“She Gets It”: Elizabeth Heaney’s The Honor Was Mine
by Michael Fay
Active duty military and veterans have low expectations of civilians getting it. Too much Hollywood, video games and time at the mall stand between us and them. The civilian-military divide is well-documented, the stereotypes maintaining it well-entrenched. Those who’ve lived the military experience, whether deployed to war or stateside in garrison, know it’s a life neither Hollywood, nor World of Warcraft, can remotely capture. Years are devoted to training for war, followed by years engaged in it. Through it all, GIs gripe about it, revel in it and struggle with its aftershocks. What’s an intimate companion of a few, is a distant relative of the many. Most Americans easily express sympathy for military service with thankful handshakes in airports or bumper stickers, but few will ever devote the energy to develop what’s really needed: empathy.
There is one civilian who has devoted the time, effort – and yes, risk – to move beyond the stereotypes about what it means to serve, and in doing so has written a moving and insightful book on the challenges and rewards of contemporary military life. In The Honor Was Mine: A Look Inside the Struggles of Military Veterans, author and therapist Elizabeth Heaney, MA, LPC, walks us through her personal journey from vaguely sympathetic outsider to deeply empathetic insider.
After accepting a government contract to provide counseling to military personnel and their families, Heaney painfully admits that thirty years of professional civilian practice had done little to prepare her for the challenges before her. Coming on the heels of a period of personal upheaval, her sense of alienation reporting for her first assignment as a contract therapist is overwhelming—as much as any recruit stepping off the bus on day one of boot camp experiences. Being odd man out aboard a military installation, learning jargon, dealing with chains of command, suspicions and resistance to the stigma of seeking help among soldiers, and the subtleties of military culture, are further aggravated by the lack of understanding extended to her by members of her own circle of professional friends. As she writes, “I thought I’d be dealing with a bunch of war-obsessed people who mindlessly followed orders; I thought I’d be bored because the counseling conversations would be about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), all day, every day—as if that were the only issue any service member ever struggled with; I thought every soldier would be a cookie-cutter repeat of every other soldier, all individuality having been stomped out of them in boot camp.”
Heaney’s clear and descriptive writing style leads the reader down a winding, and often difficult path, into the heart of the military experience and the individuals living it. From the first pages of The Honor Was Mine, a tone of complete honesty, free of self-pity, lets the reader see the very human and vulnerable face of the writer. Heaney, as much as the GIs and the family members she counsels, is the subject of the narrative. On page after page the writer allows us into a journey from a crushing sense of helplessness to an eventual level of empathy and professional skill she could never have imagined. Heaney manages to write without self-congratulatory bravado or maudlin appeals to emotion. With a clarity of writing progressively touching a broad range of experiences, we learn as much about the author as we do of successive postings, situations unique to military family life and individual GIs. The reader will gain insight, both about a civilian transitioning from almost absolute ignorance of military service, and the multi-faceted realities of military life and individuals.
Heaney, avoiding the dispassionate voice of the clinician, fleshes out her narrative with rich descriptive passages, managing in a few words to make each soldier and family member, no matter how brief the interaction, real. Passages like this make The Honor Was Mine resonate again and again—here she describes a wife sitting in a marriage counseling session with a husband days back from Afghanistan. “Amy sits on the edge of her seat, her hands holding on to the arms of the chair, as if to anchor herself during the earthquake she’s afraid might be rolling through. She’s an athletic-looking woman with strawberry-blond hair pulled back in a girlish ponytail. Her shorts and tank top make it look like going to the gym is on her to-do list for the day.”
Heaney, in The Honor Was Mine, although it came at price, gets it. Whether civilian or military reader, she has managed to build an invaluable bridge between two very disparate worlds. Heaney has earned the right to say to the veterans and their family members under her care, “No worries, I got you,” without it sounding hollow or formulaic. From mortuary affairs and wives preparing barracks rooms for returning single soldiers, to GIs on the cusp of suicide and divorce triggered by PTSD or moral injury, Heaney invites the reader into both her inner world, and the experiences of individual veterans. Heaney allowed herself to undergo the psychic rigors demanded of empathy, of feeling into the lives of others, and she managed to break the code, for those willing to listen. Passages like this, words spoken during a session with a stoic senior NCO on the verge of a break-down, go directly to the heart of the military-civilian divide. “Edgy and worried. For any other person those words probably mean a slight uptick in anxiety. For him, they indicate a roaring sense of dread that scorched his insides like a wildfire and left his nerve endings charred with fear.”
In this quote, an early revelation for Heaney, the sum of this wonderfully written and obviously lived narrative is expressed perfectly: “As I worked with combat veterans, I began to understand: soldiers can’t really arrive back home until we are able to receive them—no parades and reintegration programs, but with deep and profound willingness to honor their individual journeys into combat and back again.”
Those who’ve served should be honored by Heaney’s The Honor Was Mine.
Michael D. Fay is the Art Editor for O-Dark-Thirty. A retired Marine Corps Chief Warrant Officer-2, Fay served as the official combat artist for the Marines from 2000 to 2009, and in that capacity deployed twice each to Afghanistan and Iraq. He has written articles for the New York Times, Canada’s National Post, Leatherneck Magazine and poetry for O-Dark-Thirty. Fay is currently an adjunct assistant professor for the art program at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania.