How we became a prison family.
My Vet met me in the driveway to walk me over and make introductions. I could see the members of his group gathered around the patio where their host was busy barbecuing. Some were standing, others, those with the bad hips and knees, sat at the patio tables. They were all talking quietly, more often than not raising their voices for those of the group who had hearing aids. I knew a few of them, but I was meeting the majority of them for the first time. As I shook their hands and was introduced to their wives, each one of them teased or joked about me being married to “the Gunny”. Even the wives recognized my Vet when I mentioned his name. “The Gunny” was one of the “movers and shakers” of this particular band of brothers and one sister.
As I made my way around the patio, I realized that these veterans of a particular age, knew my husband far more profoundly and intimately than I. One man in particular I was there to meet. He was the guest of honor. He was the reason these veterans ventured out of their routine and comfort zone to gather on their usual group meeting day, outside the familiar confines of the clinic room where they met every week for the last twelve years. They were gathered on that patio to do the unexpected, say farewell to their veteran counselor.
I didn’t know their stories. The veterans don’t talk outside the group about each other. But he knew not only each of their stories, but their fears and dreams, their pride and their sorrows. He was not just their counselor, he was their friend, their consigliere, one of them who slowly helped each of them learn not just to help themselves, but to help one another.
Over these years I had seen the transition in my Vet. I watched him hurt when it was easier for him to be “blank”. I watched him grieve for his mother who had been dead for forty-six years because it had never been “safe” to open the lid to that jar of pain. I sat silently as tears streamed down both our faces as he let himself feel pain for the families of those he had taken. I stood by one solitary dismal night as he raged against the memory of his 19 year-old self, who killed with purpose and efficiency and finally could weep tears of forgiveness for that same country farm boy. I lay next to him as he prayed in the early morning hours for wisdom and understanding of the incomprehensible. I listened with trepidation as he spoke without filter to a young veteran close to our family, helping this young man off the edge and choose life over certain death as he wrestled with his decision to seek medical help but was stigmatized by his command because of it.
As these veterans gathered to say goodbye to a man who was so much more than their group counselor, our host remarked that without him and the group members he wouldn’t have “all this” spreading his arms out to encompass the pasture with the horse and donkey, the patio and home, the garage open to the expanse outside, and most important, the wife who stood by him. We all nodded our heads in understanding. “… But for the grace of God, go I…”
After I said my goodbyes and made ready to travel back to my office, I took a couple of pictures of the driveway past the pasture and clearing where the house was located. The trees grew such that they created a canopy over the road and for a moment I remembered my Vet’s description of the jungles of Vietnam. The lush green density that barely allowed sunlight to filter through, and I realized this band of brothers and one sister had come a long, long way with the help of their families, each other and their counselor. This had not just been “farewell”, this had been “thank-you”.
“PTSD is a thief. It steals your job, it steals your sleep, it steals your family, it still is your identity, it’s steals your life”.
This is what my Vet told a young Marine who suffered a breakdown and hospitalization. This is the fight. Fighting the “thief”. I have observed my husband struggle with this thief for 17 years. I didn’t know what PTSD was. I didn’t know what depression was. I’d heard about them and even read a little about them. What I know now is that love and understanding are key in living with this fight, but counseling, a support group of veterans, as well as family, and your vet’s will to live his best life is what gets him back.
My vet could not have navigated to this point without at some point deciding whether he wanted to stay where life was comfortable in a “bunker” …or in the world with the rest of us.
Mr. Tibbs is an eight month old tuxedo cat we adopted a month ago. Transition is a mild word for what we are going through, but I am probably exaggerating. We were used to unassuming “Sister”, our sweet, demur, but singularly unsocial, 11-year old resident cat. Mr. Tibbs is anything but unassuming. First of all, he weighs 14lbs. He just turned eight months. We think he has rabbit in him, in fact I am sure of it…clumsy rabbit, that is. Only one broken dish so far, but plenty of leveled pictures, books and memorabilia. I have cleared the tops of surfaces in hopes to preserve my collectables, and may adopt a more minimalist décor for a while.
His agile, destructive gymnastics reminds us how far removed we are from having a young cat. He’s grown on us, with his plaintive meow, (much like a toddler who wants attention) and his new behavior of covering his food before he walks away from it, something we were not familiar with, but is part of, I read, their instinctual innate behavior. Translation: more mess.
Speaking of mess. There was a few days in the first two weeks, I thought we would exercise our option and return him to the pet store. The wet bathroom rug is what almost did us (my Marine) in. Cat box crisis. We had never gone through it before now. We managed overcome the “outside the box” issue with an new, improved oversize cat box that I have aptly named the “USS Mess”. Whew!
Sister, tolerates him to a point. His early morning feedings we are still working on. I cleared off the left side of my desk because he knocked the phone and TV box off my desk onto the window sill, so he could better see “out there”. However, he has recently moved to the right side of my desk to nap.
Week five and we are settling into a peaceful co-existence…much like Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess and Isobel Crawley.
I have been on the fringes of my husband’s passion for judo for years. When we met and married, he had been long retired due to a C-4 injury and was coaching at UC Irvine when his disability rating made it no longer possible for him to coach. After moving to North Carolina, he tried a couple of things. He volunteered at the local universities for a class or two and at the Children Home of North Carolina in Oxford to help the children there. He volunteered at a dojo in Durham before his former coach, Sensei Mayfield reached out and asked him to travel with him to tournaments and camps as an assistant and “coaching liaison”. More recently, he and two friends organized the El Toro Judo Club. El Toro was my husband’s original dojo. The Marine base in California has long since closed and the club in California retired with his original sensei’s passing. Given the opportunity, he wanted to honor his first dojo and first sensei. El Toro Judo Club holds classes at Bushido Karate Shotokan in Raleigh, offering two sports to the interested martial arts community. More importantly, it gave him an outlet to pass his judo along to others, to stay involved and contribute in his way, not just to the students in his classes, but to the community. The club has a fundraiser, El Toro Fall Bash, a golf tournament that I have been involved in organizing for the last three years. Which means, now I no longer live on the “fringes of Judo”.
I remember exactly how it happened, my no longer existing on the fringes. It was Sensei Mayfield’s tournament in Jacksonville, three or four years ago. I had dropped my husband off at the tournament, as was our routine, and went on my way to Starbucks, Barnes and Noble, the base PX, and back to the tournament. I was given a chair on the floor level near one of the mats where the adults were competing. There was one competitor who looked like he might be active duty personnel, who forcefully and smoothly, took his opponent down and next thing I know match was over. I had just witnessed my first choke hold, and I was done. I was a judo fan. I know it should have been more complicated than that, but it was not. It was the not an earth shattering experience, it was not a demonstration of pristine technique, it was just pure strength of one man against another.
So, imagine me, this last weekend, when some kid I don’t even know, was taken down to the floor by his opponent and the match is stopped while the first aid representative looks him over. The match resumes, the kid is taken down again and the referee stops them in their action and raises his voice and asks the kid “how old are you?” Kid yells “Thirteen”. Referee responds telling them to carry on. Kid gets choked, “taps out” and match is over. Kid gets up holding his neck, bows out after the referee signals that his opponent won, and walks to the sidelines where his dad is.
He was visibly shaken, trying to catch his breath. I looked away, because as a mom, seeing kids in distress, no matter if your own son is 36 years old, you are taken back to when he was 13 and trying not to cry after losing a baseball tournament, or your brother when he lost a Pop Warner football game and the kids from the opposing team are in the car in front of you, watching your brother breaking down in the seat next to you. Seeing this judo kid keep his composure until he got off the mat and then start to break down, took me back to those moments in time and I coward that I am, looked away.
Later in the afternoon, he competed again and after what was a long, drawn-out, tough match won. And he knew it. He knew he had won. He jumped up and screamed, fists clenched, at no one and at everyone.
Afterward, when I talked to my husband about him, he told me what had happened when he lost the first match, when I had looked away. He had gone up to the kid and his father, who was trying to calm him, help him catch his breath and regain his composure. “Excuse me, sir” my husband said to the dad, “may I try something”. The dad said “ok” and my husband told the kid, “stop breathing and count, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, now breathe. Again, stop and hold your breath. Count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. ” The kid did it a third time, looked at my husband then looked at his dad and said “Ok, I’m good. I’m ready to fight, now.”
Fall is arriving at Evansridge.