Last night (July 10) my husband and I attended the film screening and panel discussion of ‘Hell and Back Again,’ a documentary film by photojournalist and filmmaker Danfung Dennis who was embedded with the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan. I was a bit apprehensive going in as to how I and my active-duty husband would react to seeing, what is, (recorded) live footage of fire-fights, the storyline’s “hero” getting wounded, and his recovery. All the while going back and forth between glimpses of what is and what was that brought him to that point.
This is a dramatic film that allowed me to share a moment of what it was like from a Soldier’s perspective, as well as allowing my husband to see from my eyes as the wife dealing with a returning, angry veteran. No one has it easy.
I have been privileged to be part of a unit of Soldiers, wives and supporters for many years. There have been times of great hurt and sorrow. There has been death and destruction of lives both intentional and not. But, we are a Family and every Family has conflict and, in the end, I know who I can count on. At times it did not feel that way and I needed the help of a counselor to get me back on the right path, as did my husband. A man who I have known since I was a young girl and I have watched grow from a punk kid to a well decorated Soldier. But life, and decisions, has a way of taking a toll on you. As the saying goes, “It’s not the years, it’s the miles.” And our Soldiers, they’ve got a lot of miles.
Before I sought help from a counselor, I was able to have an in-depth conversation with my uncle, a Vietnam veteran, Green Beret and post traumatic stress disorder survivor. I needed him. I needed him to help me to understand what my Green Beret husband was going through and what I could do to help. I am well over the median age of the military spouse, been married for 25 years to that military man while he has been on active duty. I’ve been through numerous FSG — dare I say it, Family support group meetings, pre-cursor to the now known politically correct, Family readiness group meetings, read countless pamphlets on reintegration, and in the end, it was of little help. Our Family deteriorated.
What I learned, I attempted to bring to others attention. But I quickly found out that ideas on how to help are not always embraced. That would mean the “machine” the “big Army” has to look into itself, or those on the platform, have to acknowledge, we are broken. We have a very big problem and it is not going away. So, we idly sit by and wait. We wait for the Sgt. Bales and Spc. Elders of the world to break out. We wait for the suicides to take over the news. We wait for the children’s school records to suffer. We wait for the alcohol issues to surface, for the adultery to be known, for the hidden pornography to show up. We wait. Then as a whole, we deteriorate.
So we keep to ourselves. We hide the hurt. We hide the emotional pain. Afraid of the ‘pysch’ floor. But then something may happen and it all comes to the forefront and it must be dealt with. And you ask, is this normal behavior? What is going on? What is happening? Does he or she need help? Do I need help? And when do I seek help? That started to be a regular question I was hearing.
When I was able to sit down and talk with my uncle, there were a few key moments that forever changed his life and he easily brought up those moments. What was so amazing, yet troubling, is the same words were nearly verbatim from my own Soldier’s mouth.
“I can pinpoint the exact moment ‘when I changed.’ What ‘I’ saw that changed how ‘I’ saw the war and what was happening.
(Both of them recalled seeing American Soldier’s body parts.) I became so angry and hateful. I enclosed into myself. I would never be the same. I had to turn into another person to be able to function and then I could not come out of who I became.
When I returned home, I continued being that man, and that man was destructive. To himself, to his Family,” my uncle said.
As the spouse, I learned whether it be alcohol, drugs, adultery, gambling, anger, rage, working out, or gaming, the list can continue, but what I learned, is it was not my fault. These things are products of war and we are its CONUS (continental United States) casualties. This is not an excuse, it is not a free ticket, but it helps to explain. It helped me to understand. It helped me to have compassion as I watched my Soldier weep when he finally faced all the realities of the damage he had created within his own household. And it was a critical step in our healing process, because earlier, as I sought help, I was given bad advice. I didn’t over-burden my Soldier once he got home. I didn’t over task him, I didn’t bombard him with chores, or problems, and what I wound up doing is just pushing him farther away. It was obvious to him that we worked just fine without him. So, into his mental corner he went. Re-enforcing that I-could not-come-out-of-who-I-became attitude. And that was a very hurtful man.
It has taken eight years to go from the moment of “change” to today. This is our “new normal” and we are adjusting. Other than my uncle, our Families do not understand. I cannot understand the pain that my husband has experienced, nor can he understand mine. At times he will get a glimpse of his former self and I see it in his eyes, the sorrow he feels of the moments he has lost, but I am thankful that he has emerged from that perishing former man and is renewing his inner man. And then we hear the stories, the divorces, the suicides, the homicides, the behaviors that are just different and we know, we were so close to being one of those statistics. It only takes a moment. A moment of not thinking clearly to break from reality and change everything. I know, because I was at that breaking point, just like many Soldiers and many spouses. A very dark moment in time is that – a moment.
Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, guest panelist at the ‘Hell and Back Again’ screening said it best about the subject of why there is not training on preparing for your ‘altered state’ Soldier returning home. “We have never had to prepare for something like this.”
There are groups of us trying to change that. The military is a wonderful life that gives you great opportunities and a chance to give back to your country, grow as a person and challenge yourself in ways you never would be able to do in the civilian sector, but every good student in life needs training materials and resources. You’ve only got three choices in life — Give up, give in, or give it all you’ve got. I will see you at the finish line.