minutes, we will have a talk-back. None of us has done this before. Hopefully the community will be able to listen.”
“Thank You for Your Service: A Listening Event,” Saturday, Nov. 18, at 6 pm at the West Tisbury library. Seating is limited. Please arrive early, no later than 6. Doors will close once the event begins, and seating will no longer be available. Following the program, refreshments will be provided.