This topic came from one of my favorite web sites. I’m a huge fan of the Doonesbury comic strip. Garry Trudeau has a page called The Sandbox that is a forum dedicated to the military. Men and women serving overseas can blog their experiences in an open forum. Some are downright hilarious, as they write about the humorous things that get them through the day. Most are earthy, visceral and touching, such as the one you will find here titled Nightmare by James Gibson: http://gocomics.typepad.com/the_sandbox/. It’s worth reading and worth pondering.
When our men from Strong came home from war, terms used were “battle fatigue” or “shell shock”. I heard stories from two men in particular that have stayed with me, and I will not name them but will relate their tales. One gentleman (a Strong man who passed last year) and his wife had shared separate bedrooms for decades, because he would come alert in his sleep and attempt to strangle his wife, thinking he was killing a Japanese soldier. Another man who passed a couple of years ago in his 90’s would to his death day sleep with his shoes on and fully clothed as, “You never know when you might have to evacuate.” In their day I have no idea what kind of help they would receive, if any. But now we know what causes this trauma, we know how to diagnose it and know how to effectively treat it and attempt to return these young people back to living their lives. The fact that we are so often dropping the ball is beyond catastrophic, and I speak from experience.
This issue is very personal, as we lost my Dad to suicide 33 years ago Christmas. I know what the families of these men and women go through – the trauma, the pain and the guilt of not understanding what was happening in front of you and of not being able to see the signs. In many cases it's simply denial that doesn't allow you to see that the person you love is falling apart piece by piece until it's too late. Once they are buried and mourned, you begin to remember the little clues. There's this constant thinking, ”I saw that, why didn't I do something?” or “What could I have said to change things?” In my case we simply had no experience with such an event. Funny how fast you learn. It's a trauma that's not easy to share or to talk with others about, but in the case of our young military families, these days we know what causes this, we know how to recognize it and we know how to help them. So why aren't we? Are we truly pushing these people out on the battlefield, reeling them back in and sending them home to fend for themselves with no support systems in place?
I remember being with our godson Andrew and his mother when he returned from his first Army deployment to Iraq. We met him at Ft. Bragg along with all the other military families with the hugs, photos and the general decompression that comes with “My God, he's/she's finally on safe ground.” Once we got to the hotel room, it was evident that he was totally WIRED. Whether it was from exhaustion, fatigue, or just generally being shuttled from a tent to 4 solid walls in a 24 hour period, I'm not sure. But he only wanted to pull out his command laptop and show us film and photos of what he had to deal with while over there. Once he booted up, we had difficulty pulling him away to go eat his first decent meal in months. He was so focused still on the field of battle, his friends that he left over there and of what was to become of him now that he was back on base. He had a second deployment to Afghanistan that lasted 16 months, and thankfully was better prepared and had more time to adjust to the situations thrust upon him. He returned, went to law school and is now serving as a Navy JAG in San Diego, happy, married, well-adjusted and amazing. Maybe he had better coping skills than others, I really can’t say. But I can say that we can do more to help those who don't cope as well.
To those of you who have sons, daughters, nephews and nieces or grandchildren who are currently serving their country, be there for them. That’s the simple message here. Notice them, talk to them, do not assume that whatever they experienced, that they will “get over it.” By the time they do get past it, it might be too late to make a difference.
To learn more, here’s a link to an article from CBS News: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504763_162-57394452-10391704/study-suicide-rates-among-army-soldiers-up-80-percent/