When I think of the men and women I've served with over the years, I think of words like selfless, committed, courageous... sometimes heroic. These are probably the same words that many Americans use to describe veterans. But when we stop to consider all we owe to those who sacrifice for our liberty, I doubt that military family members are at the forefront of our thoughts. They should be. The truth is all of these adjectives are equally well-suited for the unsung millions who have faithfully supported our men and women in uniform through a decade of war.
Rarely do these family members get the recognition they deserve. And yet, they play a crucial role in our nation's defense. The love and support of family makes all the difference. In war, everything you thought you knew about the world is put to the test. Your faith in mankind can be lost. So too can your faith in God. In the end, the emotions that make us human can become casualties of war. You lean on your battle buddies to protect your life. But it is often your loved ones back home who protect your humanity.
Unless you've been in combat, it's hard to understand just how close to the edge a service member lives every day, every hour, indeed, every minute. The battle rythym is grueling and relentless. Hours of boredom are punctuated by horrifying moments that become permanently etched in your memory. Despair sets in with the knowledge that life at home continues while you sit mired in hell. The constant stress of living in a combat zone grinds you down and jeopardizes your sanity. Knowing there are loved ones at home who suffer because of your absence can keep you from slipping into the abyss.
While the service member fights overseas, his or her family fights their own war at home. It's a war against loneliness and heartache, anxiety and fear. Every deployment is a new battle in the long fight to hold the family together. The more they sacrifice, the more isolated they feel from countrymen who have almost no understanding of the struggles they face.
When I think of my sister, and the way she raised four young girls while her husband fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, I'm both inspired and saddened. I'm inspired by her courage and the courage of my nieces as they held things together through four long combat deployments. And I'm saddened because almost no one appreciates the sacrifices they made to secure our freedom. There are millions like my sister and my nieces. Unheralded, but bravely persevering.
Many of these families find that their sacrifices are not over when the service member comes home. Often, they are only beginning. No one comes through war unchanged. Service members can struggle to find their way back emotionally long after a combat deployment is over. So many times, the strength they need comes from the love of their families. In fact, it is very often the family members who play the most important role in successfully reintegrating their uniformed loved ones.
Today, I have the honor of working with many of these military families as they continue to support their loved ones in the difficult transition back to emotional health. As a counselor at the Rocky Top Therapy Center in Keller, Texas, I provide equine-assisted counseling services to veterans and their family members through a program called Horses for Heroes. I see firsthand the legacy of a war that is being fought by an embarrassingly small percentage of Americans -- families strained to the breaking point by years of sacrifice. I also see the strength that seems unique to this tiny sliver of America.
In the tranquil setting of the ranch, shattered families are healing. Vets, their spouses and their kids bond with the horses and rediscover the same courage and strength that helped them survive multiple combat deployments. I am constantly in awe at the resiliency of the military family members I see at the ranch. Most of them have soldiered on for years, unnoticed by all but the service members who depend on them. They pull their families together now in the same way they held them together through one deployment after another. Want to know where America's heroes are? You can find quite a few here at Rocky Top.
There was a time early in my military career when I took for granted the family I left at home. I was addicted to adrenaline and blinded by my own quest for glory. I didn't appreciate how much I needed them.
Things are very different for me now. In the twilight of my career, I saw an ugly war up close and found that I needed the support of my family more than ever before. While in Iraq, I learned that my marriage was over. The news was devastating to me. If not for my kids and my parents who rallied around me from 10,000 miles away, I don't know how I would have carried on. It was they who helped me find my strength and continue with the mission. Even after I was safely back in the States, I struggled to leave Iraq behind. Once again, it was their love and support that helped me to find my way.
The loved ones at home truly can make or break a warrior.
What is clear to me now is that our nation owes its military families a debt of gratitude that can never be fully repaid. Day after day, during deployment and at home, these families quietly protect the servicemen and servicewomen who protect the rest of us. There will probably never be any tickertape parade to honor them. There really should be.
Jeff Hensley spent 21 years as a fighter pilot in the United States Navy. He completed two combat deployments to Iraq before deciding to pursue his Master's in mental health counseling from the University of North Texas. Jeff will graduate this year and plans to work with other veterans. He also serves as a spokesman for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.