While recently on a road trip, we passed the time listening to Kristen Hannah’s “Home Front”. The book tells of a family’s struggles as the wife, a helicopter pilot, serving in the reserves receives notice of deployment to Iraq. She leaves her family behind with little understanding of the challenges ahead as mom and wife is sent to war. Her helicopter is shot down, and she returns home for recovery and understanding from a family expecting her to take up where she had left off; to be the same person they had known before she left.
And coincidentally, we reunited with old friends, Mike and Lisa, who had experienced much of the same experiences as in the book. As we reminisced, I thought of that book, knowing that Mike had been a Huey helicopter pilot in Vietnam. How woefully ignorant and careless we had been in our understanding of what this couple had experienced.
Mike had been a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam war. He had graduated in the top of his class and qualified to be a jet pilot, but at the last minute, the army assigned him to helicopters because so many of their pilots had been shot down. Mike served for 6 years. He was not physically wounded, but there had been wounds.
Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and flashbacks are common to those who have felt the daily fear and seen the horrors of war. When I asked, “Tell us about coming home from the war,” we had touched a nerve; a place where our conversation took on a deeper level. Mike and Lisa became emotional; their voices broke and tears welled up in their eyes as they responded. Both the deployed soldier and the family are deeply affected as they adjust to living after the hell of war.
Mike replied, “The worst was the response of people here at home. My college degree and my flying and leadership experiences meant little. I was continually turned down for having no experience when I applied for jobs. Eventually, Mike did get a good job; the owner happening to be a veteran as well.
However, the still vivid memories, the losses, the depression, the nightmares, all of this was a by-product that challenged both Mike and his family. Lisa was treated for depression somewhere in this mix as well.
As Mike began to speak openly with us, we could see that even after so many years, his emotional response brought unashamedly, tears; obviously, the grief, the guilt, and perhaps anger. But, why guilt?
It’s “guilt that he lived, and many of his buddies did not.” That is the reality. Our listening to the book had prepared us. The book is thorough in explaining the traumatic reaction to the violence, sorrow, and the gory demands of war.
Add that experience to adjusting to a peaceful society, where one’s adrenaline had been on constant alert for 6 years, and the nightmares, flashbacks, and continual need to act normal...and we can begin to understand the conflict inside the soul.
There are not enough counselors; not enough services for our veterans who need help; not enough facilities that really understand how to remediate our wounded. However, society is making major strides for this crucial need. Like the book, this couple has a happy ending as well. They are givers, and caring, loving people. They love their country. But, the pain of war remains still. The agony, the guilt, the sorrow. Often, our greatest sorrows and heartaches dig deep and bring forth a sweet, tender, caring soul in its wake. Sometimes not. Sometimes a heartache and tragedy motivate us to helping others; to care for those who only another with the same experiences can understand. Sometimes not. Sometimes such experiences of war and dying, mutilating, and screaming pain, cause people to snap.
One of Mike’s most intense healing episodes was visiting the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. It took years to get the courage to go. It was another key to Mike’s journey.
The book helped me to undersand, and finally, after so many years, we asked Mike and Lisa the right questions. Now I see. Now I get it.
Judi Tabler lives in Pawnee County and is a guest columnist for the Great Bend Tribune. She can be reached at email@example.com or juditabler@awomansview.