Questions & Kill Counts: Notions from the Wife of a Former Navy SEAL

“How do you sleep next to him knowing he’s killed people?”

The first time someone asked me that question, I stared at her blankly. I didn’t have an answer. I fumbled through a justification for his killing: the dispatch of bad men in a far away desert who deserved to die weren’t murders. They were actions committed far away, and for the right reasons. I changed the subject.

Later, I lay alone in the bed I shared with Kevin, a Navy SEAL, and stared at the ceiling, thinking about what the girl had asked. How did I sleep? The truth was that it had never even crossed my mind to care before. I stared harder and tried earnestly to feel something about the measures I knew he had taken against an enemy on a foreign battlefield. But I couldn’t.

I felt nothing.

There were times, early on, when he placed his hands on me, large and rough and calloused, and I could sense the restraint that he used when touching me. He had only two modes: careful was the first, and I reveled in it knowing what he was capable of if he decided to flip the switch to the second, when he could smash anything in his path.

Eventually, I began to answer, “I like it,” when someone had the balls to ask me how I felt about his kill count. “How do I sleep?” I’d offer, “I sleep soundly at night precisely because he’s killed people.” I wanted my answer to shock them the way their questions shocked me.

I read On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman the summer before Kevin and I got married. I devoured it in our backyard while I prayed I’d get just a little tanner before our wedding. I read Grossman’s explanation of a special segment of the male population. 2%, he argued, tolerates killing the enemy in a justified setting without suffering any mental trauma. I tossed my head back and laughed. I soaked up his words like the rays of the sun on my skin, finally able to put a label on the thing that I knew my fiance was. People have also asked me for years whether Kevin suffers from PTSD. When I explain that he doesn’t, they’re always skeptical.

“Really?” they often push. “Not at all? How do you know for sure?”

Grossman’s explanation reassured me there are more men like Kevin in the world. They have done their jobs behind the gun, and for them it is perfectly normal to suffer no psychological consequences from it. But it can be very difficult to explain to a society that seems most comfortable with veterans who are damaged by the acts of violence they commit overseas. In my experience, most people prefer the idea that killing is traumatic, even for the most elite operators. They’re uncomfortable with the idea that someone can go to war, engage the enemy, and then come home and integrate into society seamlessly. There’s something unnerving for them about a highly effective former sniper who’s sitting next to them at church, or coaching their kid at soccer, or writing their prescriptions. It’s almost as if, because they couldn’t have handled it, they don’t want him to be able to, either.

I find the willingness to project PTSD onto the population of combat veterans as a whole just as offensive as if someone were to negate its existence entirely. Post traumatic stress is real, but it isn’t every veteran’s reality. When someone wills it onto a veteran as a way of coping with his or her own discomfort with that veteran’s experiences, it’s actually a major disservice, in my opinion, to the many veterans in America living with legitimate post traumatic stress.

Very few people ask me the invasive questions anymore, and at some point I realized it’s probably because I stopped inviting them. They want to know what it’s like to be married to this type of man, but how can you explain something like that? How would you explain colors to a blind person? Or music to someone who cannot hear? The closest I can come is to say that a long time ago I realized I would never possess all of him, nor would I ever even know all of him. I still chose to have some of him instead of all of anyone else.

We wrote The Last Punisher, Kevin’s memoir of his 2006 deployment to Ramadi, Iraq, together. We sat down and discussed media strategy and thought our cooperation might be interesting to people: combat vet’s wife helps him tell the truth by teasing out the details and writing it with him.

“People just aren’t interested in your role,” I’ve been told.

Again, I tossed my head back and laughed. They’re not interested in me, and a decade of living with him has made me become my own version of him. He has turned me into one of his. I have endured with him, when I would rather have quit. I have held back my tears. I have learned resilience.

I stalked with him on the plains of Africa, and watched him kill their big game. Then I let him paint my face with the blood of my first kill. I have hunted again, to feed the thing in Kevin that responds to it, and to feed our family.

And because I like it.

I have learned to shun the questioners over these past years - they do not belong on our island. I become more like him to understand him better, and yet I understand everyone else less.

And it is true in reverse: they may not ask, but I still see the questions in the eyes of strangers and acquaintances alike. They do not understand me, either. How can she sleep next to him? How is she sure he is stable? How can she hunt with him? How can she write with him? 

Easily, I answer them silently. Like water through my hands.

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