Every soldier has a story, though that doesn’t mean it always gets told. Some can’t stand to talk about what they did or saw or suffered; others are like former Marine captain Seth Moulton, just elected to Congress from Massachusetts, who never even told his parents how he won two medals for courage under fire. “There is a healthy disrespect among veterans who served on the front lines for people who walk around telling war stories,” he told the Boston Globe.
But what about the stories that follow? The ones after the fighting is over, about what helps, what heals, what happens next? In anticipation of Veterans Day, a TIME team led by editor Dan Macsai has worked with Facebook, Instagram, photo collective everydayusa and veterans’ groups like Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America to capture a wide range of stories and images of the country’s vets. In recent weeks, photo editor Phil Bicker has curated galleries by photographers including Nina Berman and Peter van Agtmael, and reporter Olivia B. Waxman has posted “as told to” stories like “Yes, I Really Catch Pythons to Treat My PTSD,” by former Marine corporal Jorge Martinez. “Out in the Everglades, it’s almost impossible to hear loud noises,” he says. “It’s very peaceful, almost like meditation. I have a mission to accomplish, and that mission is to catch a python. I stay alert, always vigilant, something that comes natural now after being trained in the military.”
We hear from Angela Madsen, a 54-year-old former Marine and grandmother of five, who is the first paraplegic woman to row across the Atlantic and Indian oceans. “I like rowing because I don’t do it in a wheelchair,” she says. “Nobody even knows I’m different when they see me in a boat on the water.” Her longest trip took 67 days. “Those rows are a lot like deployment,” she says. “I’m away from my family for a long period of time, doing something that’s risky and dangerous and physically uncomfortable … It’s like living in the inside of a washing machine. At the end of the day, I’m living out the Marine Corps Core Values: honor, courage and commitment.”
Sometimes adjustment and recovery take the form of service, especially to other veterans; sometimes they take the form of art. Former Marine Roman Baca served in Fallujah from 2005 to 2006; he’s now the artistic director of Exit12 Dance Company in New York City, which performs ballets inspired by the military experience. “Even in a war zone, a soldier can forget about the constant threat of danger while watching a sunset over the desert or seeing children play like all children do on the streets we patrolled,” he says. Performing a ballet based on those scenes “opened my eyes to a new way that I could engage society after being separated by experiences of war. There has been some healing in creating these ballets.”
The hard work of healing, of course, starts at places like Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where TIME contract photographer James Nachtwey shot this week’s photo essay. The accompanying text was written by Karl Vick, our former Jerusalem bureau chief, who covered the Iraq War for the Washington Post. “One gratifying thing was learning that the high-tech part that is working so well on physical wounds, especially in ‘adaptive sports,’ turns out to dovetail with the approaches that are bearing fruit in treating the psychological piece,” Vick observes, “by putting vets back with other vets, getting the endorphins flowing and in many cases giving them a sense of mission.”
Nancy Gibbs, EDITOR
BEHIND THE STORY
Cedric King, the Army master sergeant we profile on page 46, finished his first New York City Marathon on Nov. 2–despite breaking his prosthetic legs twice.
See more veterans’ stories at time.com/vets, or submit your own via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or social media (by tagging a post with #TIMEvets).
This appears in the November 17, 2014 issue of TIME.