“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.