August 11, 2011 ~ I’m a casualty of war, but I’ve been far too focused on that fact for the past two and half years. I’ve allowed Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress to steal my oldest son, and steal my joy.
For the longest time we have been trudging through the stages of grief, longing for the old guy to walk back in the door, but it just hit me, that what we really need to do is get to know the new guy.
Dealing with the invisible wounds of war is not easy. We haven’t experienced the physical death of our loved one as thousands of military families have since the war on terror began ten years ago, and we are so grateful for that. We have, however, experienced a loss. The boy that left our home to enlist in the Marine Corps never came back home.
The person who returned to us was a very changed individual. His contagious smile is missing, the sparkle in his eyes now gone. His positive outlook and his funny disposition are hidden from view. Instead of the optimistic, larger than life guy who once lived in our home, we are now looking at one who often seems like a stranger; one who seems lost, angry, confused, and broken on most days.
Every aspect of our lives is now different. The simplest conversations can go in a wrong direction instantly with each of us having no idea how we triggered such a controversy. Tasks that were, at one time very simple, are now overwhelming and can redefine an entire day or week.
All the while we are learning to navigate this new path as a family hoping to support our hero, we are also going through the stages of grief. We didn’t even realize we were going through the grieving process because we thought that is something for people who experience a physical death in the family.
We walked the road of shock, denial and isolation for a long time. We couldn’t accept that things were different and we really didn’t want anyone to know what we were experiencing. Most of the symptoms of PTSD and TBI appear like behavior problems. We thought it better to just keep quiet about what was happening.
The pain and guilt stage was, as you would expect, excruciating. It seemed as if it would never end. We felt guilt because we were angry. We felt guilt because our son was still alive, while others buried their sons. We felt we had no right to feel that we had “lost” our son when others truly did lose theirs.
Why us? Why our son? How are we supposed to fix this? Every time he walked in the door we saw the face of the boy we had loved for 24 years, but the person before us was a stranger to us. For a very long time we could not move forward because we had to relive the loss over and over and over with each new day.
Needless to say, this phase of pain and guilt led into full fledged anger and frustration. We needed to blame someone. For awhile we blamed the war, the military, the health care system, and the government. While there are many things that need to be fixed in all those areas, in the end, we weren’t moving anywhere near healing and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves in the stage of depression.
Depression found us realizing the true magnitude of our loss and a view of a lifelong road of struggles and frustration ahead. It was at this point, we became numb. It became too hard to keep going down the road of anger and sadness so it was easier to simply turn off the feelings and go through the motions of every day life. We found ourselves bracing for the worst, expecting the pain, and building a wall around ourselves to protect us from the daily obstacles that seemed to keep us from what we had once defined as our normal lives.
Then one day, a wall of emotion came tumbling down and I felt like I might never stop crying. I sobbed and sobbed until there wasn’t a tear left to drop and then, as if God had put a burning bush in my front yard, it hit me. I don’t want to mourn the loss of the old guy who went to war for even one more minute.
I just want to get to know the new guy. I want to know everything there is to know about my hero.
The new guy has bits and pieces of the old guy. Sometimes I can almost see the sparkle in his eye. That familiar smile flickers now and then. I’ve learned some awesome things about the new guy and I like what I see. The new guy has a unique sense of humor, and I’m growing to like this part of him more and more each day.
The new guy is a brave and courageous man who stood in harm’s way for people he will never meet. He’s got some great tips on survival and rescue, so he’s handy to have along when we take our annual trip to the middle of nowhere for our family reunion. Though he won’t talk about it, I know he has saved a life or two along the way, so I feel comfortable, and a little bit proud, knowing I can count on him. He’s got my back.
I see his confidence growing and I see him taking life’s hard knocks and using them to make him a wiser and more mature individual. The new guy is a fighter, a real survivor. This new guy doesn’t give up! He’s not going to let the battle on the homefront take him down.
I’m glad I finally figured out that I’ll never get to know the new guy or enjoy the plan that God has for his life, if I’m stuck in my world of grief.
I’ve got hope that God will take this broken veteran and rebuild him better than ever before. My veteran has the promise that God will never leave him or forsake him. He’s got the chance to find out how awesome and amazing the Almighty God really is and what life is really all about when God makes something beautiful out of something rather messy.
I know my veteran has the potential to help a lot of other veterans who will come along behind him on this path. I also know there are other veterans in front of him who will do their part to encourage him to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
In the meantime, I need to love this new guy unconditionally, support him without reservation, pick him up when he falls, and give him what he needs to keep moving forward.
If you’re struggling because your combat veteran lives with the invisible wounds of war, don’t skip the grieving process. We all have to go through it. But do try to get to know the new guy. He needs you and he wants a place to call home.
This article was first featured by the author on voiceofwarriors.com.