What Makes a Hero?

Carry Me Home

Fifty years ago a master sergeant threw a fist-sized cardboard box at Jack.  Inside that container his starred purple heart jumbled and tangled with assorted good conduct ribbons and Vietnam service metals.  Yesterday a Colonel representing his local congressman awarded him and two other Vietnam Vets the medals they earned so long ago.

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The Colonel told some good jokes, did his best to explain why war is a necessary evil.  He talked of communism and terrorism and the horrific slaughter of innocents by brutal enemies.  When it was over, three men stood holding their medals pinned to velvet lined backboards, blinking back tears and looking out at a room filled with people who came out on a rainy afternoon to say thank you for your service and to show their respect.

It was a good and proper day. 

But watching those men, here’s what I wanted to stand up and say:

These men are heroes not because they stopped the spread of communism, or because they held terrorists accountable, or because our country is the flag-bearer for right and good.  These men are heroes because they found themselves in an impossible situation and they did everything they could to keep themselves and their brothers-in-arms alive.  They saw and tasted and heard and smelled horrors that no one should ever be asked to experience.  They survived to come home to us and have spent fifty years doing their best every day to erase the sights, muzzle the sounds, push down the tastes and walk through the smells burned into every  molecule of their souls and brains and bodies.

These men are heroes not just for what they survived in some agent-orange defoliated jungle.  They are heroes for living through fifty years of civilians who don’t understand them and loved ones who walk away in tears from actions and responses that, to these men, seem completely normal.  Most of us have not been where they’ve lived.  We know, deep inside ourselves, that faced with the same God-awful situation, set down in the middle of a bloody mess, we would not have survived. 

These men did just that.   They came home to us.  And for that, I call them hero.

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Halloween and the lessons of Mr. Rogers

bill-with-pumpkinAh, yes.  Halloween has again officially escorted the holiday season into our lives for another year of stress and unrealistic expectations.

I know.  I know.  Many of you are happily dusting the cobwebs from those big lidded orange troughs with the tape across the sides and top that proclaims Thanksgiving Decorations.   Some of you are, even now, eyeing those other, those red and green coffin-sized containers, and dreaming of ten-foot plastic trees and tiny handprints in plaster-of-Paris, and the heady scent of fake fir and burnt sugar.

I’m happy for you.  I am.  Hell, I used to be you.

But, let’s look at how this season appears to someone with PTSD, someone who’s been in combat, someone whose concept of what people are capable of is perhaps somewhat different than that of those sipping pumpkin latte and dusting the pilgrim centerpiece. 

Let’s start by looking at Halloween through the eyes of one of these warriors.

As you know, my twenty-five years of experience with PTSD is with a veteran of Vietnam.  Jack’s war was a little different from the one the guys returning to families from Iraq or Afghanistan have lived through.  But the psychological residue left by Jack’s war bears a striking similarity to the emotional sludge this new group of warriors is wading through.

If you’re married to a combat veteran, be he young or old, chances are your soldier or Marine understands, on a molecular level, the danger, the extreme danger, of slow-moving vehicles filled with people in clothes that allow for the secreting of enough explosive to take out his entire unit?  Now, explain to that same warrior how you’re going to dress his children in costumes and take them out on the street, weave them in and out of a virtual traffic jam of SUV’s filled to overflowing with people in masks and flowing robes and capes.  Try to make this man who honed his instincts for survival in a world where people did their best to kill him and his fellow Marines or soldiers, do your best to help him understand the fun of watching his children knock on the doors of strangers.  Strangers who may well answer the knock in the guise of witches or demons or ghosts in long flowing robes.

And, for those philosophers and spiritual souls among us, let us not forget that the Halloween began life as a religious holiday–a day to remember the dead.  Do not think for one moment that isn’t exactly what your warrior is doing as you’re smiling at your little superhero holding out his plastic pumpkin and begging candy.

Honestly?  I can’t think of a more stressful environment for a person with war trauma than Halloween.

If you’re married to one of these warriors, please remember, these instincts for survival that, right this minute, are making you despair of ever enjoying another holiday?  These are the instincts, honed by combat, that returned him to you and to your children.  Especially if he is going back into war, but even if he’s out of the military, he cannot simply switch-off the emotional tools that kept him alive in war.

Twenty-five years of marriage to Jack has taught me to find the true joy in Halloween and Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Oh, I’m not going to lie and say I always remember this meaning or that I don’t sigh heavily and wish that once, just once, we could have a normal holiday season. But deep down, we all know the meaning of the holidays isn’t shopping for the perfect gift, or watching the eyes of children light up when they see the golden brown turkey, or even the midnight church service itself. 

The real message of the holidays is to love one another. Just that, no more.  And to love, we’re forced, again and again, to accept one another.  We’re forced to see past all those false expectations and look into the heart of another and, to paraphrase the late Mr. Rogers, to say simply, “I love you.  Just the way you are.”