In our first conversation, Coming Home: Veterans Readjusting to Civilian Life, our contributors — including veterans, family members of veterans and members of organizations that support veterans — share their own stories, offer insights on the challenges facing returning veterans, and provide tips and resources on the kinds of support that families, friends and communities can offer veterans.
This month marks five years that I have blogged about the experience of being a soldier's mom. It has been five years since I stood at Fort Benning and tearfully (later hysterically) said farewell to my youngest son and his Army brothers ("my guys") as they left for Iraq. These five years have been a wild and horrific — and wonderful — ride. Today I share the most intense of the lessons I have learned.
1. Life really is frail. That's a lesson that has been pounded home time after time. The second day my son was deployed, a sniper took the life of our son's beloved First Sergeant; this was followed, in time, by the death of his squad leader, then one friend, then ten others, and then finally to the loss of more than half his squad — the men he ate with, worked with, smoked and joked with — in a single IED (improvised explosive device) attack. There is nothing as sobering to a parent as hearing the uncontrolled grief of a grown child upon the loss of his friends and brothers. There is nothing — and no one — that can soothe the pain in your heart, or his, as he tells you, when he escorts his friend's remains to his final rest, "We all promised we'd bring each other home, but we didn't mean like this." When your 20-year old says, "This is the hardest thing I have ever done," you silently pray that nothing in his lifetime will ever be harder.
2. There really are no words to comfort the mother or father or spouse or siblings of a soldier who has died. As hard as you try and as sincerely as you mean it, the English language does not yet encompass the words that can convey the sorrow and dismay of the tragedy. But you should still try.
3. Stop worrying about the little things. I know people hear that cliché all the time, but hearing a disembodied voice on the other end of a telephone tell you that your child has been seriously wounded by an IED has a way of reorganizing your priorities in a literal heartbeat. It was a lesson I thought I had learned 20 years earlier, when this same son was born three months prematurely and every breath he took was a fight for life. When he came home after months in the hospital and survived into toddlerhood, I told myself that I would remember to keep my priorities in order, and stop worrying about the little things ... but in the rush of everydayness, I forgot. One yellow dump truck full of 1,000+ pounds of C4 explosive was a fiery reminder.
4. Be ready for "the later." When we first learned our son had been wounded, we had little information except that he had what they described as a "serious spinal injury." In my begging, pleading and bartering with God that night, I told Him, "Please let our son live and we will deal with everything else later." Our son's continuing physical ailments, his PTSD and related consequences — anger, moodiness, depression, sleeplessness — are "the later." After such episodes, he will often apologize and lightheartedly remind us, "Remember when you told God you'd deal with everything else later? Well, this is 'the later.'" That is all it takes sometimes to remind me. While your soldier may not have been wounded in the traditional sense, for every person who has been deployed, there is typically a "later." Big or little, consequential or not, visible or not, there is usually a "later."
5. Be an advocate for your children who are in the military. We have been our children's advocates all their lives, but it took on new meaning once each of our three sons declared their intention to enlist in the military. We accompanied each to the recruiter's office, and together with each son, grilled the recruiters — in the case of the youngest, until hours after closing time. We reviewed their contracts with them and scrutinized each obligation and promise before they signed. We acted not as parents, but as interested and trusted advocates. "Been there, done that," was a welcome point of reference for each. While there was little we could do as advocates once they were in the services, after our youngest was wounded, we again assumed the role of advocate. With his permission, we spoke with our son's caregivers and medical liaison. When the possibility of a medical discharge arose, we visited the nearest Veterans Administration facility to determine what he needed to do before his discharge, and after he relocated nearby. We read, asked questions and we learned. Our son is now recovered to a degree that he handles his own care and advocacy, but we remain involved by keeping abreast of changes in veterans' benefits, programs and legislative efforts.
6. Teach what you have learned. We speak to all who are willing to listen about the needs of the military and of veterans, and about what we have learned in these five years and in three generations of serving. We inform others about the role of the military in modern society, and challenge those who would blame, castigate, denigrate or who push the unwarranted prosecution of those who serve us. We work to protect the warrior legacy in word and deed.
7. It's OK to cry. You will cry when your soldiers leave and when they return and when they leave again. You will cry tears of joy and of sadness and of worry. Your soldier will not understand but will eventually accept it. There is no way to stem the tears that flow each time the national anthem or taps is played once you have a child deployed to war. As hard as I try, the pride I have for the men and women who have been to war, and the love I feel for them, wells in my eyes and flows as liquid from my heart to my cheeks.
8. Tell them that you love them. Tell your husbands, brothers, sisters and your children, no matter how old they are, and no matter how annoyed they get. No one ever regretted saying "I love you" too often.
There is much I could have lived without these past five years: the deployment, the worry, the heartache, the loss. But yet, I would not trade the lessons I have learned, nor the opportunity to share my experience with others.
Blogger, Some Soldier's Mom. On what it's like to have a child at war.
Looking Back on Five Years of Lessons Learned as a Soldier's Mom »
Vigilance: The Good Kind »
The Bonds That Tie »
The Tradition of the Christmas Tree »
PTSD: A Different Perspective, Part II »