I remember the first 4th of July that my husband and I spent apart that I actually went out without him. We had been apart before this year for this holiday, but I stayed at our apartment in Germany. In 2007 he was in Mosul, Iraq stationed at FOB Marez, and I decided to take our daughters and newborn to Georgia for a few weeks. This year the meaning of July 4th hit me a lot harder and as soon as "God Bless the USA" started to play as the fireworks in downtown Atlanta began, so did the flow of my tears. There was nothing I could do to hold them back. Maybe that's when the reality struck that my husband was deployed and millions of Americans were celebrating a holiday they could not even explain the meaning to. All they cared about was having a day off work, grilling out and drinking. There I was, surrounded by my family, at the top of a parking deck where they go every year, watching my kids having a blast, and missing a huge part of myself....my husband. There I was surrounded by so many wonderful people, yet I felt more alone than I could remember. As soon as I felt the tears coming I tried to hide my face, yet my Aunt saw me and immediately came over to me. At that moment, it was like the flood gates opened and I lost all control. There I was, surrounded by amazing people and all I wanted was Kevin at my side. The feelings and emotions of loneliness had crept over me. As much as I needed him with me, our country needed him more.
As I stood there, listening to "God Bless the USA", with my Aunt hugging me as I cried, all the emotions that I had held back for a few months came rushing to me and there was no possible way to stop any of it. I had kept it all inside for months, while telling myself that everything would be fine and he would come home just as he had left. At the end of the deployment I was blessed because they came home at the fourteen month mark and not fifteen. They came home a month early and were able to spend the holidays with families and not in Iraq. I thought I was the luckiest person in the world. I mean, my husband was home....what could possibly go wrong?
The one thing I was not prepared for was PTSD, TBI, or the lack of knowledge of his injuries, things he had witnessed, the nightmares, distance between us, and so much more that was in store for me. I was naive in it all and thought that my husband was home so all would be okay. Within time, I became lost in my own marriage because shortly after he redeployed home I came to learn that this man that came home from work everyday and this man that I shared a bed with every night and planned to share my life with was a man that I knew nothing about anymore. Where had my husband and the love of my life gone? Then I became angry because no one ever warned me about what I was in store for. No one told me there was a chance he would struggle because of PTSD, TBI, or other combat injuries. No one prepared me for anything other than either he would come home or I would be greeted at my door by the most dreaded knock and speech for a military wife....
By the time July 4th of 2008 rolled around I had come to learn that my husband was struggling with something, yet I didn't quite know what it was at that point.Our daughters stayed in Atlanta for the summer and hopped back and forth between the grandparents, so it was me, Kevin, and our one year old son at home. We decided to take the opportunity and work around the house. Every other July 4th that we spent together, we celebrated it. When we were in Georgia, we went downtown and watched the fireworks in Atlanta. In Germany, we celebrated on post. In El Paso in 2006, we watched the fireworks with friends at Cohen Stadium after cooking out. In 2008, he refused to go out and we pulled the carpet out and layed tile throughout our entire house...just the two of us. He acted real odd that night and I was so lost with no idea how to handle it. He would yell at me over everything and became real defensive for no reason. When the fireworks started by people in our neighborhood he would snap over every little thing and life became pure hell. I was yelled at for not moving fast enough or for adding too much or not enough grout. Hell, I had no idea what I was doing since I had never once messed with tile or grout. As they got louder and more frequent, I was yelled at more. I was not sure what was going on, but I remember reaching my breaking point, throwing down whatever was in my hand and walking outside to our swing. That is where I ended up hiding out and breaking down into tears. What had happened to my husband?
The following 4th of July he was in Iraq again, so I celebrated with the kids and our neighbors. We shot off fireworks and even though it was fun, I felt lonely and became depressed while missing my husband. This past 4th of July, I was better prepared for the changes and I was also more aware of what was going on and that he had been officially diagnosed with PTSD and TBI. Yet, he still wanted to see the kids happy and let them enjoy the fireworks at the country club. What better way to do it than with friends who lived in the country club community at their house. Of course we celebrated it with cooking out, beer, and some really great sangria for me. He kept a smile on his face and even attempted to go outside with us. As soon as the first one went off, I saw Kevin get real uneasy and flinch, then immediately tell me he was going inside. When I walked into the house as the show was ending, I found him inside talking with a Vietnam Vet. Someone who understood his reason of not being able to be outside, yet didn't have to ask him questions to understand. He just knew. At that instant, I found myself extremely thankful for this man being there and not asking him questions, but just talking small talk with my husband. I am not sure if he will ever know what a life saver he was to Kevin or that he brought tears to my eyes. I wasn't able to be there as I wanted because I had to stay outside with our girls, but someone that understood him was able to jump in. I will forever be grateful for this. There are no words to express my gratitude for this man's presence. As we drove home, Kevin became very anxious because there were still firecrackers being set off at all angles and it was like we could not get home quick enough.
This year we are spending the 4th of July in the comfort of our own home, and I am okay with that. I have the best understanding than I have ever had of PTSD and what it entails. Our daughters understand that their dad isn't the same man that he use to be and that war changed him. While none of us can understand firsthand what he has witnessed, done and been through, we can understand that a part of him was left in Iraq and will never return. We have all accepted that. Sure, we would love to go to a friends house and cookout with fireworks that night, but we know that is something that will not happen. It's something that we now give up without questioning because of his PTSD. We would much rather have him with us than sit and watch the fireworks. So, while your spouse is not able to handle and tolerate fireworks this year, don't get angry and go out without them because you want to be apart of the celebration. Instead, rent a movie and sit with him. Play a game. Stay at home, even if he has to resort to his "safe zone" because he can't handle the situation. Even if they don't admit to it, just having their spouse there is what gets them through. I have been told many times that me being with him (even when he doesn't show it) gets him through and that he wouldn't be able to do it without me is one of the things that makes me have no interest in being around the celebrations and fireworks.
In the end, what I am saying is, don't be upset, angry or ever hold it against your combat vet when he says that he can't handle this holiday or you see him seeking solitude. In all reality, he is telling you the truth. The fireworks colors may remind him of an RPG as it shoots across the dark skies, the sounds may remind him of mortar attacks, RPG's, fire fights.... don't knock it down when he flinches or tries to take cover. This holiday already holds a special place in the hearts of veteran's and their families, but this holiday is also one that combat vets come to hate because it triggers PTSD episodes that can last for the night or it can last for days or even put them into one of their ruts that lasts for a week or more. Don't come down on them for this. It is honestly out of their control. When you see a vet almost hit the ground or if they do hit the ground looking for cover, don't find humor in the situation, instead, show them you care and are there for them. Their reactions are honestly out of their control. This night is one that makes the vet feel back in combat from the noises, scenery, and even the smell. When they struggle with PTSD there are times these episodes make them think they are back in combat...in a war zone. They are not always capable of differentiating the two. Hold your Veteran close to you this weekend and be thankful you still have him or her by your side. I know I am, today, tomorrow and everyday that I have ahead of me.
While they have made many sacrifices that 99% of the population will never witness firsthand, as military families we should be able to sacrifice this one night and remain by our vets side, helping them make it through the night. I ask this of you, please help them through this night coming up and please help other civilians throughout our country understand the meaning of this holiday as well as the reason our military service members may not celebrate it in the way that the majority of our country will. My thoughts and prayers will be with each of our families as we take on Independence Day for 2011.
Happy 4th of July... May we each remember the reason we have our freedom.... Thank your spouse, mother, father, son, daughter, Aunt, Uncle, or whoever else in in your life that has given you the rights to freedom as an American.