"There are trees now." Returning to the site of the mission as meaning-making practice.
(Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)
Paper short abstract:
This paper documents experiences of veterans returning to the site of their deployment, and interprets them as meaning-making practices. The focus is on Dutchbat UNPROFOR veterans re-visiting Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, but experiences from other missions also shed light on these journeys.
Paper long abstract:
The longing to return to the place that had shaped their lives was common in the veterans I have known. Three tropes can be distinguished in their narratives about returning. One trope is reconnecting with locals, especially those who were children during the deployment; specific bonds may have developed from life-saving events. Reconnection also occurs when veterans participate to rebuild the country. Reconnecting veterans express commitment to locals, which they were not allowed during deployment. Through contact with locals the veterans can search for a clue that their mission had not been in vain, and that at least for some it made a difference. Another trope involves the desire to know. This may take the form of reconstructing a particular event (e.g. a shooting). It may also involve reevaluating political events together with locals (e.g. mothers of Srebrenica). Veterans often identify a healing aspect of retrospectively obtaining insight. Reconstructing events in situ also provides opportunities to share experiences with partners and family members. Confrontation is the third trope. It may foster a feeling of sanity; in the presence of landmines, the obsession to avoid walking on grass becomes sane behavior again. The veteran may recognize himself in the country, as the war is still present in both. But he also sees the resilience in the landscape ("there are trees now"), and finds encouragement to endure. These veterans used their military pensions and PTSD recompensation to finance their return, and obtain a form of self-healing no clinical psychotherapy offers.
To the "front" and back "home" again: military mobilities and the social transitions they entail