Old Dogs and Banyan Trees

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We’ve been living in one place for going on four years now.  Both Jack and I have found our niche here in Northwest Arkansas. Made some wonderful friends.  Found activities we enjoy, causes to work for, favorite places to be during each of the area’s distinct four seasons.

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That’s scary.

Because, historically, the moment we settle-in, form relationships, and get comfortable, Jack gets antsy, sticks a For Sale sign on the house or palapa or RV, and off we go in search of the next adventure.

Did I mention that key symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress are fear of intimacy and the need for an adrenaline rush?

Well, now you know.

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Usually about three years into living somewhere, Jack begins to make tight bonds with other veterans.  Within a year after that, we pack up and leave. About three moves ago, an odd thing happened.   

I began to anticipate this flight. 

The moment Jack began to make friends, I began looking for a way to forestall the move.  This was followed by the realization that nothing was going to prevent Jack from doing whatever damn thing he decided to do.  My reaction was to begin to look around for the next place to live.  This provided me the illusion of having some control over my life, while allowing Jack the illusion that his wife was now an adventure seeker.

Except at some point the illusion became reality.  Or maybe not.  Wasn’t it St. Paul who said, “I do not understand what I do.  What I want to do, I do not.  What I wish to do avoid, I do.” 

My point is, I have no idea why, but I now crave adventure, hate routine, and love to immerse myself in exotic locations.

Plus, and this is a huge factor, Chesty, Jack’s old service dog, is coming to the end of his life and both Jack and I know our sadness over losing him will be long and hard.  Besides, it’s freaking cold in NW Arkansas right now and the only thing I hate worse than being bored is being cold. 

Still, I refuse to leave the life we’ve built here in the Ozarks.  Over the years, I’ve left far too many friends.  I have a good life here.  I’m dug in.

But, I think I’ve found a way to have the best of all worlds.

I’ve done the ciphering and, with a little scrimping, we can fly to Thailand and live four months a year in Chiang Mai.  That would be the winter months when, here in Arkansas, falling and breaking a hip on black ice is a reoccurring danger.  In fact, the cost-of-living is so much lower in Chiang Mai that saving for the very expensive airfare will only be an issue the first year, this year, while we are slipping on ice and paying U.S. prices for food and fun.  

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Does this all sound like the ravings of a crazy woman to you? 

Well then, I’m right on track.

Of course, we’re not going anywhere as long as Chesty is with us.  No amount of tropical warmth or ancient Asian peace or exotic locales is better than waking each morning to see the old boy’s wrinkly face looking up at me from his baby mattress bed.

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Still, it does help some to know that, when we do lose him, I’ll be able to sit under a banyan tree and meditate on the love of a good and loyal dog and that of a fine and complicated man.  I believe I’ll do a little contemplating on the teaching of St. Paul.

What Makes a Hero?

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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.

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.”    

Dog Brings Veteran Home

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 With the upcoming release of Clueless Gringos in Paradise, I am beginning to get a lot of questions about how a specially trained dog can help a returning veteran readjust to life as a civilian.  First of all, and if this is controversial, well, so be it, once a man or woman has been to war, they are never again civilians.  That, in essence, is a huge part of their readjustment struggle.  Why do all these well-meaning people keep expecting them to behave like untrained, naive civilians?  It’s not going to happen. 

So, how can we civilians help the warriors in our midst?  Well, first of all, obviously, we stop expecting them to be the person they were before they went to war.  Life, all life, changes people.  War transforms in ways non-combatants can never even imagine.  My second suggestion is that, if they are so inclined, allow them a dog.  A calm, steady, watch-their-back big, mutha of a dog.

 Just stroking a dog’s neck pumps a slew of calming chemicals into the blood.  For all of us, it works like this.  We’re made to touch and stroke and receive and give comfort.  So, first of all, yes, a service dog gives comfort.  But a PTSD dog does far more than that.  My experience with these specially trained dogs comes from living with my husband and his service dog, Chesty.  Let me share with you how Chesty changed Jack’s life.

  • ·         When Jack began to get anxious in a crowd or a particular situation, Chesty demanded that Jack focus his attention on his dog.   Chesty would lean into Jack, press against him, paw at his leg, crawl into his lap, whine, and in extreme cases, jump up, plant both feet on Jack’s shoulders and as much as say, “Let’s go Boss.  I’ve got your back and we need to boogie on out of here.”  Jack would look into his dog’s eyes, take that moment to refocus, and they’d leave the situation.
  • ·         In a restaurant or movie theater or anyplace where Jack could not sit with his back to a wall, the dog bumped his leg gently to say, “Someone coming up behind you, boss.  I got this.”
  • ·         When Jack had night terrors, the dog woke him, his furry face in his, a best friend who was fast enough to escape harm from swinging fists, big enough to provide comfort.

Chesty allowed Jack to go out in public, watched his back and calmed his anxiety.  Forty years after his war ended, the dog changed Jack’s life, helped bring him home.

 

Tribute to PTSD Service Dogs

Chesty Puller, one of the first PTSD service dogs.

Chesty Puller, one of the first PTSD service dogs.

 

Jack is an idea man.  Big thinking.  Lots of vision.  Follow through and fitting together the ten thousand pieces necessary to go from mental image to successful event?  He’s not so good at the detail work.  So a month or so ago, when he told me he planned to put together a Tribute to PTSD Service Dogs on November 10th, the Marine Corp Birthday, I had some trepidation. 

Okay, I sort of shook all over.

But, one of the ways I survive marriage to the big guy is by doing my very best, trying my hardest, forcing myself not to take responsibility for his actions or decisions. 

For years, people used to greet me with, “Are you keeping Jack out of trouble?”

To which I always replied, “I’m doing my best, but not having a lot of success here recently.” 

Finally, one day, I just stared at the person asking the question and answered, “Well, no I’m not keeping Jack out of trouble.  Turns out that’s not my job.”

Who says ten years of therapy doesn’t work?

So, while I did agree to be his speaker at this Tribute to PTSD Service Dogs, I made it clear that he was in charge of everything.  This latest adventure began, as I said, about six weeks ago.  Today I could not stand it one more hour and I talked him into sitting down and putting on paper what he had so far, and what still needed doing in order for this event to happen.  It was a long list. We checked off two things as done. 

However, we marked another six must-haves in red ink with the words ‘tentative yes’.

To me a tentative yes means no.  To Jack, the same phrase means no problem.

Now, that might mean simply that I’m negative and he’s positive.  Really.  It could mean no more than that.  I tell myself this to ease the shaking and twitching when I think of two hundred veterans showing up for a barbecue of hotdog buns.  Well, to be fair, hotdog buns and tentative hotdogs and game hens and hamburgers and paper plates and soft drinks and six side-dishes.

The thing is, I’ve seen Jack at work before.  In the past he’s put together a formal evening of recognition for over 100 POW’s, a barbecue where 500 Vietnam Vets and their families were fed and entertained.  Hell, the man got me through relocation to Panama with two giant service dogs attached to our wrists. He often has no more than a vague image of what should happen right up until about two days past the last possible moment of salvation for his latest project.  Then, with some God blessed hail Mary pass, he succeeds in putting together a miracle.

The worry is that he’s not as young as he used to be.  Which, okay, none of us is.  But Jack hasn’t gotten the memo.  He still thinks he can bull his way through any challenge with Marine Corp grit, a loud bellow, and a huge grin.

I’m less sure of this tactic.

So, stay tuned, I’ll keep you posted.  Or, if you’re anywhere near Fayetteville, Arkansas, come on out to Wedington Lake on November 10th from 1-4 and see for yourself.  I hear there’s going to be a marching band.

Happy Holidays

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It’s the middle of September and I’m already thinking about the holidays.   Oh no.  Not in a where-did-I-store-those-holiday-decorations-to-make-my-house-look-like-Macys way. No, no.  Not in that way at all.  I’m anticipating the holidays by:

  • Thinking of Halloween when I’ll sit outside and pass out candy to adorable goblins and Ironman impersonators and princesses and whatever this year’s hero-of-the-day turns out to be, while Jack sits inside in the glow of the television, the blinds pulled, and headphones on to drown out the noise of the little home invaders.  To be fair, one year he did put devil horns on the dog and join me outside.  But, as the dog is a 150-pound mastiff, and Jack insisted on sitting so that he and the dog were hidden from view behind a holly bush, and the children didn’t see yellow-eyed dog or giant man until they were inches from the grinning faces of both, that little foray didn’t last long.
  • Dreaming of Thanksgiving by which time Jack is generally so far inside himself that I’m keeping a notebook of the words he speaks each day.  Just as a source of amusement for myself.  God knows, I have to entertain myself somehow in a house where silence is preferable to a rant on the commercialization of family or yet another story about how in ’64 he ate canned ham and lima beans and, as a special treat because it was a holiday, washed it down with a warm beer fresh from the belly of the chopper that hauled away that day’s dead and wounded.
  • By Christmas, I’ll be praying he makes it through without a trip to lock-down to escape cheery carols, and flashing colored lights, and the smiling, stupid faces of anyone who isn’t a combat vet.  Because Jack is large and white-haired, he’ll shave his beard because if one more person yells a happy ‘ho ho ho’ at him as he passes he’s going to lose it.  I’ll be counting the days until this, the worst time of year for my husband, is over and done for another year.
  • And then we’ll finish up the season with a great burst of fireworks to ring in the New Year, when Jack will go to bed as soon as it’s dark, wake up twisted in sweat-soaked sheets and begin to recover from the holidays.

Through all these days and nights Jack will do his best to tolerate the adorable costumed children, enjoy time with family, and live through a weekly trip to the Christmas wonderland that is Walmart.  He will shake off nightmares where green and red flashes of light in the dark bring not cheer but terror.   He will withdraw into himself so that rage does not spew forth and shatter me and the dog with shrapnel.  He will do his best to survive another holiday season.

And I will do the same.

Love and Vulnerability

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It’s been an interesting week.  I’ve been busy promoting my newest book, My Life with a Wounded Warrior.  This little collection of essays is about living with and loving Jack, who in ’64 stepped on a landmine and got sent home early from his high school trip to the Marble Mountains outside Danang.  The book is proof positive, all printed up pretty, that I love and understand the stubborn old former-Marine to whom I have been married for going on twenty-five years.

And THAT scares the holy crap out of Jack.

Being loved makes him vulnerable.  Being vulnerable means losing control.  Which sends him running for the emotional woods.  So, here’s how my week has gone.

Jack puts down the book and wipes his eyes.  “I never knew you understood me this well.”

“Honey,” I say, “why on earth do you think I’ve hung around all these years?”

“I figured it was for the money,” he says, straight-faced. 

“You don’t HAVE any money.” I point out.

“I know,” he cries, “that’s what keeps confusing me.”

So, this little shared moment melts my heart a bit, reminds me of why I love the big lug.

Five minutes later he gets up without saying a word, and goes to bed.  For the next two days he says not one word to me that doesn’t involve what it is I’m planning on fixing him to eat.  At the grocery store he makes a crude remark about a woman one third his age, grins at me when he says it, dares me to love him.  I pat his hand, tell him, “Bless your heart.  Go wait for me on the bench out in front.”

On day three, he tells me he loves me and he’s sorry he’s been acting like a jackass and he doesn’t know why I stick around.  Then he doesn’t speak for the next two days.   Followed by, you guessed it, a remark so cutting it stops me in my tracks. 

It’s difficult, very, very difficult, to love a man with PTSD.  None of this behavior has one single thing in the world to do with me.  Or how much he loves me.  Or even what he wants from me.  It’s about him.  Period.  He’s adjusting to the knowledge that he is lovable. 

And it’s going to take a long, long time.

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