Honoring All Those Scarred by War

with 9 Comments
Cynthia Orange, Author

 

 

We invited award-winning author Cynthia Orange to write a guest blog for I Married the War. She graciously agreed, and hereby ponders Memorial Day and its far-reaching meaning. Cynthia’s work stems from her own personal experience as the wife of a combat veteran.

 

 

 

 

HONORING ALL THOSE SCARRED BY WAR by Cynthia Orange

History tells us that the two major events we observe in May—Memorial Day and Mothers’ Day—are both linked to the Civil War. In 1868, May 30 was originally called “Decoration Day,” a day to decorate the graves of soldiers who lost their lives in that bloodiest of our nation’s wars. And in 1870, five years after the Civil War ended, Julia Ward Howe conceived Mothers’ Day as a day in which mothers could come together and protest their sons killing other mothers’ sons. It seems our wise ancestors gleaned how important it is to acknowledge the inevitable grief, loss, and cries of women that burst forth in the wake of war. Any war.

Each Memorial Day, I am reminded of the famous lines from Archibald MacLeish’s poem, “The Young Dead Soldiers:”

The young dead soldiers do not speak. . . . They say: Our deaths are not ours; they are yours; they will mean what you make them. They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say; it is you who must say this. They say: We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning. We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us.

MacLeish’s words remind me of our family’s first visit to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. when our daughter was in high school. It struck me as a large, dark, wing of death carved into the earth. We walked together down the gradual slope to read the names of dead soldiers, etched into the smooth granite in the order in which they died. Jessica and I stood at each end of 1969-1970, Michael’s tour of duty, and I was taken aback by the enormity of the loss as I ran my fingers over the grooves of letters that formed the names of all those “young dead soldiers.”

These losses are tragic, but they are tangible, even touchable when you have a memorial, a cemetery marker, or an urn. A physical death can be mourned through ritual and in community, and the grief of those who mourn runs deep as family and friends gather to shed tears and memorialize their lost loved one. But what about Michael and the multitude of wounded warriors who didn’t die but who carry their trauma and emotional scars deep within?

What about Michael’s best friend in Vietnam who appeared so “well adjusted” and successful in the decades following his service? Yet, some thirty years after coming home from that war, he committed suicide by dousing himself with gasoline, tying himself to the steering wheel of his car, and lighting a match after leaving a 14-page suicide note for his wife and sons. Page after heartbreaking page spoke only of his combat experience—an experience he never talked to her (or anyone) about. A casualty of war whose name will never be carved on the memorial we visited.

Or what about Kevin and Joyce Lucey, who sign their emails with their names, adding, the line: “The proud parents of Cpl. Jeffrey Michael Lucey, a 23-year-old USMC reservist forever. Succumbed to the hidden wounds of PTSD on 06/22/04.” When Jeff came back from Iraq, they watched their son fall apart and tried everything to help him. Like so many loved ones, they became as hyper-vigilant as trauma survivors. But even their fierce love could not quell the horrors of war.

I worry about our young veterans, like our friend with vacant eyes who served one tour of duty in Afghanistan and three in Iraq. He came home, like so many other young soldiers, with a heart filled with pain and a head filled with ghosts. Two of his buddies were killed in action in Iraq and five others committed suicide when they came home. He also came home with four purple hearts, a traumatic brain injury, and a raging case of PTSD.

When Michael and I facilitated a discussion about the grief and loss from war, we asked those in attendance, “What does war take from soldiers, veterans, and those who love them?” Their responses included things like: Innocence. Patriotism. Love. Relationships. Money. Jobs. Sanity. Security. Tranquility. Trust. Courage. Loyalty. Feelings. Self. Purpose. Laughter. Family. God. Country. Dreams. Future. Youth. Friends. Pride.

When trauma strikes a loved one, or when the effects of trauma build to a crescendo over time, family and friends are thrust into the role of caregiver—a role they probably aren’t prepared to assume. I remember telling a friend that I felt lost in the “bewilderness” when Michael was finally diagnosed with PTSD. It is normal—and sometimes necessary—to put our lives on hold and focus on a traumatized loved one. Yet it is important to acknowledge how dramatically their trauma has changed our lives, making it our trauma too. We may choose to give up our time and a piece of ourselves to tend to their psychological or physical wounds, but there is still loss in the midst of that choice.

It took many years (and many therapy sessions) to understand that I, as the caring spouse of a Vietnam veteran with PTSD, had a need—and a right—to also grieve what have lost. Being given permission to grieve was a gift that helped me cope with, then emerge from, the intermittent yet chronic depression I tried to ignore for such a long time. Grief is a messy process, and despite all the books and discussions about “stages,” it is usually a non-linear process in which feelings can wash over at unexpected times. Like when I read the MacLeish lines, or visit a memorial, or try to comfort my husband when he wakes shaking from a nightmare.

War changes us forever—all of us: veterans, spouses, children, healers, and citizens. I know the trauma and ghosts of war will always be with Michael—which means they will be with me too. Vietnam will always sleep between us. We will soon celebrate our 46thanniversary, and each year our marriage continues to grow sweeter, more solid, and more realistic because we know what we almost lost. As a wise friend told me, “trauma is always with us; we just learn to carry it differently.” Ernest Hemingway wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward, many are strong at the broken places.” I give thanks that we are two of the lucky ones.

On Memorial Day, we have a sacred responsibility to remember our soldiers and their sacrifices. But as we hold our “young dead soldiers” in heart and mind, let us not forget the other victims of war—those for whom the only escape was suicide, the loved ones like the Luceys who grieve in suicide’s wake; those with PTSD who forever carry the weight of war, and those loved ones who struggle to help lift that heavy burden. It is our duty to give all these lives and stories meaning.

*****

Cynthia Orange (www.cynthiaorange.net) is a writer, editor, and writing consultant. Her most recent award-winning books include Take Good Care: Finding Your Joy in Compassionate Caregiving and Shock Waves: A Practical Guide to Living With a Loved One’s PTSD. She has received awards for creative nonfiction, poetry, essays, and newspaper articles.

Orange co-facilitates a group for caregivers of a variety of ages and circumstances that was founded in 2010. She has written extensively about caregiving and post-traumatic stress disorder, and she and her husband Michael (a Vietnam combat veteran) often speak to audiences about the effects of trauma and war in their continuing involvement with veterans and veterans’ issues.

9 Responses

  1. Bruce Jones
    | Reply

    My wife of 51 years married me one month prior to going to Vietnam. I am a 100% disabled Marine Combat veteran who put my wife through a physical and mental meat grinder until my family began family counseling for my drug/alcohol and PTSD. We made it and everyday I thank my Higher Power for not losing her and my kids. I thank you for such an insightful and powerful article. Bruce “T-Bone” Jones 81’s FORO. B/1/26 Marines Khe Sanh ‘67-‘68

    • Cynthia Orange
      | Reply

      Thank you, Bruce, for sharing your story in response to my guest blog. And thank your wife and family too for supporting you as you battled the all-too familiar demons of war. My heart aches for what you all went through yet celebrates the fact you all made it together. Much peace and love to all of you. Cynthia

    • Betty Rodgers
      | Reply

      Thank you, Bruce, for telling your inspiring story and for the positive feedback on Cynthia’s article.

  2. Tex Sample
    | Reply

    Again, we have a sensitive and powerfully moving comment by Cynthia Orange, something I have come to expect and so very much appreciate from her. As a Christian pacifist, I find myself increasingly identifying as anti-war and pro-soldier. I so resent the jingoism of many of our politicians who send our young men and women into wars that not only are not necessary but are part of a foreign policy that is inept and based on building an American empire. Why should our young people be sent to their deaths or become life time victims of PTSD because of power hungry nation states and politicians? Reading the history of the Viet Nam War and the role of the U.S. in destabilizing the Middle East and hearing now the bravado of Trump regarding possible war with Iran are horrendous testimony to the lengths this nation’s politicians and its arms makers are prepared to go. We need a citizenry dedicated to our young soldiers and committed to their well being, not politicians who seem so ready to sacrifice them on some altar of national aggrandizement and political arrogance.

  3. Kevin lucey
    | Reply

    War completely changed our lives. We did not go to war but when our son Jeff did – our lives were immediately changed. He suffered hidden wounds of war which were fatal. We were his “collateral damage”. We have been damaged for the past fifteen years yet we have survived but changed. We will remain damaged yet no one notices – how could they? Yet has the system changed – the real answer is no. The suicides continue and more join our ranks which should have never been. Cynthia is correct and when will it ever end.

    • Betty Rodgers
      | Reply

      Thank you for your remarks, Kevin, and we send our sincere condolences on the loss of your son. We know it is a loss that can never heal.

  4. Christina Baldwin
    | Reply

    Thank you for this, Cynthia! I am thinking a lot this weekend about my father who was a conscientious objector in WW2 and what it cost him all his life to carry that status, and some of the generational similarities he carried with veterans–for many years a lost sense of how to get started into his adult career life, decades of rage, two marriages that were hugely flawed… and then finally emergence in his 80’s (and widowed from his second wife, into a rage-free serenity and another decade to restore his family relationships. Blessed time, after storms.

    Highly recommending: Soldier from the War Returning, the greatest generation’s troubled homecoming from World War II, by Thomas Childers.

    It’s a lot more than poppies, keep the fullness and complexity of the stories alive! Love, support and blessings to you and Michael.

    • Betty Rodgers
      | Reply

      Thank you, Christina, for your comments. And yes, thank goodness for the restorative years you had with your father.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.