The Color Purple

roller coaster Living with Jack is an adventure. Well, maybe thrill ride is a more accurate way to describe living with my Vietnam veteran. For Jack the control needs of post-traumatic stress have morphed over the years into secondary OCD. For those of you who read My Life with a Wounded Warrior, I refer you to the chapter about the Lexus.

Well, Jack’s newest obsession is the desire to have his chest length beard dyed purple. See, a year or two ago I had a line of purple dyed into the streak of gray in my hair. A fair warning to everyone that, while I may look meek and mild, there is that one narrow streak of wildness lurking in the granny gray. I love that little rebellion against conformity, my friends love it, my publicist even used it in creating my brand. All was well.

Then, about six months ago, Jack began obsessing about having a purple Fu Manchu died into his white beard. He spent a lot of time in beauty salons talking with young women about just how this new fashion statement could be accomplished. This provided him the opportunity to flirt with a lot of pretty girls but brought him no closer to his purple Fu Manchu. No one could figure out how to isolate the dye to just the Fu Manchu without spotting the purple all through the rest of the beard. I thought I was safe.

Never, ever, never underestimate the power of a Marine who sets out to get something done. Doesn’t matter the consequences, he will accomplish his mission. A week ago Jack had his beard cut. Except for a bushy, chest-length Fu Manchu. He saved the Fu Manchu. Today he’s having it died purple. So, this morning, as I flipped through Facebook, stopping at the Spouses of PTSD Groups, I spotted a post by a women with a common complaint. People who make comments like, “He looks fine to me. Most of this is in head,” or “It’s a scam to get VA money. Look at him. There’s nothing wrong with him.” Bet Jack and I don’t have to hear that one for a while.

How Was Your Day?

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Last month Jack spent a month on the other side of the country visiting with people he loves. I had hoped to keep in touch with him through texting, as we both now have phones far smarter than either of us. Unfortunately, he was visiting one of those dead zones where the only cell phone service is provided by the local drug dealer laundering his money through legitimate business.
But even without texting service my husband did call each evening. Those conversations, each and every one of them, consisted of Jack reciting a list of what he’d done that day. I would then ask if he was enjoying himself, if he’d had a chance to talk about this or that, how he was feeling. . . you know the drill. These queries he answered with one word. Fine. Good. Sure.
Never once did he ask how my day had gone, what I was doing, or what my plans for the next day were. He did always inquire about the dog.
So, about a week into these one-sided conversations, I began to get a little pissy. Yes, pissy is a word, ask the wife of any combat veteran. So I came up with three options for how to deal with this. You may think of others.
1. Say nothing and let my anger smolder into rage at Jack and turn inward while I sink into depression. This solution is an old time favorite.
2. Realize that with his post-traumatic stress, TBI, mild dementia, diabetes, and chronic pain he simply could not focus on anything outside his line of sight right then. It was taking every ounce of strength he had to make a trip he probably should not have made alone to begin with.
3. Tell him up front, “Hey, I miss you and I’d like to tell you how my day went. Are you up for that?”
This violates the ancient code of “If you really loved me you’d be able to read my mind and KNOW what I want without me having to TELL you.”
Still, it seemed the most likely to get me what I wanted.
I went with my old favorite, anger and self-pity for fifteen minutes or so, and then decided on a combination shot. Bounced understanding off the side to hit speaking-up-for- what-I-want to sink the three ball into the side pocket.
I also, and this is an important part of the process for me, made sure to spend plenty of time with friends who do not have PTSD, people who enjoy my company and whose company I enjoy in the carefree manner of non-spouses.
This incident came back to me this week because during the time that Jack was gone I made this Aha Moment in the Mutual of Omaha traveling Airstream. Part of the interview that was cut showed me saying that I wrote My Life with a Wounded Warrior at the worst time in my twenty-five years of marriage. I revealed that Jack read every story/essay as I wrote them but it wasn’t until he read the published book that he cried and hugged me and said, “You really DO love me.”
Really? Twenty-five years. Traveling all the hell over the world together, often accompanied by large service dogs. Living in foreign lands. Scuba diving side by side every day for five years. Frequenting VA hospitals and emergency rooms. Really? All this and it’s not until he sees it in black and white in a published book that he realizes I love him?
Well, yeah. Because while he’d charge into the enemy with guns blazing and a wide grin, emotional intimacy scares the holy crap out of him. Yes, it took seeing the words in black- and-white because survivor guilt seeks daily to rob him of joy. Yes, it took a public declaration of my love and frustrations for him to accept that at least one person in the world knew him for who he was and found him lovable.
Subtlety is not Jack’s strong point.
Which is why last month when he called on the sixth evening from California, I asked him to call me the next day in the morning when he was fresh and rested. It’s why the next morning I told him all about my feeling of seeing myself in the Aha Moment. How I was shocked at the difference between how young I feel on the inside and how old, so very old, I look on the outside. I rambled on about my vanity and listed all the things about the interview that made me cringe.
When I ran out of steam, Jack said simply, “Huh, so what are you doing today?”
Which made me laugh and reminded me to call a friend to go for a walk in the woods and then to lunch at a barbeque place where we could pig-out on greasy food and talk about every single mundane thing that popped into our heads.

The Spirituality of War

“Many will argue that there is nothing remotely spiritual in combat. Consider this. Mystical or religious experiences have four common components: constant awareness of one’s own inevitable death, total focus on the present moment, the valuing of other people’s lives above one’s own, and being part of a larger religious community such as the Sangha, ummah, or church. All four of these exist in combat. The big difference is that the mystic sees heaven and the warrior sees hell. Whether combat is the dark side of the same vision, or only something equivalent in intensity, I simply don’t know. I do know that at age fifteen I had a mystical experience that scared the hell out of me and both it and combat put me into a different relationship with ordinary life and eternity.”
–-Karl Marlantes, What It Is Like To Go To War.

Carry Me Home
There you have a longish quote from a brilliant writer and noble warrior.
I worry that in trying to demystify post-traumatic stress – separate the mythology of the media from the actual effects of the trauma of war – not enough attention is paid to the tremendous power possessed by combat veterans. It’s this power that draws me to these guys. They’ve walked point in a spiritual zone the rest of us glimpse only occasionally, as when a too bright sun breaks momentarily through thick fog.
If Marlantes is correct, and I believe he is dead on, the spiritual nature of the experience of war helps explain the intense brotherhood these men possess. It has been my privilege to witness the power of this brotherhood first hand and I’m here to tell you it raises the hairs on the back of my neck and touches a place deep inside usually reserved for mystics and monks. It’s the reason these guys NEVER leave a man behind.
Which is why I was surprised by the immediate and intense reaction to the release of Bowe Burgdahl. Especially as I have heard many Vietnam combat vets tell of their own feelings of wanting to walk away, of feeling that they should not have been there, that nothing was being accomplished but bloody awful killing. I was surprised because I layered the present situation with my own personal history and I am a child of the sixties. I was surprised because I did not at first see the complexity of emotions the release of Burgdahl would free in other combat veterans.
Burgdahl abandoned his brother warriors, and in the church of combat, that is the unforgivable sin. It’s the reason for survival guilt. It’s why combat vets struggle to allow joy into their lives even fifty years after they’ve returned to us.
Personally, I’m happy Burgdahl has come home, but then I am not one of those consecrated by the fires of war.

Wounded Warrior Project Guest Post

Guest Post.

The Growing Role of Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs)

National issues can deeply divide a country. The economy, healthcare and national security each cause political gridlock. The debate over these broader policies has specific effects on subjects most of us agree on.

Providing adequate care for wounded veterans is a cause that nearly all politicians and citizens voice their support for. However, how services are delivered to vets and the budgets available to provide care remain in question.

Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) play an important role in helping returning soldiers transition to daily life. VSOs provide programs specific to the needs of military families. This includes the unique physical and emotional aspects of combat related experience.

Here are ways that VSOs offer common benefits for different vets:

Healthcare:

As more vets return home, shortfalls in care could become more severe. Healthcare beyond the V.A. will likely be needed for returning soldiers. A new deal that gives vets access to Medicare doctors and government healthcare programs was just approved.

There are unique physical and emotional aspects to combat related injuries. How limbs, sight or hearing were lost is also a critical part of recovery. The trauma of injuries from gunfire or bomb blasts affects emotional health as well.

VSOs offer custom options for military families. These include:

Service Dogs: Assistance dogs help wounded veterans on several levels. A guide dog helps soldiers who have lost their sight while hearing dogs serve as the ears for deaf soldiers. The trust of a PTSD service dog gives assurance to soldiers dealing with anxieties.

Car horns, standing in line or shouts across a room are daily noises that cause anxiety for some vets. VSOs select service dogs for their ability to provide physical and emotional support for injured veterans.

Multiple VSOs provide or help veterans find service dogs. This includes national and local organizations. The Los Angeles branch of Hounds for Heroes 1 is a recent example of local support for vets with national resources.

Adaptive Sports:The loss of mobility is a profound change for injured soldiers. Adaptive sports, such as sled hockey, track and surfing, all help wounded vets regain an active lifestyle. These meetups also restore the camaraderie that many vets miss when returning home. Many VSOs team with hospitals to improve injury recovery. Warfighter Sports 2 is a group that works with military hospitals through over 100 local chapters.

Economy:

A changing economy affects the job prospects of some returning vets, who have not had the time to learn newly in demand skills. Physical injuries, PTSD and other trauma may also limit an injured vet’s job search.

Skills Training: Education and skills programs for wounded vets helps narrow the gap. These programs are tailored to military veterans of all abilities, whether injured or not. VSOs provide most, if not all services, free of cost to veterans. The support system of other soldiers helps overcome past and present academic hurdles.

Wounded Warrior Project features the TRACK Project, which brings vets to Jacksonville or San Antonio for a 12 month curriculum. Job and life skills are taught, along with internships at local employers to gain work experience.

Job Placement: Many VSOs build a network of companies eager to hire returning soldiers. To prepare for interviews, vets learn to communicate how their military training has value for employers. Vets also get help crafting an effective resume that links their military experience with civilian jobs.

Changes in Military Goals and National Security:

Since national security threats are dynamic, how and where soldiers are needed quickly changes. Many military members have been stationed on multiple fronts. Veterans Services may have trouble adapting to changing military climates.

Conversely, smaller VSOs can quickly shift resources to meet changing needs. For instance, basic toiletries for departing soldiers or personal care packets for returning vets in military hospitals. The nature of the conflict may also affect what type of support is needed.

Summary:

Veterans care is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘how’. The recent controversy over V.A. care will spark more reforms. Whatever the changes, VSOs will play a role in supporting wounded veterans.

Credits:

(1) Founded with support from Elliott Broidy, the Los Angeles office of Hounds of Heroes matches services dogs with wounded veterans.

(2) Warfighter Sports is a program of Disabled Sports USA.

Brittany Deatherage , WWP / Wounded Warrior Project

 

The Complications of War

Show me who makes a profit from war and I’ll show you how to stop war
–Henry Ford

Carry Me Home
Every so often someone approaches me, someone who knows I do my best to be an advocate for combat veterans, and either belligerently or apologetically, they proclaim:
“Young women should not be in combat. War ruins women.”
My reply is the same to all of them, be they meek or angry.
“I agree with you completely. And neither should young men be in combat. War ruins everything it touches with the exception of those few individuals who make a profit from the ruination.”
I mention this now in reference to Sergeant Bergdahl.
Lots of emotion flying around about this one. Yesterday, my friend Velda Brotherton wrote this thoughtful blog post. Now, and this could change by the time I get this essay on-line, it looks as though Berghdah did indeed desert. At least according to the men we’re seeing on the media who claim to be his buddies. My inclination is to trust a combat vet, so I’m going to go with the theory that these men really were with him in Afghanistan and that they are telling the truth as they know it.
I’ve been struggling to wrap my head around all this, so this morning when my good friend and Vietnam Veteran Jim Hale sent me the following email, I immediately asked him if I could share his thoughts with you about this complicated situation.
Here’s what Jim has to say.
This whole thing with the return of Bergdahl, the Afghanistan POW, took me back to 1968 when I considered walking away. Like him I was also 22 years old.

My illusions of the cause were broken after just 4 months in country. We were hated. Bad stuff was happening and it was all for a lie. Not just to me but most of us felt that.

Got on a C47 and went on an unauthorized R&R for two weeks in Thailand.

The girl I was with didn’t want me to leave, said she’d go with me, up to northern Thailand.

It sounded pretty good but I thought of my mother and never seeing her again. And I had buddies back in Vietnam some of them I’m still in touch with now.

So I went back to Vietnam and had to fill 2000 sandbags for my punishment. Was told I earned the sandbag beret and oh yeah, promoted to E5 within a few weeks.

Then all that shit happened, the Navy Seals, the mad minutes, the dead pregnant woman. The coup de grace, the Christmas skirmish and friendly fire. Severe PTSD for three quarters of my life.

What price we pay for our loyalty.

And the consequences are severe no matter what we do.

I can’t know his motivation for walking away but I think five years as a POW, all alone like that should be enough.

Yet I fear the last pound of flesh will be demanded. I fear they will now throw him in a US prison.

Please, let us all approach this complicated issue with as much compassion and insight as this Vietnam veteran, this man who, like Sergeant Bergdahl, has walked a trail that most of us can only imagine.