How do we get our governments to see their responsibility for family counselling in rehabilitating vets?

Before I begin discussions on how to make homecoming vets feel appreciated, understood and loved, I’ve been scanning other blogs and media articles to see what help is available in cyberspace. A lot more than you might think. Many good people, many vets themselves, are setting up groups, which interlink with other dedicated groups, to find answers that will help our vets re-integrate into society.

The material forming my background for this blog is coming from personal comments made at other blogs, on Facebook or to media articles.

When I first created this spin-off from Heart Tugs, which tracks Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, I began by talking about what it is like for single soldiers coming home to their parents and families. What are the soldiers’ expectations? What are their familes? And then what about married couples? How do their reunions work after one of them has been deployed for months at a time?

There is no clearcut approach. Everyone is different. Some single troopers say that when they get home, they want everything to be the same as it was when they left — that’s what they’ve been remembering and holding onto in their minds’ eyes.

Mmmm… life doesn’t stand still, so maybe that expectation is too difficult to meet. Troopers’ disappointment in the status quo can begin the sense of estrangement some soldiers and families develop toward one another.

What about married couples? What is it like for them when their spouses’ deployments are over? For them, say many, the reunion is like a second honeymoon, and one military wife noted how much she appreciated her husband’s parents, his siblings and her own parents for not showing up to greet him off the plane. As a couple, it gave them needed time to rediscover each other and to adjust before they included everyone else in a welcome-home celebration.

I applaud this couple’s parents and in-laws. I think they are remarkable because I can’t picture most parents, mothers especially, giving up their place in the reception line to welcome sons and daughters back home from war.

If there are problems at home, the returning vet doesn’t need to hear them immediately after the first embrace. “Great to have you home again, Jack. Now you can …” and the spouse rhymes off the to-do list. Yes, it happens, more often that you think. Especially among young married couples who haven’t yet matured. If love and caring seem missing in this scenario, it’s because the “id” is separated from the “ego” for the one waiting at home.

What does this mean? The ability to empathize is missing. With maturity comes compassion and empathy, but for immature lovers or couples, these qualities have not yet developed. Some young people fall in love with being in love without understanding or being prepared for the responsibilities of their relationship. The ones left home only know the devastating loneliness and fear they experience. With the return of their spouse, they are reacting to their expectation of normalcy and being cared for again, not with the understanding of what happened to their spouses “in country” or how that experience might have changed them. In fact, what comes with this juvenile “me-first” selfishness is an attitude of punishment against the soldier for abandoning the partner while on deployment.

In 1994, I was saddened to learn that many Canadian peacekeepers returning from missions in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Cambodia and Rwanda were handed divorce papers the minute they stepped off the plane in CFB Trenton. The apathy of their loves ones crushed these returning soldiers’ souls. No one seemed to care that they witnessed horrendous brutality and mass slaughter and counted themselves lucky to return home alive. Their marriages and families were sacrificed in military silence and denial.

Wiley Wright, a Vietnam vet, suggests in comments he made to an article about the increase of U.S. military suicides in today’s deployments: “All of these soldiers are volunteers. Every one of them. If we are going to keep participating in foreign conflicts with a volunteer force on a fast rotation basis, we need to discourage soldiers from marrying, especially during their first enlistment. And, we need a corps of truly hard men who are willing to endure extended conflict in tough situations. Pay them well, and turn them loose without restrictive rules of engagement, beltway oversight and wimpy commanders. Vietnam lasted so long in large part because of one-year tours with six-month commands. The forces were in a constant state of flux and confusion until the modus operandi became “cover your butt and minimize casualies.”

From the point of view of the wife of an American Afghanistan vet, Clara Calderon shares what happened to her husband: “My husband was active duty until last year and stationed at Ft. Campbell. The amount of stress that these soldiers endure is unbelievable. I believe that it effects each and every soldier at all levels and all ranks — whether they are seasoned NCOs or privates still wet behind the ears. EVERY LAST man and woman who chooses to bravely defend our country is overstressed, overworked, underappreciated, underpaid, and not thanked enough. It’s pathetic how underappreciated they are.”

Calderon goes on to explain what has happened to them as a couple. “I believe families definitely need to be supportive and not add stress to their military spouses. However, I witnessed my husband’s agony and am grateful he is no longer on active duty. Even if you have a well-balanced home life, WAR IS NOT MEANT FOR FAMILIES. It was the source of our near divorce. Even after his deployment, he was working like a horse. He got up at 3:00 a.m. and would not return until 8:00 p.m. on a regular basis. If we arrived [home] at 6 p.m., we considered it early. [His outfit] was training for the next deployment in Afghanistan as soon as it returned. He was a Sgt. 1st class promotable with 16 years active duty and he LEFT without a job lined up! This is unheard of. Why????? He was tired, exhausted, depleted, and just frustrated on so many levels. The Army tried everything to get him to stay. The pension simply wasn’t enough. He was done. It was hard. Now, he is much better. We are on the mend. He feels better that he made this decision.”

Calderon’s husband becomes a statistic, but at least he doesn’t end up under the column for military suicide. In his frustration, he took a positive step to change the things dragging him down, thereby saving his marriage as well. From Calderon’s comments, their genuine and mature love for each other stands out. Other couples don’t have sound marriages to help them survive. 

Calderon warns: “The Army teaches you all this stuff AT FIRST and then after you’re in a couple of years, they just treat you like a number. Divorce is higher among military marriages, alcoholism is higher, and the list goes on. The Army scares you into staying and punishes you for leaving. I don’t understand it. I am still trying to get used to it.”

In Rwanda, I saw this 180-degree turn in the Canadian military’s attitude. A young pilot had flown many dangerous missions delivering cargo under sniper and small-arms fire. On one drop of supplies to UN troops under siege, a stray bullet passed through the only window at the rear of his Hercules to hit his logistics technician in the head. The shot killed him. The pilot told me he feared his number was up and he didn’t want to take the life of his crew with him. Rather than risk it, he had decided to leave the airforce. That night he handed in his resignation papers. On the day I flew with him, his commander had praised him for being the best pilot in his fleet. The next day, after receiving this young pilot’s resignation, the same commander treated him like the worst vermin that ever lived. 

So Calderon’s point is well-taken. For constructive change to happen, it must first start within the military’s stiff upperlip ranks. It’s a close-minded, outdated attitude of management that demeans both the Canadian and U.S. military.

In conclusion, 1) If the military expects to create heroes and heroines, then the upper ranks have to treat their officers and non-coms with the respect and understanding they deserve to receive for doing outstanding jobs under the worst of conditions; 2) The military and home government that our troops serve have a responsiblility to provide the best counselling and training services possible to help our fighting forces and their families bind together in support of each other under the most trying circumstances.

A commitment of political leaders to these two things would go a long way to reduce traumatic stress and the military’s climbing suicide rate in Canada and the United States. It’s something substantial taxpayers would be willing to support, especially if the military broke their vow of silence and opened witness to “in service” programs that heal the lives of our vets and families.


About Bonnie Toews and John Christiansen

Bonnie's Blog Posts invite our readers and free spirits everywhere to share life's adventures with us. I talk about writing my novels, reading books, chatting with other writers and John's and my journeys around the world. We welcome your anecdotes to our experiences and discussions.
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