Sunday, November 15, 2009

Thoughts on the Massacre at Fort Hood

I live in a housing village on Fort Hood. On November 4th, at approximately 1:30 PM, the emergency alarms went off. I was expecting to hear that this was a test of the “Emergency Alert System.” Instead, I heard, “Attention. Seek shelter immediately. Close all doors and windows. Turn off all ventilation systems. Seek shelter immediately. Close all doors and windows. Turn off all ventilation systems.” Then the alarms went off again. And again. Every fifteen minutes.

A great deal of confusion followed For the next two hours there were many rumors about what was happening, including a shooting at the PX and in one of the villages. My husband, who was off-post with our children (who thankfully got out of school at 1 PM that day and were with him) was unable to come on post as it was on lock down. He called me and insisted that I not only stay in the house but that I stay on the second floor and away from the windows.

Around 6:30 PM, Fort Hood lifted the lock down that had prevented anyone from entering or leaving. From CNN, I learned the details of the mass murder that had occurred less than 15 minutes away from our home at the place my husband had visited on numerous occasions in preparation for his tour to Iraq and as part of his reintegration upon his unit’s return.

As soon as the news began covering the shooting, I started receiving emails and phone calls from people who were worried about me. People I barely know have extended their thoughts and prayers to me and my family. I have not responded to 99 percent of these people, including family. I have not talked about the shooting since it occurred. I have talked about the shooter, Major Hasan, but not about the shooting itself.

Today, ten days later, I went to the shoppette with another spouse who lives about six houses down the street from me. The first thing I saw when I entered the store was two racks of this week’s TIME magazine with Major Hasan’s military photo on the cover, life-sized and large. It was like being punched in the stomach. My first reaction was disgust. Then anger. I turned to my friend and told her, “I don’t even talk about what happened! Who the hell are they to talk about it?” So naturally I had to buy the magazine and find out what they had to say.

(You know what? If no magazine was making the shooting an issue, that probably would have upset me, too. It is all very confusing.)

This got me thinking about why I don’t talk about the shooting. People keep asking me if I am okay. I don’t know how to answer that question. Yes? No? Maybe? This is a loaded question for those of us who have to answer it.

I feel a great deal of guilt. I feel guilty when concern is extended to me. I feel unworthy of that concern. I feel unworthy because of the horror experienced by the men and women in the building with that man on that day. How can anyone worry about ME or anyone else who wasn’t in the building that day? We are the blessed and fortunate ones of that day. Our scare was that of the unknown, of the wondering. Our trauma was theoretical, not experiential.

I was recently contacted by Dr. John Ryan, Professor and Chair of Sociology at Virginia Technical Institute—now known for the Cho mass murders. Dr. Ryan wanted to find a way to come to Fort Hood after the shooting. He and his team focus on helping not the immediate victims of mass shootings, but those in the larger community. Dr. Ryan explained that their “work begins from the premise that, in tightly bonded communities, such attacks are attacks on the whole community, not just the most immediate victims.”

I am trying to get Dr. Ryan and his team access to families at Fort Hood. I don’t know whether this will be granted. I know that no one I know here is talking about the shootings. Again, there is talk about the shooter, but not about the event itself. Of course, everywhere else in America, this was something worth talking about. So why aren’t we?

Part of me wonders if it is not because we live on the military post that has lost the most soldiers in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We also have soldiers committing suicide as well as murdering fellow soldiers (or spouses). Yes, what Major Hasan did was extraordinary in HOW MANY soldiers he killed and WHERE he killed them, but haven’t we come to expect death as part of our lives, in one place or another, one form or another? We grieve for the families who lose a soldier and we thank God that it wasn’t our soldier and the Big Green Machine keeps churning.

Besides, our leadership proudly tells the media that this messy matter was taken care of quickly and that training and missions continue. Move along, nothing more to see here. Did Hasan really change anything?
Arguably, he made military lives worse. Soldiers are unable to feel safe on post, as well as families. Children already burdened with trust and mortality issues probably lost the most that day (of those of us in the larger community). The day after the shooting, my eight-year-old son asked me why there were soldiers with guns at his school. I explained they were there to protect him. He responded, “wasn’t the bad man a soldier?”

Out of the mouths of babes oft times come gems.

Of course, the fact that we live and function under these conditions is a badge of honor; a testament to our resiliency as individuals and as a community. Yet suicides and suicide attempts continue to increase yearly. Our divorce rate increases every year while the civilian divorce rate is experiencing a 40 year low. Reports of domestic violence have gone up seventy-five percent in the last seven years.

How much more stress can we endure? How much more resilient can we be as a community? How much more can be taken from us? If someone like Dr. Ryan wants to help our families in the larger community process what happened, why wouldn’t Fort Hood let them?

Am I okay? Depends on your definition of okay, I suppose.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Real Change for Military Spouses under the Obama Administration

Today is Military Spouse Appreciation Day. To truly appreciate military spouses, we should act as a nation as if their service in supporting and standing by their servicemember despite the hardships of military life (particularly to their own career and/or educational aspirations) is as valuable as the service as the servicemember they love and support--or close to it. The military demands nearly as much of the spouse as it does of the soldier yet does not provide comparable services, care, or treatment. The Obama Administration, particularly under Michelle's leadership and with the help of Congress, can change this.

1. Comparable dental and vision care.
2. Military spouse federal hiring preference (even after divorce if married longer than a certain number of years, say 5, 7, or 10).
3. Emergency psychiatric care for military families that does not require going to an emergency room.
4. Support and pass the Military Spouse Residency Relief Act.

Approximately 93 percent of military spouses are female. According to the Rand Corporation, the research organization often used to conduct studies for the Department of Defense, although military spouses often have more education than their civilian counterparts, they are also often more frequently under-employed and under-paid than those same counterparts.

Frequently, military spouses end up on a de facto mommy track—even when they don’t have children. More than half of our military spouses have children, but without the support of the other parent, the difficulty of single parenting (in essence) turns many a working or studying spouse into a stay at home mom (or dad). For those without children, the frequent moves alone hurt career and educational goals and aspirations. I have met military spouses with college credits from four or more colleges (although the rise in credibility of on-line universities is changing this). For a spouse who obtains her educational goals, she then faces the fact that she either chooses a “portable” career (the Department of Defense encourages teaching, nursing, medical transcriptionists, etc…) or watches her own career deflate like a flan in the cupboard for too long. Not to mention that most military installations are in economically depressed areas and many employers do not want to invest in someone who could leave with little to no notice any time in the next six months to two years. As a result, many military spouses turn to working from home as an outlet for their career aspirations, starting their own small businesses if they can (hence the creation and success of organizations like the Military Spouse Business Association).

Former President Ronald Reagan declared the Friday before Mother’s Day, Military Spouse Appreciation Day. Frankly, however, spouses need more than a day of appreciation. Military spouses endure nearly every hardship of military life (absent actually going to war) that servicemembers do and yet there is no formal recognition of it or support for them. Moreover, it never occurs to lawmakers or others that there should be. Benefits to ease the burdens of the multiple moves, such as being able to maintain one state of residency (this is the second year Congress is pondering the Military Spouse Residency Relief Act) and rewards for “serving” your country, such as the veterans preference in hiring for federal jobs, are not given to military spouses. Military spouses (and children for that matter), do not even have comparable dental and vision care. So long as they are stationed in the United States (as opposed to Germany, for example), military dependents are not allowed to received dental or vision care on post and have to pay into a limited dental and vision plan.

To illustrate the federal hiring preference, consider my own marriage. After six years and four military moves, including Germany, I have been on the aforementioned mommy track. If I were to apply for a federal job, I would discover that although I have spent the past six years moving to support my husband’s career (and subsequent promotions), there is no military spouse hiring preference comparable to the veterans hiring preference. Thus, while my husband has had no interruption in his own career to compensate for, he would automatically get a five point preference (over me) for an honorable discharge from service and a ten point preference if he had a ten percent service connected disability rating or higher. I do not begrudge that of our veterans and wounded warriors; in fact, I advocate it. But I also support equity in benefits for service and I believe that the sacrifices being made by spouses should be recognized in these hiring preferences, PARTICULARLY because of the obstacles faced by military spouses with regards to furthering their educations and/or careers.

When this presidential election came down to Senators Obama and McCain, there was a lot of talk about national service and what it means to “serve” your country. McCain and his supporters naturally felt they had the market covered with his military service during the Vietnam War (and subsequent years as a prisoner of war). Then-Senator Obama and his supporters countered that national service, or put differently, serving your country, can come in many shapes and forms—not solely that of a man in a uniform bearing arms. Echoing that theme of variegated national service and its value to this country in its diversity, was Angie Morgan, a military spouse and member of Blue Star Families for Obama that I interviewed at the Democratic National Convention in August of 2008 for Military Spouse Magazine. In that interview, Angie Morgan told me that as a military spouse she was “excited” by now President Obama’s vision of “active citizenship” whereby everyone serves this country in some capacity, albeit not necessarily by wearing a uniform (i.e., referencing volunteer work and other ways of being socially conscious and sensitive to the needs of your fellow Americans in your day to day decision making).

Michelle Obama made it known during the campaign that the welfare of military families was of particular importance to her. Since the election, she has held several events with military spouses and apparently will have a staff devoted to these issues. If we are going to recognize and reward the military service of the soldier, why not do the same for the spouse—the one person in the service who has been willing to sacrifice his or her career and/or educational aspirations to support the mission of the military by supporting the orders of the servicemember?

Meanwhile, here at Fort Hood, Texas, I have learned that they cannot give me figures on spouse suicides but they know that they see so many attempted suicides in the Emergency Room that the medical staff have become quite adept at handling them. My theory is that these spouses may have reached the point of needing emergency mental health care and this is the only way to receive it. As a military spouse, no matter what your circumstances, there is no emergency mental health care for you unless you end up in the ER. If you are a soldier here, of course, there is twenty four hour mental health care and a walk in “Rest and Resiliency” center (R and R center). The R and R center has its critics and its flaws, but it exists. There is no R and R center for families.

Finally, there is the issue of treating the post-traumatic stress of military spouses. We do not have any public service announcements about the trauma of being married in the military and to the military; to a man or woman who is sometimes permanently altered in ways that you never imagined when you married him or her. At least once or twice a month a soldier in Fort Hood housing is arrested for domestic violence. It is interesting that the Department of Defense likes to emphasize that deployments are not the cause of an increase in domestic violence but cannot refute that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is. While the Rand Corporation found that 1 in 5 soldiers will likely return with PTSD, the Veterans Administration has diagnosed 40 percent of our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with PTSD. We have no studies and no figures for spousal PTSD.

I often tell people that after this last combat tour, my husband is NOT the only veteran in this marriage, but apparently I am the only person who believes this to be the case. Despite seven years of wars and deployments that have led to an alarming increase in Army divorce as well as partner violence (the latter is believed to be connected to the increase in post-traumatic stress disorder), the federal government doesn’t recognize the “service” of the military spouse. Will a Democratic Administration like the Obama’s and now, with Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter’s recent move to the Democratic Party, a Democratic Congress change this?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

What if this was YOUR soldier? After combat service, in THIS economy?

MSC's Soldier Advocacy Group is in the process of trying to help Sgt. Boyle (see article below). The Department of Defense recognizes that PTSD (and TBI) causes what it calls "disinhibatory" behavior in combat veterans--which frequently manifests itself as post-deployment misconduct. It further recommends that Commanders refer soldiers exhibiting this behavior be referred to a Medical Evaluation Board for a medical discharge from the Army, if possible (as opposed to being administratively discharged).

Soldiers with PTSD are at a higher risk for suicide, unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, partner violence, and homelessness. Soldiers who are given a general discharge are not guaranteed VA benefits, particularly those who are discharged for "patterns of misconduct."

Could you imagine if your spouse returned from combat and was suddenly discharged from the military and you and your family were left with no benefits and your soldier was not guaranteed medical and mental health treatment from the VA? And on top of that, he or she had to pay back, potentially, thousands of dollars for a re-enlistment or enlistment bonus?

Congress could direct the DoD to explain why it acknowledges that PTSD (as well as Traumatic Brain Injuries) causes misconduct while simultaneously administratively discharging soldiers diagnosed with PTSD for misconduct. It could direct the DoD to change its regulations to close this loophole. Congress has not.

Please call or email or send this article to your Senator or U.S. Representative and ask them to end the DoD's Misconduct Catch-22. (Find your federal representatives at

PTSD victim booted for 'misconduct'

By Kelly Kennedy - Staff writer
Posted : Wednesday Jan 7, 2009 12:55:53 EST

After serving two tours in Iraq — tours filled with killing enemy combatants and watching close friends die — Sgt. Adam Boyle, 27, returned home expecting the Army to take care of him.

Instead, service member advocates and Boyle's mother say his chain of command in the 3rd Psychological Operations Battalion at Fort Bragg, N.C., worked to end his military career at the first sign of weakness.

In October, a medical evaluation board physician at Bragg recommended that Boyle go through the military disability retirement process for chronic post-traumatic stress disorder — which is supposed to automatically earn him at least a 50 percent disability retirement rating — as well as for chronic headaches. The doctor also diagnosed Boyle with alcohol abuse and said he was probably missing formations due to the medications doctors put him on to treat his PTSD.

But in December, Lt. Gen. John Mulholland, commanding general of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, signed an order forcing Boyle out on an administrative discharge for a "pattern of misconduct," and ordering that the soldier pay back his re-enlistment bonus.

Last year, after a number of troops diagnosed with PTSD were administratively forced out for "personality disorders" following combat deployments, the Defense Department changed its rules: The pertinent service surgeon general now must sign off on any personality-disorder discharge if a service member has been diagnosed with PTSD.

"Not even a year later, they're pushing them out administratively for 'pattern of misconduct,' " said Carissa Picard, an attorney and founder of Military Spouses for Change, a group created in response to the personality-disorder cases. "I'm so angry. We're seeing it all the time. And it's for petty stuff."

In Boyle's case, according to Picard and Boyle's mother, Laura Curtiss, the soldier had gotten in trouble for missing morning formations and for alcohol-related incidents such as fighting and public drunkenness.

"The whole thing is absurd to me," Picard said. "They acknowledge that PTSD causes misconduct, and then they boot them out for misconduct."
Please read the rest of the story here:

As always, your ally in change,


Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Invisible Injuries of the Invisible Ranks


I never expected it to be so damn windy in Texas. I expected it to be still, dry and hot—something like Arizona, maybe. Of course, nothing is really what I expected it to be when I married Caynan.

I never expected to feel so lonely, so isolated, so out-of-place and out of sorts all the time, always in that in-between place of neither here nor there, neither this nor that. As an Army wife (excuse me, as six percent are male, Army “spouse”), you are no longer a civilian but you are not a soldier either.

I don't know what military life was like before 9/11, but I can tell you what it is like now: and it isn’t quirky and whacky and “just like civilian life but different.” There is a reason Sarah Smiley (a female Dave Barry) is a Navy wife and Jenny (the cartoon) is an airman’s wife: Army and Marine wives have less to laugh about.

In March 2008, the Associated Press reported that 72 percent of Iraq deaths were Army, 24 percent were Marine, two percent were Navy and one percent was Air Force. These percentages obviously reflect who is being deployed the most; i.e., who is being exposed to combat and who isn’t. However, there is not a huge difference in the overall size of each individual branch; e.g, the Army has a little more than 500,000 active duty soldiers, the Marines have nearly 195,000 troops, and the Navy and the Air Force each have approximately 330,000 service members each.

Consequently, there is a disproportionate burden for this “global war on terror” being placed upon the Army and the Marines. Not to mention the repeated 12 to 15 month long tours with no guaranteed dwell time for soldiers whereas rumor has it (as well as news reports) that Marines at least serve 6 to 7 month tours at a time.

Casualties of War

My ex-husband called me the other day and asked me what a "Blue Star wife" was. I explained that it was a wife whose husband was serving in combat.

Then I asked him if he knew what a Gold Star Wife was. Of course he didn't.

"That's a wife whose husband has died in combat."

"Wow," he replied, "that’s, uh, kind of sick, isn't it?"

I laughed. I knew what he meant. The "gold star" comes across as a quasi-cultural "WAY TO GO!" for the surviving family member (as the term technically applies to the entire family). And let us not forget the "silver star" for the family of a servicemember wounded in a war!

There is no star for a lifetime of sacrificing one's own career and/or educational aspirations to support a servicemember. In times of peace, as well as war, the military demands that family comes second to the military. ("Army needs come first!") The household moves are frequent (every two to three years). The inability of the servicemember-parent to participate in parenting brings tremendous challenges to working in an era where two-income households are the norm for maintaining a decent standard of living. The lack of family, friends, and community makes loneliness an expectation, not just a fear.

What color star should a spouse get for years of living like this?

These designations are all "unofficial" of course. Everything pertaining to the familial appendages known as the spouse and children of the servicemember is unofficial.

As for Army spouses (like myself), we exist in this in-between world. We are no longer civilians yet we are not "soldiers" either. We are expected to live the military life without being seen, heard, prepared, paid, or recognized for our service. We are called "the silent ranks" but really, we are invisible too. The "new" Army likes to say it "recruits the soldier but retains the family" but the reality of "if the Army wanted you to have a family it would have issued you one" remains.

We are outsiders living inside an institution that doesn't want to see or hear us. Civilians and law-makers lack interest in our experiences with the military as well as with the wars--yet our experiences with these are second only to those of the servicemember. There aren’t any star-studded galas for our service and sacrifice or public service announcements and national dialogues about how war affects us (and/or our children).

Veterans' rights advocates talk to the "signature" wounds of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Both are "invisible". Both are hard to diagnose. Both fundamentally alter the servicemember in ways that are complex and confusing--to the afflicted and the non-afflicted alike.

Also unseen, however, are the injuries of those who love the servicemember, whose own changes, traumas, afflictions frequently go unidentified and untreated as well. We call our returning warriors with invisible injuries the "walking wounded"; I include military spouses and children in that definition.

Consider the 19 year-old bride who witnessed her husband's suicide on webcam in Iraq. Or the (very young) children who watched their father wrestled their large family dog to the living room floor and break its neck followed by threats to do the same to them if provoked? Or loving one person for seven years, waiting for them for a year, and being abused by a stranger when he returns.

You don't have to wear a uniform to be wounded by these wars—but no one outside of those of us impacted seem to know this.

There are many things that I may not be able to tell you about actual combat, but this much I know is true: by the time this deployment is over, my husband will not be the only veteran in this marriage.

A Call to Arms

Nothing prepares you for war. There is no training center for the spouses. You are either going to make it or you won't.

My husband, Caynan, is a helicopter pilot for the Army. A few nights before he left we went over all the materials the families were given by the unit in preparation for their departure: the handy flip chart with emergency information about my husband's unit, how to get a Red Cross message to him in case of a family emergency here (as if they would let him leave the combat zone for it anyway), information about communication black outs, who will contact me if something happens to him, etc..

When I go inside the house, Caynan has gone up to bed already. He has been feeling sick and nauseas for the past few days. It must be that pre-deployment bug. It’s a nasty SOB.

We were supposed to watch a movie in bed together but he just wanted to go to sleep. I sit on the floor next to the bed and started rubbing his back. He didn’t even open his eyes. Much to my horror, and for the first time since we knew he was going to deploy, I started to weep (you know, that silent, expressionless weeping where tears roll down your face through no effort at all on your part).

Feeling like I needed to do something, say something, I told Caynan I loved him.

"Oh, that makes me feel better, hearing that," Caynan said softly.

I smiled quickly and kept rubbing his back. The tears continued. I swear to God, I could be blind-folded and if one thousand men were placed in front of me without their shirts, I could identify my husband just by feeling their bare backs: the skin, the angles, the slopes. So many years, I studied and loved his back, from the nape of his neck to the shoulder blades to the small of it just below his waist.

Caynan opened one eye, "Okay, please stop crying, you're going to make me feel bad."

I did--as quickly and wordlessly as I started.

You cannot be a military wife without knowing how to compartmentalize your emotions. Sometimes those feelings, or those tears, sneak up on you, but you learn how to reign them in. The faster you learn how to do it, the better off you are.

But other times, when you find you can’t feel anything at all, you wonder: where does compartmentalization end and disassociation begin?

A few days later, we spent the day in our ghetto pool (three by fifteen feet of “fun in the sun” courtesy of Super Wal-Mart) with Caynan. Caynan is holding me when I ask what he wants done with his remains if something happens to him… and since I went there, does he have a preference regarding particular personal items going to either boy? Caynan lets go of me as looks at me as if these are unreasonable questions.

“Why do you insist on talking about these things? You know how I feel about this.”

I do know. He doesn't like to have these conversations. But who does? Tired of being the villain I point out the reality of situation, "You're right, it won't matter to you by then, when you think about it," I say.

I am not meaning to be cruel, but factual. Without a word, Caynan gets out of the “pool” (I use this term loosely) to get another beer. This conversation is over in his mind. Easy for him: he won’t be the one stuck making these decisions if something happens when he deploys.

When Caynan returns he is determined to turn the day around. He tells me that we are supposed to get $1,000 a month extra for every month past twelve months that he is in Iraq.

"That's $3,000 we hadn't planned on getting, honey!" He says like we should be happy.

He follows this up with their expected date of return, exactly fifteen months from the date he leaves.

I burst out laughing.

I mean, really laughing. I can't remember the last time I laughed like this.
Caynan didn't know how to react, so he started chuckling uncertainly. "I know, right? How crazy is that?"

I am still laughing. I have my sunglasses on, so he can't see that I am also crying. The boys are shooting at each other with their water guns, blissfully ignorant of the very real wars that will soon change their lives in very real ways.

Caynan is confused and stops laughing, "Okay, it's not that funny."

"Yes, Caynan, it is. It is flipping hilarious."

They’re Not Waving, They’re Drowning

In June, the parade of terribles begins. News from the front: soldiers being electrocuted in the showers, self-inflicted gunshot wounds, 10 year-old suicide bombers, sexual assaults on female soldiers.

I am learning not to worry about that which I cannot control (i.e., the life or death of the father of my children), although much of your time will be spent listening and validating the feelings and experiences of others: your soldier-spouse, your warrior-children.

As for your own feelings, questions, and pain: who has time for those? Civilian friends don’t understand and your army spouse girlfriends run hot and cold; AWOL half the time, coping with their own dramas and lashing out at you as often as you, unfortunately, perhaps, lash out at them.

Some days I can’t decide which is worse, the breaking spirit of your soldier or the breaking hearts of your children. These are invisible injuries that no one has names for, no one tabulates, no one keeps track of… no one but the mother/spouse/father/sibling/family member who witnesses it and knows that some people will become stronger and some people will simply break.

For example, when a soldier deploys to combat, those of us at home eventually get "the call."

The call comes when his (or her) veneer of strength has cracked. When something really bad has happened; when he (or she) has witnessed (or done) something that he/she was not prepared for or expecting to be upset by; when the surreal becomes real and that reality comes crashing down upon them with crushing force.

Nothing prepares you for this call and you will usually hang up hurting and feeling totally useless.

Over the next few months, you will get emails, calls, and/or letters, referring to incidents giving you glimpses into a world where "humanity" has been turned on its head consistently and violently. Your soldier will ask a lot of rhetorical questions that will make your heart hurt. All the while your children will be asking a lot of real questions that will make your heart break. You live in fear that you will handle their struggles poorly and long-term emotional or psychological damage will occur and of course, it will be your fault. It is illogical, but it is your fear nonetheless.

Caynan's call came a few weeks after he left us and two days after he started flying real medevac missions in Iraq. Unfortunately for him, even when combat missions settled down for our troops as we were handing security for large areas of the country over to the Iraqis, our medevac helicopters still go in and pick up injured Iraqis as well as wounded Americans; i.e., there is little reprieve from the carnage.

The first soldier to die in Caynan's Blackhawk did so with his legs laying on his chest, having been completely blown off by an IED blast to the Bradley he was driving.

Caynan, in broken sentences, tries his best to tell about “the look, baby, the look when the spirit leaves the body, the body changes, the eyes are different, everything is different, you know before the machines know, he’s dead, he’s just dead.” But that wasn’t the worst of that mission. When they landed at the Baghdad CSH and unloaded this dead soldier, the aircraft’s rotor wash blew one of his disembodied legs off his chest. A crew chief had to chase the leg as it lulled across the dusty landing zone to return it to this 26 year old soldier who would never use it again.

“It’s so surreal. You’re watching this happening but it’s like a movie… It just doesn’t seem real. How is this happening? How am I sitting in this helicopter watching this dead man’s leg roll across the tarmac like this? It just doesn’t seem real baby. This can’t be real…”

Silently I listened. Silently I cried. Because it was real and we both knew it.

The next call came at 4 am. Caynan sounded like he might actually have been crying. In bits and pieces I got the story but mainly he repeated, “The screaming, my God, the screaming.”

Apparently two men were picked up. A U.S. soldier and an Iraqi interpreter were hit by an IED. While they made it to the CSH alive, there was an “ungodly amount” of blood. Caynan “never knew blood could smell like that.” But it wasn’t the blood that disturbed Caynan; it was the screaming. He said he couldn’t get the interpreters screaming out of his head.

“I’ve never heard anything like that before, Carissa. I can’t his screams out of my head.”

I had nothing to say. All I could do was remind him that he got them to the CSH alive. But getting them to the CSH alive doesn’t erase those screams and I know that. And I worry about him. I wonder how long those screams will haunt him.

Jennifer told me that Stephen called her once, just once, when he was in charge of viewing all the Apache videos when we lent air support to a ground attack this year, and all he could say to her, over and over, was “you’re my normal. You and the kids, you’re my normal. THIS, THIS IS NOT NORMAL.”

What Stephen was referring to was the tendency of our pilots to use hellfire missiles on apparently unarmed Iraqis and laughing about it. In case you are wondering, hellfire missiles are NOT supposed to be used on human targets, period.

Nonetheless, it is my youngest son, Connor, who leaves me feeling helpless and hurting most of the time. Three months into this tour a failed webcam attempt led to our first nightmare. I was woken up by Connor crying out, repetitively, "Mommy, I want Daddy. I want Daddy, Mommy. I want Daddy, Mommy, I want Daddy."

I did the only thing that I could do: I held him tight, rocked him back and forth, and told him (repeatedly) that I knew he missed his Daddy.

Two broken records painfully breaking the silence of night until Connor fell asleep in my arms, his tears still wet on his face and--having soaked through my shirt--my shoulder.

Imagine my surprise when two months later Connor sees a picture that Caynan sent us (from Iraq) of himself in the cockpit of the Blackhawk and asks me, “Is that your friend Mommy?”

“No, baby, that’s your Daddy in Iraq,” I responded—probably an octave higher than I should have. He didn’t seriously NOT recognize his own father? When did THIS happen?

I picked up the photo to talk to Connor about what Caynan is doing in Iraq (again) but Connor has walked away and started playing with Legos, clearly not interested. I have to find out where to get one of those “daddy” dolls made…

After getting Connor to bed, and letting Caleb watch a movie in my bedroom because of course I have no idea how to force him to go to sleep, I go outside to sit on the front steps to smoke a cigarette and ponder what Connor will be like when he sees his dad again. Add that to my list of mommy failures since I have had to start taking Caleb to therapy at Darnall Army Medical Center since apparently he wishes Connor was dead and has started drawing pictures of himself dying horrible deaths.

To my left I see the spouse whose drinks every night with her cigarettes and a beer. I wave. To my right lives the Mormon spouse who doesn’t drink or smoke but is addicted to Percocet, so she never leaves her house. No one to wave to there.

It’s ironic, now that I think about it, because the neighbor that lived there before her was a Sgt. Major who flaunted his alcoholism rather than acknowledge that he may be suffering from PTSD. Sgt. Maj. was old school army. He’s been in for 24 years.

He knew that I was advocate for the diagnosis and treatment of PTSD. On three occasions he told me that "PTSD is bullshit" because he wasn't suffering from it after two tours in Iraq. He thinks people blowing themselves up are funny. He thinks bloodshed is a part of war and apart of life.

Of course, he is also going through his second divorce and is a functional alcoholic. He admits to being an alcoholic freely and in the two months he lived next to me, I saw him try to stop drinking twice--he went three days both times and told me he had to drink because of the shaking and the irritability.

One evening, however, he sat down next to me—drink in hand—on the front steps of our shared townhouse while I was smoking a cigarette. I asked him if he drank this heavily before going to Iraq. He said no. Not like he does now.

"I probably have PTSD but you don't see me whining about it like all these little pussies nowadays."

Then again, he said, it wasn't Iraq that "f--ked him up" but what happened afterwards. His best friend was his battle buddy (the Army's solution for rise in suicides) and he called him one night and Sgt. Maj. missed the call. Sgt. Maj. found out the next morning that his battle body used his at home gym to strangle himself. Sgt. Maj. said he would never forgive himself for missing that call.

As with most things I am told, I knew my words would be meaningless. My heart ached for him and for every other broken soldier wandering around, blindly trying to cope with their pain. We sat there in silence.

Spring was bringing out the first of the bunnies from the fields across the street.

"You know what? I would really like to get a brick and smash that rabbit to a pulp right now."

I shook my head in disgust and stood up. The confessional was over.

"You know you need help, right?" I asked in front of my house door.

He laughed. I didn’t.

I threw my cigarette into the planter on my porch and said goodnight before going inside my house.

I locked my front door and went upstairs to check on my babies, promising myself they would never join the military—not even the Air Force.
A 2008 RAND study reports that at least 1 in 5 soldiers are returning from war with PTSD. When are they going to do a study on the spouses and children left behind in these wars? The ones who self-medicate or are prescribed anti-depressants (parent and child alike), who can never look at the world or the Army or themselves the same way again? What have we lost in service to this country?
We are only a third of the way through my husband’s deployment and I can already identify our wounded. Am I the only one paying attention?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Large oaks from little acorns grow...

May we all work together to water the tree of change in 2009!

Happy Holidays from our Hearts and Homes to Yours!