A little over a year ago, in my husband’s and my college town, a man was involved in a confrontation at one of the local bars, and upon leaving the man he was in confrontation with attacked and ran him over with a large truck in the parking lot of this bar. The man that got run over was a Marine, just back from Afghanistan and out of the corp only a couple months earlier. He ended up making a full recover to my knowledge but was in very critical condition for quite a while. The 18 year old boy who attacked him was easily caught and is in prison now. When my husband and I found out about the incident we, like most of the community, were absolutely outraged. At this point (and for several following weeks) it did not look like this man was going to survive. My husband’s angered response to the news was “He just survived hell for his country only to come back and lose it all because of some piece of shit 18 year old BOY!” The story broke many people’s hearts including our own. The man had a wife, two kids, and a baby on the way at the time. This was right around Christmas and the Collegiate Veterans Association (a club my husband helped start at the local college while we were there) had been collecting money and helping the family since the incident occurred. When it got closer to Christmas my husband and I decided to send the family a Toys R Us gift card for the kids and a spa gift certificate for the mother (I’m sure she could’ve used a little stress relief whenever she finally got the chance to use it). We didn’t put a return address or our names. We only knew them through mutual friends and peers, we’ve never actually met them. Sometimes I really wish I could’ve seen if it helped at all or how it made them feel, but I have never cared if they ever knew that we were the ones who did it. I was really proud of our community for how they responded to the incident. I am always so humbled by how much people can come together to help others during times of crisis, loving others without expecting anything in return is what humanity is meant to be about.
I open my eyes suddenly and its still dark outside, my breathing is short and my skin is damp in a cold sweat. It’s eerily silent except for the dull puring of crickets outside the window. The only light in our room is from the blinking red numbers on my alarm clock. The power must’ve gone out at some point.
My eyes quickly adjust to the dark and I can make out everything in the rest of the room. The tall dresser in the corner, the rocking chair, the chest at the end of our bed, and the scattered pictures on the wall. My mind acutely alert as if I hadn’t been deep in slumber just seconds earlier. I had a nightmare I’m sure, but like most of the others I can’t recall it. Maybe this was my minds way of protecting my sanity, or maybe my head really was crippled.
T-B-I … Traumatic-Brain-Injury… P-T-S-D … Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder. THERE. How’s that for memory exercises doc. As if on cue the anger and resentment fills me like a tidal wave. And then washes away leaving only the broken and scattered shell of a man, a dull aching depression and numbness. Anxiety still lingering in the shadows ever present and ready to jump out and strike at an moment. The rapidly clashing emotions within me leave me feeling broken and on edge.
“Baby are you ok?” Comes a sleep heavy voice from beneath the covers and I realize I’ve been sitting up on the edge of the bed.
I slide back and lay down beside my wife’s petite frame, wrapping one arm behind her head as she snuggles into my side, already on her way back to dreamland.
“Yeah baby, just a bad dream go back to sleep..I love you.” I try to keep my voice as even as possible, trying not to give away my anxiety and keep her awake in my suffering with me.
I must’ve fallen back asleep because the next thing I know I’m waking to light and I can hear a soft familiar voice speaking my name.
“Jake..Jake, wake up baby..I have breakfast for you.” My wife is standing at the door of our bedroom in her robe with a plate of what smells like eggs and bacon, my favorite.
When she notices me stir and wake she takes that as her cue to come to me. She’s a smart and sensitive woman, she knows how to wake me up without scaring me and potentially getting hurt. Something I wish she never had to think about.
I sit up as she crawls next to me and offers up the plate. I take it thankfully, but as I look down at it I realize I have no appetite. This was going to be a long day.
I know my wife must notice quickly when I’m having one of these days because she always does the exact right things. She doesn’t push me and she’s like an angel sent from heaven. The only person I care to have in my presence on days like today. Yet if she notices you couldn’t tell by the way she acts. She doesn’t act scared or timid around me like a lot of people, specifically significant others, might. She doesn’t push me like she might otherwise but she doesn’t act like anything’s wrong or abnormal either. She’s the only thing that makes me think I could be a “normal civilian” again sometimes. And when she acknowledges that I’m struggling with PTSD or having an episode its short simple and to the point. My wife is definitely not one to beat around the bush and I like that, especially in this situation. Other guys in my circumstance don’t always like acknowledgment of their faults or ailments but I appreciate it. Then she leaves it alone after that, she’s Incredibly caring and I know she worries, but she knows just when to keep it from me. She tells me I’m her knight in shining armor, her hero, and that I’m always there for her so it’s the least she can do when I’m going through this. But this woman is my Angel, and I know I’m lucky cause I’ve seen how other wives can react to their husband’s “symptoms”.
I set the breakfast on the nightstand and kiss her softly. Her eyes tell me she knows, and understands.
“I made you some coffee too baby it’s in the kitchen,” she smiles.
“Thank you baby. You’re amazing.” I smile appreciatively.
“Are you ok?” She asks just for clarity but already knowing the answer.
“Yeah..I just had nightmares last night,” I lean back against the headboard somehow still exhausted.
“Do you want to stay home today? We don’t have to go to church.” She genuinely offers. Always giving me the options I need on these days with no strings attached. She knows I’d be desperate and on the verge of a panic attack before Id ask for an out myself. The dull guilt still lingers but her assuring expression keeps me from feeling worse about it.
“Can we baby? I don’t think I can face the world today..but you should go, see your family,” I know ahead of time despite my wishes for her to go on with her life on these days she won’t leave me. Not unless she truly knew I needed to be alone, and today wasn’t one of those days. Today I could really use her comforting presence, but I wouldn’t tell her that. I never wanted to hold her back. The guilt crept in a little deeper.
“Of course baby. I need to run to town and get groceries later but we’ll stay home. I don’t wanna go without you.”
It was only a few minutes later I realized what day it was. November 10th, Marine Corp birthday. Great. This was really not shaping up to be a good day. The one day a year I could count for certain on being especially difficult to cope. The one day I missed the Corp and my brothers more than ever. The day I inevitably remembered everything without fail. I remembered what I couldn’t have back, my injury, my bad dreams, and the real nightmares that haunted me. The one day I cherished deep in my heart like all Marines yet my soul could no longer bear.
My wife knew what day it was too but she purposefully avoided mentioning it every year, instead shed wait to throw in a “Happy birthday Marine” expertely disguised amongst “Happy Veterans days” and “I’m so proud of yous” tomorrow.
Veterans day was no problem for me. And I knew my faithful wife loved to honor me and our other veteran friends and family on that day. She was probably more patriotic than all of us combined. And the first time I told her I really didn’t want any celebration on the 10th she was pretty disappointed. But she learned to understand as quickly as always.
She went back to the kitchen for the coffee, leaving me as requested for a moment to get myself together. I crawled out of bed and slumped into the living room. The depression almost too much to bear. I didn’t even want to speak, let alone eat or drink. She sat my cup of coffee next to my chair and came to comfort me. Her small frame falling into my chest perfectly. I hugged her tight, a familiar anxiety washing over me that I might lose her to death.
“I love you.” I choked out.
“I love you too Jake…You’re my hero. And I love you.”
I buried my head in her beautiful soft hair and let the single familiar tear slip out.
This isn’t a real event but a fictional example of life with a combat veteran the way it may be described from their point of view (just based on what I’ve heard my husband express). I hope I captured what I wanted with this, and didn’t describe it in a way that made the vet sound like a broken cry baby or something. My writing is fairly inexperienced and I may have failed miserably with this one. Writing never truly captures emotions as well as real life experience. I wanted to project a wounded warrior, one of the strongest persons we are surrounded by, struggling with the war inside their head. If you have any feedback on this please share!
Anyway. My husband has a hard time with the Marine Corp birthday just as described in the passage, although not every year does it look like this. This is, however, a description of some of the things he feels on mornings after nightmares. Obviously every veteran is different, and reactions and symptoms of PTSD and TBI are similar yet varying.
“People always call me a hero, I’m no hero. To me a hero is someone who will take a stand for what is right. Whether it helps or hurts.” – Edward E. Vezey Jr, 93 year old WWII veteran, anti aircraft gunner on the USS Oklahoma and Pearl Harbor survivor