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TEDSalon NY2014

Wes Moore: How to talk to veterans about the war

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Views 945,980

Wes Moore joined the US Army to pay for college, but the experience became core to who he is. In this heartfelt talk, the paratrooper and captain—who went on to write "The Other Wes Moore"—explains the shock of returning home from Afghanistan. He shares the single phrase he heard from civilians on repeat, and shows why it's just not sufficient. It's a call for all of us to ask veterans to tell their stories — and listen.

- Author and advocate
Wes Moore's life transformed with these words out of his mother's mouth: "I'm sending you to military school." The author of the book, "The Other Wes Moore," he is now a vocal advocate for America's youth as well as for fellow veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Full bio

I'm excited to be here to speak about vets,
00:12
because I didn't join the Army
00:15
because I wanted to go to war.
00:16
I didn't join the Army because I had a lust
00:18
or a need to go overseas and fight.
00:21
Frankly, I joined the Army because
00:25
college is really damn expensive,
00:27
and they were going to help with that,
00:29
and I joined the Army because
00:30
it was what I knew,
00:33
and it was what I knew that I thought I could do well.
00:35
I didn't come from a military family.
00:38
I'm not a military brat.
00:40
No one in my family ever
had joined the military at all,
00:41
and how I first got introduced to the military
00:44
was when I was 13 years old
00:47
and I got sent away to military school,
00:49
because my mother had been threatening me
00:51
with this idea of military school
ever since I was eight years old.
00:53
I had some issues when I was coming up,
00:56
and my mother would always tell me, she's like,
00:59
"You know, if you don't get this together,
01:01
I'm going to send you to military school."
01:03
And I'd look at her, and I'd say, "Mommy,
01:04
I'll work harder."
01:05
And then when I was nine years old,
01:07
she started giving me brochures
to show me she wasn't playing around,
01:09
so I'd look at the brochures, and I'm like,
01:11
"Okay, Mommy, I can see you're
serious, and I'll work harder."
01:12
And then when I was 10 and 11,
01:15
my behavior just kept on getting worse.
01:17
I was on academic and disciplinary probation
01:20
before I hit double digits,
01:22
and I first felt handcuffs on my wrists
01:26
when I was 11 years old.
01:29
And so when I was 13 years old,
01:31
my mother came up to me, and she was like,
01:33
"I'm not going to do this anymore.
01:35
I'm going to send you to military school."
01:36
And I looked at her, and I said, "Mommy,
01:38
I can see you're upset, and
I'm going to work harder."
01:40
And she was like, "No, you're going next week."
01:43
And that was how I first got introduced
01:45
to this whole idea of the military,
01:47
because she thought this was a good idea.
01:50
I had to disagree with her wholeheartedly
01:53
when I first showed up there,
01:55
because literally in the first four days,
01:56
I had already run away five times from this school.
01:58
They had these big black gates
that surrounded the school,
02:00
and every time they would turn their backs,
02:02
I would just simply run out of the black gates
02:04
and take them up on their offer
that if we don't want to be there,
02:06
we can leave at any time.
02:08
So I just said, "Well, if that's the case,
02:10
then I'd like to leave." (Laughter)
02:11
And it never worked.
02:15
And I kept on getting lost.
02:17
But then eventually,
02:19
after staying there for a little while,
02:20
and after the end of that first year
02:23
at this military school,
02:24
I realized that I actually was growing up.
02:26
I realized the things that I enjoyed about this school
02:31
and the thing that I enjoyed about the structure
02:34
was something that I'd never found before:
02:36
the fact that I finally felt like I
was part of something bigger,
02:39
part of a team, and it actually mattered to people
02:42
that I was there,
02:44
the fact that leadership wasn't just a punchline there,
02:46
but that it was a real, actually core part
02:49
of the entire experience.
02:53
And so when it was time for me to actually
02:55
finish up high school,
02:57
I started thinking about what I wanted to do,
02:59
and just like probably most students,
03:02
had no idea what that meant or what I wanted to do.
03:03
And I thought about the people who I
03:07
respected and admired.
03:09
I thought about a lot of the people,
03:11
in particular a lot of the men, in my life
03:12
who I looked up to.
03:15
They all happened to wear the uniform
03:17
of the United States of America,
03:19
so for me, the question and the answer
03:21
really became pretty easy.
03:23
The question of what I wanted to do
03:25
was filled in very quickly with saying,
03:27
I guess I'll be an Army officer.
03:29
So the Army then went through this process
03:32
and they trained me up,
03:34
and when I say I didn't join the Army
03:35
because I wanted to go to war,
03:36
the truth is, I joined in 1996.
03:38
There really wasn't a whole lot going on.
03:40
I didn't ever feel like I was in danger.
03:43
When I went to my mom,
03:45
I first joined the Army when I was 17 years old,
03:46
so I literally needed parental permission
03:48
to join the Army,
03:49
so I kind of gave the paperwork to my mom,
03:50
and she just assumed it was
kind of like military school.
03:52
She was like, "Well, it was good for him before,
03:54
so I guess I'll just let him keep doing it,"
03:55
having no idea that the
paperwork that she was signing
03:58
was actually signing her son up
04:00
to become an Army officer.
04:02
And I went through the process,
04:06
and again the whole time still just thinking,
04:07
this is great, maybe I'll serve on a weekend,
04:09
or two weeks during the year, do drill,
04:13
and then a couple years after I signed up,
04:18
a couple years after my mother signed those papers,
04:21
the whole world changed.
04:23
And after 9/11, there was an entirely new context
04:27
about the occupation that I chose.
04:30
When I first joined, I never joined to fight,
04:34
but now that I was in,
04:39
this is exactly what was now going to happen.
04:41
And I thought about so much about the soldiers
04:44
who I eventually had to end up leading.
04:48
I remember when we first, right after 9/11,
04:50
three weeks after 9/11, I was
on a plane heading overseas,
04:52
but I wasn't heading overseas with the military,
04:55
I was heading overseas because I got a scholarship
04:57
to go overseas.
04:59
I received the scholarship to go overseas
05:00
and to go study and live overseas,
05:02
and I was living in England and that was interesting,
05:04
but at the same time, the same people who
05:06
I was training with,
05:08
the same soldiers that I went
through all my training with,
05:10
and we prepared for war,
05:13
they were now actually heading over to it.
05:15
They were now about to find themselves
05:19
in the middle of places the fact is
05:20
the vast majority of people,
05:23
the vast majority of us as we were training,
05:24
couldn't even point out on a map.
05:26
I spent a couple years finishing graduate school,
05:30
and the whole entire time while I'm sitting there
05:32
in buildings at Oxford
05:34
that were literally built hundreds of years
05:36
before the United States was even founded,
05:38
and I'm sitting there talking to dons
05:40
about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand,
05:43
and how that influenced the start of World War I,
05:47
where the entire time my heart and my head
05:52
were on my soldiers
05:54
who were now throwing on Kevlars
05:57
and grabbing their flak vests
05:59
and figuring out how exactly do I change around
06:00
or how exactly do I clean a machine gun
06:03
in the darkness.
06:05
That was the new reality.
06:08
By the time I finished that up and I rejoined
06:11
my military unit and we were getting
ready to deploy to Afghanistan,
06:13
there were soldiers in my unit who were now
06:16
on their second and third deployments
06:18
before I even had my first.
06:20
I remember walking out with
my unit for the first time,
06:21
and when you join the Army
06:23
and you go through a combat tour,
06:25
everyone looks at your shoulder,
06:26
because on your shoulder is your combat patch.
06:28
And so immediately as you meet people,
06:31
you shake their hand,
06:33
and then your eyes go to their shoulder,
06:34
because you want to see where did they serve,
06:36
or what unit did they serve with?
06:38
And I was the only person walking around
06:39
with a bare shoulder,
06:41
and it burned every time someone stared at it.
06:43
But you get a chance to talk to your soldiers,
06:47
and you ask them why did they sign up.
06:50
I signed up because college was expensive.
06:54
A lot of my soldiers signed up
for completely different reasons.
06:58
They signed up because of a sense of obligation.
07:02
They signed up because they were angry
07:04
and they wanted to do something about it.
07:06
They signed up because
07:08
their family said this was important.
07:09
They signed up because they
wanted some form of revenge.
07:11
They signed for a whole
collection of different reasons.
07:13
And now we all found ourselves overseas
07:18
fighting in these conflicts.
07:21
And what was amazing to me was that I
07:24
very naively started hearing this statement
07:27
that I never fully understood,
07:31
because right after 9/11, you start hearing this idea
07:35
where people come up to you and they say,
07:37
"Well, thank you for your service."
07:38
And I just kind of followed in and started saying
07:41
the same things to all my soldiers.
07:43
This is even before I deployed.
07:44
But I really had no idea what that even meant.
07:46
I just said it because it sounded right.
07:50
I said it because it sounded like the right thing to say
07:52
to people who had served overseas.
07:53
"Thank you for your service."
07:55
But I had no idea what the context was
07:57
or what that even,
07:59
what it even meant to the people who heard it.
08:02
When I first came back from Afghanistan,
08:05
I thought that if you make it back from conflict,
08:10
then the dangers were all over.
08:14
I thought that if you made it
back from a conflict zone
08:17
that somehow you could kind of
08:20
wipe the sweat off your brow and say,
08:22
"Whew, I'm glad I dodged that one,"
08:23
without understanding that for so many people,
08:27
as they come back home,
08:29
the war keeps going.
08:31
It keeps playing out in all of our minds.
08:33
It plays out in all of our memories.
08:35
It plays out in all of our emotions.
08:38
Please forgive us
08:43
if we don't like being in big crowds.
08:44
Please forgive us
08:49
when we spend one week in a place
08:52
that has 100 percent light discipline,
08:54
because you're not allowed to
walk around with white lights,
08:56
because if anything has a white light,
08:58
it can be seen from miles away,
09:00
versus if you use little green
09:01
or little blue lights,
09:03
they cannot be seen from far away.
09:04
So please forgive us if out of nowhere,
09:06
we go from having 100 percent light discipline
09:08
to then a week later being back
in the middle of Times Square,
09:12
and we have a difficult time adjusting to that.
09:14
Please forgive us
09:19
when you transition back to a family
09:21
who has completely been maneuvering without you,
09:23
and now when you come back, it's not that easy
09:27
to fall back into a sense of normality,
09:29
because the whole normal has changed.
09:32
I remember when I came back,
I wanted to talk to people.
09:37
I wanted people to ask me about my experiences.
09:40
I wanted people to come up to me and tell me,
09:43
"What did you do?"
09:45
I wanted people to come up to me and tell me,
09:46
"What was it like? What was the food like?
09:48
What was the experience like? How are you doing?"
09:49
And the only questions I got from people was,
09:54
"Did you shoot anybody?"
09:56
And those were the ones who were even curious
09:59
enough to say anything.
10:00
Because sometimes there's this fear
10:04
and there's this apprehension that if I say anything,
10:06
I'm afraid I'll offend,
10:07
or I'm afraid I'll trigger something,
10:09
so the common default is just saying nothing.
10:10
The problem with that
10:15
is then it feels like your service
10:17
was not even acknowledged,
10:19
like no one even cared.
10:22
"Thank you for your service,"
10:25
and we move on.
10:28
What I wanted to better understand
10:31
was what's behind that,
10:33
and why "thank you for your service" isn't enough.
10:37
The fact is, we have literally
10:42
2.6 million men and women
10:46
who are veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan
10:49
who are all amongst us.
10:51
Sometimes we know who they are,
10:54
sometimes we don't,
10:56
but there is that feeling, the shared experience,
10:59
the shared bond
11:01
where we know that that experience
11:04
and that chapter of our life,
11:06
while it might be closed,
11:08
it's still not over.
11:10
We think about "thank you for your service,"
11:14
and people say, "So what does 'thank
you for your service' mean to you?"
11:16
Well, "Thank you for your service" means to me,
11:18
it means acknowledging our stories,
11:20
asking us who we are,
11:24
understanding the strength
11:27
that so many people, so many
people who we serve with, have,
11:29
and why that service means so much.
11:33
"Thank you for your service"
means acknowledging the fact
11:37
that just because we've now come home
11:39
and we've taken off the uniform
11:41
does not mean our larger service to this country
11:42
is somehow over.
11:45
The fact is, there's still a tremendous amount
11:47
that can be offered and can be given.
11:50
When I look at people
11:54
like our friend Taylor Urruela,
11:56
who in Iraq loses his leg,
12:01
had two big dreams in his life.
12:02
One was to be a soldier. The other
was to be a baseball player.
12:05
He loses his leg in Iraq.
12:08
He comes back
12:13
and instead of deciding that,
12:14
well, now since I've lost my
leg, that second dream is over,
12:16
he decides that he still has that
dream of playing baseball,
12:19
and he starts this group called VETSports,
12:21
which now works with veterans all over the country
12:23
and uses sports as a way of healing.
12:25
People like Tammy Duckworth,
12:30
who was a helicopter pilot
12:32
and with the helicopter that she was flying,
12:34
you need to use both your hands
12:36
and also your legs to steer,
12:37
and her helicopter gets hit,
12:39
and she's trying to steer the chopper,
12:40
but the chopper's not reacting
12:41
to her instructions and to her commands.
12:43
She's trying to land the chopper safely,
12:45
but the chopper doesn't land safely,
12:48
and the reason it's not landing safely
12:49
is because it's not responding to the
commands that her legs are giving
12:50
because her legs were blown off.
12:53
She barely survives.
12:58
Medics come and they save her life,
13:01
but then as she's doing her
recuperation back at home,
13:05
she realizes that, "My job's still not done."
13:07
And now she uses her voice
13:11
as a Congresswoman from Illinois
13:13
to fight and advocate for a collection of issues
13:15
to include veterans issues.
13:18
We signed up because
13:22
we love this country we represent.
13:25
We signed up because
13:29
we believe in the idea and we believe in the people
13:31
to our left and to our right.
13:34
And the only thing we then ask is that
13:37
"thank you for your service"
13:39
needs to be more than just a quote break,
13:41
that "thank you for your service" means
13:44
honestly digging in
13:47
to the people who have stepped up
13:49
simply because they were asked to,
13:52
and what that means for us not just now,
13:56
not just during combat operations,
13:58
but long after the last vehicle has left
14:01
and after the last shot has been taken.
14:05
These are the people who I served with,
14:09
and these are the people who I honor.
14:12
So thank you for your service.
14:16
(Applause)
14:18

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About the speaker:

Wes Moore - Author and advocate
Wes Moore's life transformed with these words out of his mother's mouth: "I'm sending you to military school." The author of the book, "The Other Wes Moore," he is now a vocal advocate for America's youth as well as for fellow veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Why you should listen

Wes Moore grew up in Maryland in the early '80s and, after his father passed away when he was 3-years-old, he started acting up. Eventually, at age 13, his mother sent him away to military school. This turned out to be a life-changing experience. He adjusted well to the rigid order and took off academically, going on to study International Relations at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship. 

In his first book—the bestseller The Other Wes Moore—he takes a hard look at how his life might have unfolded. He does this by interviewing a man who shares his name and had a similar upbringing, but who is serving life in prison for the murder of a Baltimore police officer. It's a beautifully-told tale that shows how lives pivot on circumstance. Moore donates a portion of the book's proceeds to charities focused on empowering America's youth. 

A paratrooper and Captain in the United States Army who served a tour of duty in Afghanistan, Moore is also an advocate for veterans. In the PBS special Coming Back Home with Wes Moore, he uses his interviewing chops to talk to other veterans about their experiences returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Moore is also the host of Beyond Belief on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

More profile about the speaker
Wes Moore | Speaker | TED.com