Why We Must Tend to the Children of Our Veterans

06/05/2011 11:09 am ET | Updated Aug 05, 2011
  • Leila Levinson Author, 'Gated Grief: The Daughter of a G.I. Concentration Camp Liberator Discovers a Legacy of Trauma'

Post-traumatic stress disorder has become a household term, especially in the context of combat. Every day, some media outlet in the country talks about the PTSD of our veterans and troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, with the number now estimated to be 95 percent rather than the 20 percent previously reported. But what we aren't talking about as a country is the long-term consequences of that trauma. Michelle Obama and Jill Biden have created "Joining Forces" to help the families of our servicemen and women, the program's concerns being "employment, education, wellness and public awareness." Ms. Obama gave as an example of the outcomes she'd like to see: "better career opportunities for veterans and their spouses." Though a good job is essential, the prerequisite to one is a veteran's physical and mental wellness. That wellness is also essential for what I see as any family's most critical concern: their children's prosperity.

Our children's prosperity demands that we talk about their vulnerability to their parents' invisible wounds. In a terrible and cruel irony, when a member of the service returns home from combat, what they most want to achieve -- safety and sustenance for their children -- becomes elusive. The trauma of combat not only persists in tormenting the veteran, but the ghosts it creates haunt the entire household, infecting the children with the veteran's melancholy, depression, anger and unresolved grief.

Can we be taking care of our veterans if we don't acknowledge this vulnerability of children to their parents' trauma and extend care to them as well?

My generation of baby boomers provides a concrete example of how this dynamic between veteran parent and child plays itself out over the child's lifetime. Over four million of the Americans who enlisted or were drafted to fight in World War II saw combat. And we, their children, grew up in homes haunted by the ghosts of that war. My posts for The Huffington Post and the talks I have given in the past four months about the multigenerational consequences of war have received passionate responses. The topic resonates deeply with children of veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Time and again, people tell me that my words caused them to see their families in an entirely new light and to realize that what they had suffered from -- their fathers' silence, distance and anger -- had been manifestations of unhealed trauma.

Last week another Huffington Post blogger reposted a recent piece of mine that quickly began a multi-day-long conversation among many people. Some of the comments are significant indicators of the fallout of war for the children of veterans.

"My dad only told us about his time under Gen. Patton after he came out of a coma, the result of his fifth heart attack," one woman wrote. "He had previously only told us a couple of stories like how they were given their uniforms, guns, boots and walked across Europe, stole food to survive -- many Germans were very kind to them & gave them food. That was the only time my father ever talked to us our whole lives! My father drank for many, many years. Then at one point he just stopped. I blamed him for so much until I finally understood. Now I want to retrace his steps during the war. He was in the Battle of the Bulge, took me to see the movie when I was a kid. That was so strange: both my father taking me to a movie and the fact it was a war movie."

Another person told us, "I only learned my father liberated Dachau a few years before he drank himself to death. It was during a trauma at the end of his life. He was a sensitive man who taught the romantic poets at Dartmouth. A therapist told me that as a child tried really hard to carry my father's pain for him! Her insight overwhelmed me. I always just thought I was the observer."

"My Dad didn't drink," someone else said, "but he was the loneliest soul. He worked hard and hid within himself. My family members hated him for not being the great American family man. I was the only one who connected with him on a soul level in the last six months of his life. And they distrusted me for it -- for being Dad's girl."

One woman shared how her grandfather was a veteran of World War I and suffered survivor's guilt. "And my poor father, who served in WWII, had learned to mimic a father who suffered from PTSD," she wrote.

The words of one participant expressed for all of us the fundamental dynamic of our families, seemingly different on their face, but underneath suffering the same pain: "The not talking about it held us pretty much in emotional hostage... all of us frozen in silence, not feeling, not supposed to feel it, until not feeling and not talking and just doing became normalized. Frozen from our humanity, not aware of our needs or even our right to need connection, respect, and safety to be who we are."

As a group we agreed how critical it is to have this conversation, to realize that our families were not some bizarre anomaly but a piece of a huge pattern of passive aggression and disfigured emotions. If we are committed to healing our veterans, we must first be honest about the fallout from war within our own families. Then we will recognize how much is at stake in helping our veterans -- and their children. Otherwise, our blindness will allow the wake of trauma to swallow another generation.

Listen to author Tom Mathews eloquently describe how World War II came between him and his veteran father.

More comments from children of veterans can be seen on the Veterans Children website.