It's now 2010. This new year will mark the ninth year I have been a full time veteran advocate and the eighth year that we as a nation have been at war. I retired in 2001 after 20 years of service in the Army.
I have been given the opportunity to work with PBS as an advisor on military and family issues for the upcoming series This Emotional Life, which premiered on January 4th 2010. This experience has required me to carefully reflect on the odyssey of the American military family.
Life in the military has always been an emotional rollercoaster but this generation of military families is sacrificing at unprecedented levels. The cost of eight years of uninterrupted combat operations is straining one of our most valuable resources, the family support system.
I have seen firsthand what can happen when a family is not resourced and prepared for the return of warriors. It all started when my father left for his third tour in Vietnam. I remember he walked into my room and woke me up. He gave me a letter and told me not to open it unless my mother gave me permission. I didn't know at the time but he had given me a death letter.
Death letters have a long tradition in the military. Some troops write them before they go to war. Others write them after close calls. Years passed, the letter got lost. I recently found it in a box some 40 years later. The letter was my father's attempt to tell me how to grow up in the event he died while serving. He survived the war, but when he came home he brought the war into our lives and family. His letter explained what he wanted me to be and who he was before he left. But just like service members today, my Dad went off to war and came home changed.
There was very little talk about war in our house when my father was deployed. Even though I had questions and fears as a child, no one talked to me. We didn't know what to expect when my father returned home, but we quickly found out that he was a different person.
Today some things are better for military families than they were 40 years ago, but many things have stayed the same. It's time we reevaluate what kind of support military families need in the 21st Century.
As I work with Military families now, I see the same patterns that I experienced in my own family. The vast majority of service members return home and become stronger from the deployment experience but a significant number of our service members and families will need help. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury and a host of other problems make keeping the family together a tough job. The rates of divorce, substance abuse and suicide are at epidemic levels.
When my father deployed my mother became more independent, taking care of
all the kids and household responsibilities while dad was gone. Nothing about
this has changed today. Military spouses suddenly find themselves as single
parents, and while there are programs, support groups and websites, there is
very little institutional effort to train the family to prepare for the
When my father returned from war he clearly had PTSD, but they didn't know what to call it back then. He didn't turn to drugs or alcohol to bury the memories of war from his mind. Instead he buried himself in work, becoming rigid and intolerant of others and their ideas of the meaning of life. He turned to religion as a means to escape confronting his experience in war. He was hard on his kids, his wife and in his mind everything had life or death consequences.
As a military family today it's important to read everything you can about the occupational and emotional experience of war. The more you know the better prepared you will be if problems occur and you can start building a set of resources.
I see what happened in my life as a military child, as a service member and now as a veteran advocate. It took me nearly 20 years to put the pieces of the puzzle together. I suffered and made mistakes that were unnecessary. My father's letter was an excellent guide for growing up. The problem was that when he came home he forgot those ideals because his experience overwhelmed him and us as a family.
Today we are witnessing the destruction of a new generation of families. We don't have to repeat the mistakes of the past. We need to help our military families understand what to expect when their loved ones come home from war. The service members need training to understand how they can be changed from the experience of war and the spouse and family need training and skills to keep the family together. If you are a military family you can prepare for the challenges of service and we as a nation have an obligation to assist.
Recently Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) the House Armed Services Committee chairman, said families are sometimes overlooked when talking about sacrifices made during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"With over a million children between the ages of birth and 23 years of age who have parents in uniform, there have been many missed birthdays, graduations, holidays, and a child's first words and other major life accomplishments that are all too common as troops continue to experience back-to-back deployments."
Rep. Ike Skelton is right but the problem is so much more complicated and requires a national effort. It is my hope that the PBS series and outreach campaign, This Emotional Life, will be a starting point for a dialogue amongst families. I wish my parents had this information when I was a child. I wish I had it when I first got married. It's important for military families to understand that help is available. Families don't have to suffer in silence if they don't know what to do. I don't regret my experiences. They have made me who I am today, but it took me years and lots of pain to finally understand this emotional life. The sooner you get on the road to healing the faster you will overcome the obstacles life presents you.
What can you do?
Write your Congressman and ask that military families receive the training they need to become effective support systems for the service member. Military support networks should not be a charitable function but rather a fully funded part of the cost of war.
If you're a spouse who knows all the ropes, then mentor another military family. If you're a civilian, get involved with your local family readiness group. If you're a friend, listen and guide the service member when they come home. We need more resources to keep the family strong and to mitigate the ripple effect this has on our society.
Military families are an untapped resource of strength for this nation, a force multiplier for our service men and women. When our service members are deployed, the families in a sense go with them. We owe it to our military families - and to the defense of our nation - to provide them with the resources and skills they need to keep their families strong. In conjunction with the PBS series I am proud to be a part of a breakout project that focuses specifically on the military family. We are creating a user generated guide and DVD with tips and tools to help the military family through the emotional cycles of deployment. Spouses, friends, parents and siblings told us the things that help keep their families strong. Sign up to become informed for more details about this campaign.
This is how a grateful nation says thanks - with deeds and not just words.