By Dr. Kate HendricksThomas is the author of Brave,Strong, True: The Modern Warrior’s Battle for Balance and co-author of Bulletproofing the Psyche.
As holidays approach, I’m uniquely grateful for the loved ones in my life. I’m also ever-mindful that there’ve been times when I didn’t have enough social support, and I won’t forget how hard those moments were.
And so I ask myself this time of year, have I reached out to anyone who may need a friend? Am I focusing outward?
My community is a military one, and we all know that we’ve lost too many this year. Not all veterans lose their social support systems upon returning home,though many of us do. It can be tough to stay close to people when we aren’t sure that we speak the same language any longer.
Some veterans are blessed with the ability to keep communication lines open, even in hard times and with loved ones able to weather the storm alongside. These are the cases that highlight even more powerfully the importance of connection, and I’ll always be grateful that this was my brother’s experience.
I was already deployed to Iraq when my brother e-mailed me to share that he was probably going to propose to his girlfriend before he headed over. She was a civilian schoolteacher from Philadelphia whom I had yet to meet, and I just rolled my eyes when he shared with me his romantic plans. I was surrounded by guys losing their girlfriends to the grind of deployment, and I expected that his schoolteacher would be mailing him a “Dear John” letter after a few months.I told him I didn’t have a problem with the proposal but admonished him to buy her a ring made out of cubic zirconia. No sense in buying a diamond he might never get back.
As younger brothers often do, he ignored my advice and bought her a beautiful ring.
Well, that is some cash he will never see again! Should have listened to me!
When a wounded service member is medically evacuated, he or she often has a long period in a hospital ward and in lots of different outpatient treatment facilities. There’re no guarantees and it’s painful for both the patient and those standing alongside. I watched the prospect of a long, uncertain recovery level some people. In others, I watched uncertainty and trauma bring out their diamond-hard character.
When my brother arrived at Bethesda, we didn’t know what he might be facing. There was so much damage. On his third surgery, the physicians in the operating room took a vote about whether or not to amputate his leg at the hip; he had infection setting in and they were worried it could get worse. Two voted to amputate, and three voted to give him a couple of days.
Ward 5 was a dark place some days. We were surrounded by morphine drips, pain, injury,and struggling families who weren’t sure what to make of it all.
Into this world walked my brother’s civilian schoolteacher.
She won’t be able to handle this.
Throughout this period I watched his young fiancé with a cynical eye. I stereotyped her on sight—she was a pretty girl who often wore makeup and always had on matching accessories. I assumed she lacked gravitas and would fall apart any minute.
She never did.
When her leave ran out at work she went back to teaching all day long in nearby Virginia, but made the drive every night to sleep in a chair at my brother’s bedside. I’d find her sitting by his side laughing about some silly thing or another, always keeping him smiling. She never complained and never gave up,never confessed fears about marrying a man with so many new health issues.
While I fumbled gracelessly in his hospital room, once even dropping a portable DVD player on his gaping wounds, she was all kindness and poise. She kept him looking toward their future on a daily basis. Even when he left the hospital and had to spend long days in a reclining chair. Even when he needed help with any and all of the most basic tasks.
The makeup had fooled me; she was more than serious. Only in her twenties, she helped him make it to the bathroom, shower, move, and get through hard physical therapy appointments without complaint. I don’t think I ever saw her with messy hair.
There were guys on the ward whose wives filed for divorce when they saw what they were going to have to struggle through together. I don’t think the thought ever crossed her mind.
She helped him through medical retirement, a search for a new career and a civilian identity, and they became parents with that joyous excitement reserved for newbies who don’t yet know how much sleep they will soon go without.
She married a Marine with three sisters, all of whom would gladly hide a body for her today—no questions asked.
She has a good memory though. Every now and again, I hear about that cubic zirconia comment. This Christmas will be no exception.
You can help reach out to veterans this holiday season by contacting Volunteer Services at your local VA Medical Center, signing up for your local Team Red, White, and Blue (www.teamrwb.org),or simply reaching out a hand to a vet you know.
Thank you for engaging. Thank you for celebrating Christmas with military veterans.