At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in the year 1918, World War I formally ended with the German signing of the Armistice. One year later, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11 Armistice Day, in remembrance of the heroism of American soldiers. In 1954, Armistice Day became Veterans Day, a holiday honoring the service of all U.S. military veterans. This year we commemorate an additional eleven--the years of Operation Enduring Freedom. And as we consider the patriotism of our warriors returning from Afghanistan, we must also remember the sacrifices of those left waiting at home.
In researching my latest novel, Collateral [Atria Books, $24.99], I spent many hours talking with the spouses, fiancés, parents and children of U.S. soldiers, deployed to the Middle East in support of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. The stories they shared were remarkably similar, and alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking. That these people opened themselves so completely to me is a testament to their desire for understanding by the wider community that is the United States of America.
Imagine a protracted separation from someone you love. Now think about that person, on duty in a war zone. A target for a determined enemy. You might not hear from him or her for days, or even weeks, at a time. The longer you go with no word, the deeper your worry becomes. Still, you must get up for work or school, care for your family, try to sleep at night. When communication finally comes, it is guarded. Composed. You know your soldier is unscathed, at least on the surface. But you can only guess what he has seen, what she has experienced.
Sometimes, a prolonged silence means the unthinkable. The doorbell rings and two uniforms deliver the news you prayed never to hear. The one you love will return in a flag-draped coffin, or forever bound to a wheelchair. Much more often, your soldier comes home safe and mostly sound. Physically intact, but profoundly changed. The transformation isn't always apparent immediately. It might take a while to notice the depression, the anger, the obsessive need to lock doors against distant enemies or swerve around non-existent IEDs on the Interstate.
The Department of Veterans Affairs tells us one in five returning soldiers suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and this figure does not include those who seek help privately or not at all. Their families have to deal with the symptoms--blooms of rage, hallucinations, insomnia, difficulty maintaining relationships, self-destructive behavior. Spouses become caretakers and must remain on the lookout for possible triggers. Often they feel ignored, berated, unloved, and they may begin to mirror some of their veteran's negative behaviors, a condition known as Secondary PTSD.
Memory, mood and concentration problems can also result from traumatic brain injury (TBI). New studies show even mild percussions can cause TBI, especially on a cumulative level. According to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, between ten and twenty percent of returning servicemen have suffered a TBI. Symptoms may not be evident for weeks or months, and include headaches, poor impulse control, violent behavior and suicidal thoughts.
With or without PTSD or TBI, once every eighty minutes, a U.S. military veteran commits suicide.
The fallout of such major events is obvious. Less so, the peripheral injury of smaller dramas. Pre-deployment, it's common for couples to fight, as a mechanism for separation. The soldier divorces emotionally from loved ones to facilitate integral bonding with fellow warriors. Children grieve for the intact family they no longer have and may resent the parent's absence. On the far side, beyond happy homecomings, come more arguments as everyone struggles to redefine their roles. Heavy alcohol use, binge drinking and prescription drug abuse are all too common among active duty personnel, veterans, and their families.
The good news is, the military is well aware of these issues and help is available for those who seek it. The bad news is, economic realities, coupled with the imminent surge of returning soldiers, means resources will be stretched to the limit. But this is not a place to cut corners, or the collateral damage will extend far beyond isolated military households and communities, quite possibly all the way to your doorstep.
If you're not personally connected to a soldier or veteran, you know someone who is--your hair stylist, bank teller, supermarket checker, minister, teacher. If you're asking yourself, "Why should I care?" please consider the personal freedoms you enjoy. Somewhere, right now, a soldier is laying his or her life on the line in defense of those freedoms. And somewhere else, someone is waiting for that soldier to come home. That person's patriotism and sacrifice cannot be discounted.
Today, Veteran's Day, we pay respect to American warriors, past and present. And as we fly our flags and tip our hats to honor them, it's only right that we take a few moments to honor their loved ones, too.