Danette Hayes is the BSF Co-Director for National Guard and Reserve Outreach and the author of 400 Days, a book about her National Guard family’s deployment journey.
Rich and I have immersed ourselves into civilian lives once again. I wish I could say it’s been easy, but the reality is, it has not. We renewed our wedding vows on August 30, 2008. Our best man eighteen years ago was Rich’s brother, John, so we found it quite fitting that he officiate our renewal. It was a casual affair on the deck, surrounded by our family, who each did a reading. Unlike the church wedding we had before, this was all our doing, words that we chose, readings and music that didn’t have to be approved by the church. It was a true representation of our life together.
Our best friends, Greg and Shari Merritt, assisted John as officiates of the ceremony, and we loved having them stand with us. We’ve all been through this separation, and this almost felt like we all renewed a vow to continue being there for each other. We bought each of the children an Irish wedding band and exchanged them during the ceremony. David and Susan read from Lord of the Rings about change. Makayla read from the Velveteen Rabbit about how growing old and being real doesn’t hurt, it just happens. Kelly sang “What a Wonderful World.” She practiced for weeks with our friend Jimmy who played guitar for us and sang Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You,” something that never would’ve been approved in our Catholic ceremony eighteen years ago. This was the most memorable wedding I’ve ever been a part of, and I wish I had videotaped it. Shari and Meredith, being the crazy ladies they are, made us a heart-shaped cake with a Barbie and Ken dressed in Parrothead attire. They even cut Barbie’s hair to resemble my haircut and shaved Ken’s head to reflect Rich’s crew cut. True to form, my crazy ladies brought my favorite tequila, Patrón, and the evening ended on a happy note.
I’ve spoken about ceremony before, the military need to preserve these worthwhile celebrations. Renewing our vows brought closure to the separation the last year brought us and allowed us to renew our commitment to each other and our children for a bright future, no matter what may come. My, how I’ve grown!
I’m still searching for employment, but feel lucky that I can be home during this time of transition. After the welcome home celebrations end and we try to pick up the pieces, it’s then that I see and understand how hard it is to feel good about what he’s done as a soldier. Rich returned to work in August, but there was no one there to welcome him back. He had no office, no phone, no computer to return to—it was as if he had never been there. He had to track down facilities for assistance. He had notified his boss he’d be returning thirty days before his arrival back at the office, yet he wasn’t there to welcome him back. To the contrary, when he did see Rich, he seemed surprised he had returned to work at all.
I’m dumbfounded that his boss would think he wouldn’t return to his civilian job. Just what do employers think the Guardsmen or Reservists do that enable them to walk away from their futures when they return from war? From the stories I’ve heard at the reintegration meetings, this is common for the Guardsmen. He’s still struggling to get his employer to honor USERRA. To some, it’s just enough to sign up to be an employer who supports the Guard and Reserve soldiers. It’s an entirely different matter to actually follow through with that commitment.
Let’s face it—life moved on without them. I don’t think Rich ever received an e-mail from anyone at his office, except maybe at the holiday time. It’s not that people don’t mean well. They’re just caught up in their own lives. No one knows what to expect or how to act around someone who’s sacrificing a year of their own life so that others back home can get on with theirs. It shouldn’t be a thankless job.
Rich is one of the lucky ones. He came home to a family. I’ve met so many who didn’t have a family to come home to. At the meeting this past weekend, during one point in the schedule, they asked married couples to stay in one room for “dialogue,” and those whose spouses or significant others had left because of the deployment to adjourn into another room. Almost one-third of the room left. It left me sad and angry. The cost to military families is taking its toll, and I search for answers to end this cycle. Seventy-five percent of the suicides in the military are due to relationship troubles. It’s so hard to put my fingers around such numbers, but seeing the room split as I did, it’s hard not to recognize how it happens.
I think Rich saw himself in the meetings. They gave a presentation/film on battle fatigue and the symptoms. I’m grateful he saw himself so that I wouldn’t have to start at ground zero. Invalidation they call it. “They” meaning psychiatrists and the VA dealing with Post Combat Stress and Battle Fatigue. It’s a subtle symptom that, left untreated, can lead to alcoholism, drug abuse, withdrawal, seclusion, and ultimately suicide. The soldiers feel so disconnected from their prior lives as civilians and unappreciated for their commitment that they start to question their own ability to provide a future for themselves or for their families. We’re learning more and more about post combat stress, but we’re not reacting fast enough as a society. They describe invalidation as mocking, ignoring, judging, or minimizing a soldier’s feelings. Sounds simple, right? And it shouldn’t be a big deal, right? Wrong. Invalidation goes beyond mere rejection by implying not only that our feelings are disapproved of, but that we are fundamentally abnormal. This implies that there is something wrong with us because we aren’t like everyone else; we are strange; we are different; we are weird. Psychological invalidation is one of the most lethal forms of emotional abuse. It kills confidence, something sorely needed by returning civilian soldiers. When we tell a soldier who has just returned from deployment, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s okay, you’ll feel better soon,” we’re minimizing their emotions. After days or even weeks of this minimizing behavior, the soldier eventually becomes more depressed and capable of self-harm. These situations do not go away on their own. Soldiers learn to isolate themselves because they’re not “normal” and turn to alcohol or drugs. I find myself guilty of this same invalidation and quickly redress how I phrase the emotions Rich is going through. After all, who am I to say he’ll feel better soon? I have no real idea what he’s going through.
The Guardsman or Reservist isn’t benefiting from active duty life, and they are different from their civilian counterparts. The businessman behind the desk can’t relate to putting his life on the line for his cubicle mate while a soldier spends 24/7 ready to sacrifice his life for his fellow soldier.
The law reads they can take up to 90 days off before returning to work. Generous it sounds, but totally unrealistic. The Army won’t pay them for 90 days, and I don’t know anyone who’s been deployed for over a year who can financially afford not to return to work within 30 days of return. The business partner can’t relate to the transition issues the civilian soldier has to deal with daily. The recourse is to isolate themselves because no one knows what to do with the soldier who just returned. Soldiers pick up on this quite fast, and it feeds the feeling that they are not “normal.”
Of course the VA will say services are available to the Guard and Reserve, and they are. But at what cost? What officer is going to risk their military career because of depression? And what becomes of their civilian career if labeled “unfit” for duty? It’s a risk that too many Guardsmen and Reservists are not willing to take. So the families try to manage on their own, treading carefully, yet all the while realizing that what they thought would be a return to normal life is starting to look like a bad dream that won’t end.