Last week, after a good day of splitting firewood with my family, we gathered around our table to talk. We looked at each other and went to the task of digging into what really happened to all of us in the green and very saturated mountains of Vermont.
All through the process of recording the journey of hope and healing, my family and I have committed to one another that nothing less than total honesty with each other and ourselves is what will guide this journey to the place that we all seek…inner peace.
There were several moments of the typical surface conversation that breaks the ice… and then the real issue at hand jumped right into my face. The truth is that I was ready to quit the trail all together. I hated the mud, I hated the rain, and I hated the incessant black flies. But, much more than those physical difficulties was weighing me down as I traveled to a familiar dark place in my heart and mind.
I have given everything possible to my family for 18 plus years, and I have (at times, and varying degrees) grown tired in the sacrifice of it all (I mean, who likes paying bills???). However, there is immense personal satisfaction in my role as a husband and father, even in the rougher days…and I love my role as a provider, leader, and encouraging friend. I have never felt cheated in giving to any of them (It is who I am at the core level).
But currently, I am in uncharted waters, and I now have a front row seat watching my two older sons ready themselves to go into bright and challenging futures, without my wife and I…and selfishly, I feel profoundly cheated. I don’t feel that I have had proper time to be involved with how they have come to who they are today. My wife has stepped up to the plate in a way that only other single mothers might be able to understand.
These strong and powerful feelings are all new territory for me now that I am not surrounded and inundated with a ravenous and never satisfied military career and lifestyle. The consistent training and mission planning for the never ending pursuit of radical and evil groups in our world was my personal identity for most of the waking hours in my days…and I lost myself in all of it.
Now, the real me and how I actually feel about a myriad of issues are flooding my inner head space. Since my retirement in February the only interaction that I have with the threat of terrorism is how it will effect my mood and thoughts after I read an article or see a news piece that updates me on the latest happenings that an extremist group has acted upon.
It used to be so effortless and easy to push aside the sad realities that have always been right under my nose. Some days ago on the AT in middle Vermont there were a host of thoughts and ideas that started racing into my mind…and I was spiraling out of control mentally and emotionally. I was employing every tactic that I have learned over the last few years in how to ground myself and not loose control, but I failed to do so.
The majority of my personal years of youth and precious time with my own sons was voluntarily sacrificed for the causes and purposes of a nation that my family and I have served. The weight and full realization of this truth hurts (right now) beyond words as I see them get ready to go. When I concentrate on these thoughts and feelings I turn very dark and very selfish. I’m not the only one that has been through this roller coaster of feeling, being so proud, and yet hurting so badly all in the same moment.
As we sat around the table having the talk, one of my young men hit me with a healthy dose of reality about how I typically react when I start to be overwhelmed with this kind of pain and lack of control that is often so very close to me in my heart and soul these days. He looked me dead in the eyes and said “Dad you turn into a total asshole…you have dropped that ball big time, and you have for a very long time”
Those hot words went right to the core of myself…because I know that it’s true. I know that he is right, and his words take me back to many years ago, as I would think and wish about having all the time with my kids that “regular people” take for granted. This is where a part of my angry and bitter self started to develop…and my family are the ones feeling the effects.
Well, here I am in the new reality of finally having time with my family…real amounts of time. The AT is a once in a lifetime chance and experience that is pushing and challenging all of us in so many differing ways. For most of us, the physical nature of the trail isn’t high on the list of challenges. The challenges that we are facing are deeply rooted in our hearts and minds, and when the conditions are right, we display the reality of these challenges on our selves with intense emotions, tones, and body language. We have displayed these things onto and into one another for some time…and this kind of thing has real consequences in a team, in a family.
At the end of our talk the other day, we all decided in unanimous fashion that we are committed to each other more deeply than ever before, and that the trail has been the fashioning tool and catalyst that has been used in the heating, cleansing, shaping, and forming of a people and family that we are needing to be…for other hurting families, for each other, and for a hurting world.
The experiences that the Appalachian Trail provided has proven to me that recovering from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Post Traumatic Stress (PTS), and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) is a life long choice. A choice to fight what many have looked at as an impossible task. I had once thought that my heart was empty and damaged for life…and that is simply not true.
I have a full heart, and have been shown that the rest of my days are not going to be defined by a time in my life that was marked with hardships and sorrows. I am going far not fast with the ones that matter…the ones I truly love more than ever before
Not long ago on the trail a true friend looked me in the eye and confronted my jaded cynical crutch that has been all to common a companion in recent years of my life. These sharp and surgical words from my fellow traveler cut me quickly into the most needed place of my heart and soul where the most deadly of soul crippling cancers had taken up residence for far to long.
Through the long and dark years that I had spent away from the ones I loved most my heart and soul had developed a thick and nearly impenetrable callus that I held onto with fierce determination. This condition developed over multiple years of pain and sorrow that I find difficult to adequately describe. I will attempt to paint a picture through an experience that will be burned into my memory for the rest of my life. This particular event came before I ever stepped one boot into Iraq in 2003….in fact, it was the day that I said goodbye to my precious family before loading out the plane that would fly me over for one of my multiple combat tours in the Middle East. The time had come to give that last huge and kiss to my wife and my two sons. Jeri Lynn and I were doing our best to handle to situation with minimal emotion and stay in control. However, despite my efforts to hold back my tears they began to fall like a strong southern thunder storm. I didn’t want my older son to see me loosing control of my emotions and cause him additional confusion and pain that he simply could not understand at the tender age of two and one half years old. The time for walking away had arrived, and I literally couldn’t breath…I feared that I was going to pass out from my anguish as I watched Jeri Lynn get into the car and put on her seat belt. The boys were tucked into their car seats in the back of our small white sedan….and the car slowly began to pull away from me. In that moment I realized the essence my commitment and oath, and the weight of it was becoming nearly too much to bare in that specific moment. However, my oldest son found it within himself to get his hand out the window as they pulled away, and I will never forget what his words sounded like that day, “Come home Daddy”, as his small hand reached out as to show me that I was not alone in my pain…at his young age, my oldest son felt the weight of what was about to define our lives for the next 15 years.
I found a way to recover my emotions that day so that I could go find my squad, who needed me to pull myself together, to get them onto the plane and through our tour of duty in Iraq. The truth is I left something of myself there on that sidewalk. In that moment where I felt pain, sorrow, and heart ache that has only been matched by loosing a fellow Soldier. I subconsciously started the process of shutting off myself and the true feelings in my heart and the sacred beliefs within my soul. This process continued and intensified through the many other events like the one I have described above. Time and again the agonizing goodbyes and long months and years of separation pilled up…and the real me that Jeri Lynn had married, and the father that my boys had known, and should of had, began to disappear.
My oldest son is now nearing 17 years old, and he knows full well the costs that are associated with the current wars that are being fought still today…the very same ones that caused him to say good bye to me that day those many years ago. He is not alone, as I have four more children that all have this intimate knowledge of what the word sacrifice means on a level that most American adults cannot relate with.
All seven of us are together in our journey as we walk this trail, and it is pulling the truth out of all of us in varied and differing ways. My truth that I have been addressing is the “crutch” that I have been carrying around for all of these years. I figured out a way to not feel anymore, and it has been rotting away the inside of me for many years now. This method of copping with my pain was not a healing device what so ever.
The crutch, used properly, is employed for a temporary time until the injured person has recovered enough to start walking again and gaining strength for everyday activity. There comes a time when the crutch no longer provides the atmosphere and conditions for healing to take place…but it then stunts the essential growth and strength that is needed to ever truly walk independently again.
My best friend looked at me on the trail not so many days ago, and called out my crutch. My critical and highly cynical attitudes that have dominated my way of thinking and acting have been my go to method for avoiding any kind of realistic emotional growth. This crutch has fueled maladaptive thinking and patterns of behavior. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of positive ground has been covered for me in the last two years in my personal battles, but it is clear that this is the next one to tackle.
A true friend, like the one by my side on this journey, is absolutely priceless. They will look deeply into your life and not throw you out with the trash. But they don’t stop there…if they have our best in mind, they will tell us about our self destructive actions or patterns that will suffocate our lives and the ones next to us who we love the most.
My very real and life alerting pain and loss is now being put into its proper place; the place where it will fuel post traumatic growth and healing.
For the last two years I have observed first hand the current process and system that has been designed to help transition our nations combat veterans back to their civilian communities and lives. I am deeply thankful for my care team and family for walking with me through this process for the last 24 months. Only with their un-ending support and love have I successfully journeyed back home both mentally, and physically.
The process for a veteran to receive a proper and fair disability ratting is one that can be intimidating to some, and daunting for most. I don’t know of anyone that I served with who was expecting to be labeled by the Department of the Army or the Veterans Administration as “Disabled”. (By the way, that word makes my skin crawl…and when I’m asked if I’m a disabled veteran it feels like some kind of bad joke).
A few weeks ago this complete stranger said something to me that I needed to walk away from. “Be careful out here in the woods…they might think you’re better, and you will loose all your benefits.” Through this short conversation it was communicated that multi-tour combat veterans, like myself, will not be able to truly find our way back into society. I tried my best to keep the rest of the conversation away from anything to do with the military, politics, world affairs, and the like. I expressed to her that I’m a real believer in nature therapy, and tried to keep the conversation light and positive for the next few painfully awkward moments.
(*Disclaimer-This individual also claimed to be a Doctor of some sort, and openly asked me “how much it cost to get my daughter “, with Zoey standing right next to me during our brief interaction- I took none of what she said to be sane or lucid)
…Please take a few moments to process what this short exchange was really about.
No, I didn’t make this up… and yes, this was a real conversation… just thinking about it makes my head hurt. The person who delivered this enablement filled, entitlement based line of thinking was simply stating her point of view, and she has the freedom to do exactly that. As crazy as this all sounds, many current veterans of our generation’s war are wallowing through this situation. This is such a difficult topic for me to adequately explain…this effects my family and I directly.
For those of us who have been told that we are no longer able to continue our service in uniform…we are deemed disabled. We are then put through a process of being rated on the disability. If the condition improves after our service is done we will go through re-evaluation, and our ratings for the disability will obviously be lowered. But, if we stay where we are or worsen, we will be re-evaluated, and the ratings go up. (I assume and hope that the person mentioned above had some knowledge of this information to base her statements to me that day).
I have spent many hours for the last few weeks (while living and walking in the woods) examining my heart and mind in all of this. I have searched myself high and low and have decidedly come to a conclusion in this issue in a very personal way…Nobody can define my “disability” except for almighty God and myself. I will probably struggle in certain situations for the rest of my days…and I have listened and learned from qualified professionals for how to properly deal with these struggles the right way.
It is time to draw from my traumatic and stressful experiences for growth. The physically strong only arrive at strength after submitting themselves to much pain under heavy loads that are voluntarily moved up and down…over and over again. My family and I are making that same choice, both spirituality and physically on this long extended walk. We are choosing to heal and grow stronger than we had ever thought possible, and that’s exactly what’s happening.
I’ll close this with one of my all time favorite Soldiers, who once said “Ever since I served as an infantryman in the first world war I have had a great dislike of people who, themselves in ease and safety, issue exhortations to men in the front line.” C.S. Lewis
What drives or convicts a common citizen to voluntarily and sacrificially give everything for other’s that they don’t know? Every military service member takes an oath and agrees to the possibility of the ultimate sacrifice…only after being completely informed and well aware of what might be requested by our nation in a time of war.
There is a much larger number among us in our society that also know the true cost and weight of sacrifice. These men and women know it full well, (much like military service members that follow orders to foreign lands and enforce national interests).
These sacrificial public servants know that there is no foretelling when a criminal will act, or when the deadly fire will break out…but the police officer and firefighter are in a sacred agreement with society in those moments. These professions submit them to go face those situations, in a moments notice…to do battle against these things, and possibly give their lives…the ultimate sacrifice. All of our society should support them with respectful thoughts, prayers, and funds. I feel that these men and women are most noble and deserve my unending respect and support. I have fought for them, and they fight for me.
However, from where I sit, there is a distinct difference in these occupations (Law Enforcement or Firefighter versus Military Service Member). It’s not in the level of salary, or hazards inherent in their roles…death is always the accepted risk in both. Rather, it’s in the responsibility (or current lack there of) in our society to maintain awareness and accountability for the leadership that they have placed in power over our Military. These appointed officials (with little credentials or conscience) are willingly sending military men and women of every branch into the situations in which they will be asked to honor the ultimate deal…without any way to define progress or achieve victory, for the last 16 years!
The Soldier, Sailor, Airmen, and Marine actually render over their rights in choosing to obey these orders that are without ultimate definition. The sacred responsibility issued to the undeserved wealthy few that have disregarded our constitution and recklessly acted on behalf of our poorly informed republic is ignorance personified. They are continually asking the ultimate price from a precious few, and these officials on either side of the aisle are unable to describe what they are accomplishing.
As a free people, we have a sacred requirement to ensure that the priceless cost of young American lives are given when there is no other option but to take up arms and face our threats on the field of battle…this is how a grateful nation truly honor’s the ultimate sacrifice given by our greatest and most precious resources.
Our nation’s apathetic ignorance of the current failed wars and continued support of the leaders who contributed to this situation is one of the largest struggles I face in finding my way home. I love my country…but I hate what we are becoming.
“Carry as little as possible. But choose that little with care.” – Earl Shaffer
I will always have the Warrior Ethos as a part of my heart, a part of my character, and it will always be woven into the deepest parts of me as a Soldier. How can anyone put on and embody these guiding principles for only a time?
In the lowest and most honest of points in my recovery process, my counselor looked me in the eye, (after I told him that the only way for me to find peace was to leave this earth permanently through suicide), and he lovingly gave me the cold hard truth… I was going to be responsible for leaving my family utterly broken, wounded, stranded, and alone on the battlefield of life. He vividly and carefully explained that the effects of my suicide wouldn’t stop there, but would run unhindered and rampant through many generations of my family, with profound and devastating implications for many years to come.
The truth is I didn’t want to die; what I truly wanted was to be free from the unrelenting pain, anguish, hurt, anxiety, fear, and mental burdens that my family and I had been laden with time and again with each passing year of war; a war that has no end, no answers, no battle lines, and no way to define victory or defeat.
Peace could not be found no matter how hard I looked, not even in my dreams in what little sleep that would find my eyes. Real peace is what I was looking for…(cue the cliche christen one liners now) and despite my personal faith and beliefs in God, I was still in a very real fight for my life.
In this very real moment with my counselor, “I will never leave a fallen comrade” came rushing into my heart and into my soul. How can I be so selective of when and how to apply this vital principle that is embedded and engraved in the vary core of the ethos that has guided me this far? What closer comrades, or battle buddies, does a soldier have than the ones who know who he or she is after the uniform is in the closet…weather that is on any given weekend, holiday, or after military service is complete.
After all, the family is the one that knows what is really going on inside the warrior, all of the good, and all of the bad. The service member will probably hold it together through the long and stressful days serving in the units that they occupy, and even through the long and grueling months of various deployment situations…but then they come home to the family…and then their situation gets real, and many times down right out of control.
After nearly two years of full time in patient treatment programs (PTS/TBI), medication regimens (I will talk more on that topic at another time), and multi-day per week counseling sessions, I am still standing with my six other family members by my side. My identity is happily and proudly no longer in that uniform that I was wearing…and honestly, that uniform was incredibly hard to take off, much harder than I ever imagined.
It was clear to my wife and I that we needed more than a week away with each other, and the kids, to find out the truth about what all of these years of war and separation had done inside of all of us. We learned about how healing nature could be if the enough protected time and exposure was given to being in it. We stumbled upon Earl Schaffer like a rock on the trail of life, and it was an essential moment in our decision to dedicating everything we had to get out here on the Appalachian Trail. Our Mission is to heal with each other as we journey through the wilderness, A wilderness that is separated and protected from all that we can be distracted by in our lives.
The trail is calling my family and I, and the words of Earl Schaffer have never been truer in our hearts and souls…we need to “walk of the war”. There are many more military families like us, and we desire for all of them to find healing and each other again. We don’t know what the future holds for us in our life after the trail, but one thing is for sure, the trail will tell our hearts what that next thing is to be. It is time for us to carry as little as possible; we have chosen carefully, and it is each other.
“Walking off the war…” – Earl Shaffer
After the military is done with the few service members and their military families that have survived the vicious onslaught of multiple back to back (and extended) combat deployments, the needed months of training build up exercises, and additional separation for military professional development schools and courses; the service member and the military family are left to find themselves again, and the reality is that many never do. The last two decades of military service has asked more of its career members and supportive families than one could ever imagine.
The cost to ensure individual and unit readiness is attained at an unspeakable cost, and for these families, that price tag goes far beyond that eye-popping figure in the defense budget that’s linked to the next deployment, or mind numbing political banter that is pushed through all the major networks (pick your poison).
Let’s be clear; There is nothing common or normal about the wife, husband, and children who have faithfully served this country and sacrificed just as much as their uniformed Soldier/Service member that has been deployed multiple times for 9-15 months at a time, in places that the family cannot see or experience for themselves (for the last 16 years in support of the Global War on Terror).
The family members are the ones who agonize over ever hour of the day, doing the math for the time change and wondering what is going on “downrange”. These days and months start to pass and a new “normal” begins to set in like a dark cloud. This “normal” has various appearances for many military families that are left behind, and I have had the chance to witness some of these manifestations for myself and in the people that I have lived next to in my military community.
There are some that will dress this whole situation up with a fake and exaggerated form of pride or patriotism. Don’t hear me wrong, there is nothing wrong with healthy and realistic pride and patriotism. In fact, I feel a great sense of pride in what my family and I have sacrificed through the last 18 years of our military service. However, purposely avoiding the depressing and gripping reality of war, and what it does to a family in the name of being patriotic can have catastrophic consequences; consequences that can have devastatingly permanent effects on the service member, the family, and the communities in which they live. (I fell deep into this way of coping with my situation with the more rank that I attained, and wanted my family to follow suit)
This kind of blind commitment to a failed methodology of dealing with a very real threat leaves the service member and family empty; void of meaning and answers that they so desperately need. “Will this be the last time we have to say goodbye, Dad?” “Is this the deployment that you won’t come back from?” “Is any of this making a difference, I thought we won this thing already?” “Hey, Dad, isn’t that the same place that you fought in… It’s now reported to be under ISIS control?”
This false, yet well meaning pride and patriotism (that has little room for honest questions) eventually gives way to an oppressive guilt that follows soon after these questions start to surface. The very real observations and insights of the ones closest to the service member are forced back down inside, all in the intention of supporting the “War Fighter” husband, Wife, Mother, or Father. The sad result is, that the family members loose their sense of purpose and identity, and then they loose each other, sometimes forever.
Numerous others will medicate, most times under the care of a physician, who is handing out various doses of legal narcotics, anti-depressants, “uppers”, and “downers”, and all kinds of drugs that are used to “patch up” (this term was said to my wife from a physician) the person who is being crushed by the oppressive weight of a war that has no end. In many cases, the situation goes from bad to worse when these drugs no longer can carry the person through the fog of depression and agony, and they turn to alcohol and/or start to mix medications. I have personally been in conversation with other military families on my street, when we have half-heartedly joked that there were more drugs in family housing living on a U.S. Army Post, than in the Mexican drug cartels…and we laughed, but it wasn’t funny.
However, many military spouses and family members within our ranks and communities belittle the fact that their husband or wife is gone yet again; for another 12-15 months! (Some for the 6th time or more) It is completely bizarre that our service members, leaders, and military families have grown accustomed to this horrible reality. Each of these military families has been living this harsh and bitter reality of war, and all of its effects, since the beginning of this century. So, let’s be honest, there is no end in sight for this war, and nobody on either side has ever presented any kind of plan to resolve it responsibly since its inception.
Through the entire duration of this Global War on Terror (GWOT), many of us, and our wives, husbands, and children have figured out how to survive in a society that no longer wants to admit that we are a nation at war. The majority of us have spent more time apart than together, and when the service member is home, they are thrust into highly pressurized work environments that would rival any trading floor on Wall Street. Trust me when I say that my wife was shocked if I were home by 5:00 at night after leaving the house that morning at 4:30…and then after this break neck pace, the military family blinks its eyes, and the service member is getting back onto a large airplane to leave for another year or more “downrange”.
Sure, we earn 30 days of leave a year, and most families will use it to travel back to wherever home was to see Mom’s and Dad’s, Grandparents, Uncles, Aunts, Cousins and close friends. Our earned leave is usually granted and scheduled by unit commanders in bulk (called block leave) right before leaving and returning from the theater of operations, weather it be Iraq, or Afghanistan….right smack in the worst possible emotional and mental scenarios that a military family can find itself.
In these visits and conversations, our prior civilian lives seem to be farther away than the next solar system. In those moments, the service member and family are painfully aware of every hour that ticks away, while the same conversations from well meaning people are re-visited over and over again…right before deployment, or after our return.
In fact the coming home can be the most difficult scenario, as the service member will already know that they have to return for another tour before ever coming back home to the awaiting family. So, when the statement and question is made by that well meaning person, “I’m so glad your home safe, will you ever have to go back?!?”, well, it is one of the most awkward conversations that I have ever encountered within myself, and another person.
Now that I am a retired veteran with 4 tours of duty, I have a new challenge to face. The truth is, that I was dangerously close to becoming a statistic of veteran suicide; My family and I were most definitely on a terminal path of divorce, pain, and destruction. I was literally loosing my sanity, and had very little awareness of who I was and why I was serving any longer.
This current and very real situation is the causing factor for the extreme need for my family to find where we are within ourselves and with each other after all of our time apart. To be out of the military sub-culture fray, and with each other for an extended period of time that will allow for the truth to surface…truth that has been locked away for so many years as we have survived the months and years of this seemingly endless war.
I get asked very real questions about my service all of time. When I tell people that I served for nearly 18 years and then separated from the Military, there is often a look of bewilderment that is cast my way, and I understand why. “You mean you didn’t finish?”, they ask. My answer to that is, finish what? Is it the 20 year mark so that I can qualify for my pension benefits for the rest of my days…of course it is! Well, here is the truth, I never served for the pension, and neither did my family, and neither did many other brothers and sisters of mine who gave this nation everything that was asked of them. We simply did our best to serve faithfully, and honor our fallen who never came home. This kind of life should never be about the pension benefits, and it never was.
My family has always chose me, and supported me without fail. Now, I have very tangibly chosen them, and will never consider leaving them again. We are going out for a walk away from the noise, to find what we need. The dust is clearing, and we are still standing together, ready for the next blow, like an underdog fighter. I want other military families (like us) to find the truth in how they really are doing, to get honest with each other and not fall prey to suicide, or destroyed families through divorces and the real effects of PTS and the war.
My first actual moment on the the trail was crossing through an archway, and for me it symbolized the start of the most important journey of my life. The most important people in my life were by my side stepping into untold challenges and climbs that I believe, will lead us to healing, to wholeness, and the truth for all of us as a family. We have all agreed to go far, not fast.