“The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave.”—Patrick Henry
For the past five years on November 11, I have laid ruby roses on my husband, Francis’ gravesite at Indiantown Gap National Memorial Cemetery—Site C-536. It is placed on a high hill where the wind sweeps through incessantly. I am always able to recognize “his” spot from the countless surrounding graves because a bright, orange gourd bird house swings from a tall red maple tree about five yards away. I do so on his birthday, Christmas Day, Easter, July 4th, and Veteran’s Day. The scarlet flowers might only last a few hours in such a wild setting, under the full heat and brusque chill of the hill that is so wide open to the sky and clouds. But it is my commemoration and blessed duty as a veteran’s wife, not to mention that he remains the lost love that lingers in my heart. I carefully angle each blossom from a north, south, east, and west view point: maybe because of my perfectionist nature or that I want other grievers to witness the length of time and devotion of my love I still hold for my lost husband. At these times, I make certain to pull out the grass that overcomes the gravesite. I want everyone to know this is where my husband lies. And that he is more than remembered; he is cherished.
Around the granite rectangular earth-embedded stone is inscribed Francis Joseph Toth, his birth, and date of death. At the bottom of the stone, I requested a ritual message on the stone for the sun, moon, stars, and the entire world to see: “Love Lifts Us Together.” The inscriber erred by one letter, that being “s.” I had requested instead, “Love Lift (no “s”) Us Together after a song by Joe Cocker that we both adored. Originally disturbed and sensitive to the mistake, I eventually learned to accept human frailty and ignore the word-change. I knew Francis wouldn’t mind; he was just that kind of person—compassionate, forgiving, and braver than anyone I knew in my life.
Also marked on the 12 inch by 6 inch plaque is: “Vietnam Era.” Francis, thank God, hadn’t been sent overseas, but he had so many medals of which I knew not the meaning, except for one—he was a noted sharp shooter. At the memorial service, I chose to display these, along with his home-tied trout flies and fishing cap with a pheasant feather that I still keep close by. His ashes are placed in a small copper urn. He was cremated, as we both agreed we would do. As his now surviving widow, I will have privilege for my own ashes to be joined with his someday. Although I am planning a momentous move from Pennsylvania to Vermont, I am meeting with my funeral director on Veteran’s Day to plan for my own burial. I had wondered what would happen to me and my remains if I died in Vermont, and how the crematory would possibly know where my ashes belonged—with Francis. “Love Lift Us Together.”
As the world turns and burns around us now, one cannot help but be ominous about this semi-religious day set apart from all others in history to honor veterans. For these twenty-four hours particularly, we graciously and sadly show our love, respect, sadness, and even anger about war and the battles that cause streams of never-ending caskets. They arrive flown by air from foreign and detested soils, adorned with the brightness of stars and stripes all so meticulously folded with the glow of our proud red, white, and blue flags.
As we stand soulfully in deep mourning for each lost love of our lives—fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, wives and husbands, children, and best friends—an obscure but truly emotional community forms and combines in empathy with each other. Maybe for the first time in our existence, we actually bond. We hug, we kiss, we cry, we hold hands, we lay heads on shoulders of unknown persons. Our bonding is in our own way, but the fact remains, it is for the same reason: we have lost a beloved soul.
Yet while all this sorrowful grief-sharing is occurring, I visualize the veritable “band of brothers” of the soldiers who have lost, with enormous despair, a fellow comrade. These women and men not only fought next to each other, they drank, ate, slept, showered, and shivered with uncontrollable fright searching for Mid-Eastern IEDs, North Vietnamese jungle booby traps, World War II minefields, and poison gases in the trenches of the Great War. American soldiers have fought all races—Germans, Japanese, Italians, Russians, Northern Yankees, Johnny Rebels, Revolutionary War militia, and Red Coats. They did the same with French and Native Americans, Spanish, and Mexicans. And still are in what may be lied about as “inconspicuous” diversions.
My God, where does the Maginot Line end, I ask? Where are there no longer DMZs? Vergennes, Communists, Blitzkriegs, Agent Orange, and now drones? What about Putin and his new army of thugs? Do all these antitheses and dialectics prove that war is truly inevitable? Going on and on to the deepest of the depths of Dante’s Inferno?
New weapons, strategic tactics, espionage, operatives, and enemies becoming false friends may change. But battle and war never does. This is for certain. At the very top of the morbid chain of unfortunate infantries, Marines, naval personnel, Seals, and the dreaded Department of Defense is inevitably death, plain and simple.
And death is not still. It travels ignominiously to the “homes” of the fighters, wherever these may be.
And in these homes are individuals living under supposed safe roof tops and warm hearths who are falsely subscribing to “normalcy.” They are not all as gullible as the government may want to believe. Rather, they survive their daily lives in limbo, imaginary wishes, with hidden and frightening dreams of the worse kind. The closeness of death follows them too in disguise with ordinary, accepting, and vague addendums of pretense. “Yes, Mommy or Daddy will be home soon,” they say to their children from toddlers to teenagers. They reserve any kind of reassurance for themselves though. While they kneel at night with the kids, asking a Creator for sure deliverance, and that their loved ones will be spared and disqualified from this unspoken word, death–that thought remains unspoken by them.
But death, as it hangs from a tree, drowns in an unknown sea, sinks in a swamp, sweats in a desert, or crumbles under a mountaintop of rocks doesn’t only include the dying or buried, does it? Death is stealthy and sneaky, and clings to the living as well. Especially to our welcomed-home grateful and worn soldiers. Now, finally, though not nearly enough, and as a most truthful and accurate recognition, they are the forgotten ones. Some go so far as to say they are the “crazy” ones. Imagine that.
How can one in regular combat be unaffected by its threats and deadliness? Call it by any name at which time it occurred, the effects of daily warfare cannot be denied or buried in lies. Or especially ignored! I do not believe that human beings are wired to be killing machines. Personally, I have shared relationships with two Vietnam veterans where the intimacy was not with me, but with a former “brother.” One took to immense depression, hitting the ground at July 4th celebrations, and developed full body cancer from Agent Orange—and fought to the finish throughout it by his own strength and fortitude. He now lives quietly settled and content in the mountains of Colorado. The other volunteered as a mercenary (”freedom fighter”) in Africa addicted to violence and alcohol. It was a hard place for me, and for them, so we chose our separate ways. Though I am so very happy to report both have healed because of the love they found around them. I am gracious to discover both have survived the trauma and disabilitating effects of that ugly, unconscionable, unnecessary war of attrition. They no longer feel spit upon leaving the planes that brought them home. They no longer bear the stigma of “baby killers.”
Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not merely a familiar and fancy acronym to rely on when things get rough in a veteran’s life. It is egregious, threatening, and dangerous. We can actually date the feelings of suicidal reactions that go back as far as Egyptian combat veterans. One such Egyptian wrote 3,000 years ago that the feelings he experienced before going into battle as such: “You are determined to go forward…shuddering with seizure, the hair on your head stands on end, your sour lies in your hands. *
According to VETERAN, the Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, the Greek historian, Herodotus wrote about the Spartan commander, Leonidas, commander at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. “who dismissed his men because he [knew] they were psychologically spent from previous battles.”*
Herodotus also spoke of another Spartan soldier “who was so shaken by battle [that] he was named ‘the Trembler’ [and] he later hanged himself in shame.” During the Civil War, “military physicians diagnosed…”functional disorder” as the “reality of fear of battle and the stresses of military life.”*
The first military hospital was founded in 1863 for “insane” veterans but did not last very long. Even author Charles Dickens was diagnosed with PTSD. At this time, Sigmund Freud responded to these insane conditions caused by war as “war ego vs. peace ego”—basically naming it “war neurosis.” Later during the Great War, it was assumed that these disabilities were surely the result of the consistent, non-stop impact of bombs and other weaponry. It was presumed that a concussion “disrupted the physiology of the brain and named it ‘Shell Shock.’ ” * Historical documents read steadily with similar and sickly stories about combat repercussions.
According to statistics, out of the 2.8 million soldiers who served in the Vietnam War and underwent guerilla warfare, at least 480,000 have full-blown PTSD.*
Today, “it is estimated that “normal” veterans, both women and men, experience a “breaking point.” This results in fatigue and listlessness, depression, startle reactions, recurrent nightmares, phobias involving situations associated with trauma, inept behavior, unsteadiness in human relationships as a result of distrust, suspiciousness and anger outburst.” *
These are the stark realities of warfare: “psychic numbing.” For instance, “if I feel nothing, then death is not taking place.” It is harshly complicated and known to “shatter one’s human web where a soldier is on guard against promises of protection, vitality, and assistance.” No wonder, our veterans are reluctant to seek help; they are barricaded by all these aberrations. *
I read three times the book by psychiatrist Theodore Frankel, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankel was interned in four Nazi concentration camps during World War II. As a Jewish and human survivor, he finally wrote his book. In the astute and humble pages, he affirmed that “an abnormal response to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.” That is, “if some things [like that] don’t make you crazy, then you aren’t sane to begin with.” Sadly, it is still an idea whose time has not yet come.*
I am not a psychologist, a medical doctor, a psychiatrist, or veteran counselor, but I can easily see the writing on the wall. How many people care after November 11?
OUR VETERANS NEED OUR HELP NOW, NOT LATER, WHEN IT IS TOO LATE AND TOO MANY VETERANS DIE FROM SUICIDE OR SELF-MUTILATION. THE RESEARCH CONFIRMS ALL THAT I HAVE JUST SPOKEN ABOUT. THEY NEED PROTECTION AND UNDERSTANDING AND EMPATHY….AND FINANCIAL SUPPORT WITH HOSPITALS THAT UPHOLD THEIR NEEDS.
WE ARE NOT DOING THIS NOW. WHEN WILL WE BEGIN?
For all the horror stories, there are inspiring ones as well. You must not give up. I recommend reading Time magazine’s November 17 issue on “Life After War” for some very inspiring and commendable stories. The photographs are also remarkably resilient and hopeful. These are men and women like you who just “need a chance.” There are chances out there. My God, do not give up, but go searching anywhere online. Tomorrow or tonight, check out http://themilitarywallet.com/veterans-day–free-meals-and-discounts/ Coupons are available online and other information to assist you.
BUT DO SOMETHING AND DO NOT GIVE UP.
We really do love you, our dearest veterans. Please continue to tell us with loud and strong voices what you really need to survive. I, as one, am listening now. God bless you this 2014 Veteran’s Day!
You are so important to us, our country. We want you all back!!! We want you to be intact physically, emotionally, financially, and psychologically.
*VETERANS: A Short History of PTSD: From “Thermopylae to Hue.” Excerpts from Article Reprint, 2010.