As holidays approach, I am uniquely grateful for the loved ones in my life. I am also ever-
mindful that there have been moments when I didn’t have enough social support, and I won’t forget how hard those times were.
And so I ask myself this time of year, have I reached out to anyone who may need a
friend? Am I focusing outward?
My community is a military one, and we all know that we’ve lost too many this year. Not all
veterans lose their social support systems upon returning home, though many of us do. It can be tough to stay close to people when we aren’t sure that we speak the same language any longer. Some veterans are blessed with the ability to keep communication lines open, even in hard times and with loved ones able to weather the storm alongside. These are the cases that highlight even more powerfully the importance of connection, and I will always be grateful that this was my brother’s experience.
I was already deployed to Iraq when my brother e-mailed me to share that he was probably
going to propose to his girlfriend before he headed over. She was a civilian schoolteacher from
Philadelphia that I had yet to meet, and I just rolled my eyes when he shared his romantic plans with me. I was surrounded by guys losing their girlfriends to the grind of deployment, and I expected that his schoolteacher would be mailing him the same “Dear John” letter after a few months. I told him I didn’t have a problem with the proposal but admonished him to buy her a ring made out of cubic zirconia. No sense in buying a diamond he might never get back.
As younger brothers often do, he ignored my advice and bought her a beautiful ring.
Well, that is some cash he will never see again! Should have listened to me!
When a wounded service member is medically evacuated, he or she often has a long period
in a hospital ward and in lots of different outpatient treatment facilities ahead. There are no
guarantees and it is painful for both the patient and those standing alongside. I watched the prospect of a long, uncertain recovery level some people. In others, I watched uncertainty and trauma bring out their diamond-hard character.
When my brother arrived at Bethesda, we didn’t know what he might be facing. There was
so much damage. On his third surgery, the physicians in the operating room took a vote about
whether or not to amputate his leg at the hip; he had infection setting in and they were worried it could get worse. Two voted to amputate, and three voted to give him a couple of days.
Ward 5 was a dark place some days. We were surrounded by morphine drips, pain, injury,
and struggling families who weren’t sure what to make of it all.
Into this world walked my brother’s civilian schoolteacher.
She won’t be able to handle this.
Throughout this period I watched his young fiancé with a cynical eye. I stereotyped her on
sight—she was a pretty girl who often wore makeup and always had on matching accessories. I
assumed she lacked gravitas and would fall apart any minute.
She never did.
When her leave ran out at work she went back to teaching all day long in nearby Virginia,
but made the drive every night to sleep in a chair at my brother’s bedside. I would find her sitting by his side laughing about some silly thing or another, always keeping him smiling. She never complained and never gave up, never confessed fears about marrying a man with so many new health issues.
While I fumbled gracelessly in his hospital room, once even dropping a portable DVD
player on his gaping wounds, she was all kindness and poise. She kept him looking toward their
future on a daily basis. Even when he left the hospital and had to spend long days in a reclining
chair. Even when he needed help with any and all of the most basic tasks.
* * *
The makeup had fooled me; she was more than serious. Only in her twenties, she helped
him make it to the bathroom, shower, move, and get through hard physical therapy appointments without complaint. I don’t think I ever saw her with messy hair either.
There were guys on the ward whose wives filed for divorce when they saw what they were
going to have to struggle through together. I don’t think the thought ever crossed her mind.
She helped him through medical retirement, a search for a new career and a civilian identity,
and they became parents with that joyous excitement reserved for newbies who don’t yet know how much sleep they will soon go without.
She married a Marine with three sisters, all of whom would gladly hide a body for her
today—no questions asked. She has a good memory though. Every now and again, I hear about that cubic zirconia comment.
This Christmas will be no exception.
You can help reach out to veterans this holiday season by contacting Volunteer Services at the Charleston VA Medical Center: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you live outside of Charleston, you can reach out via www.va.gov
Image: USMC Archives
Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas is an assistant professor of Health Promotion at Charleston
Southern University. Kate is a former Marine, a yoga teacher, and mom to both a fearless
baby and the Great Dane who dotes on him. Kate can be reached via her website,
www.katehendricksthomas.com or via @precisionwell.
Order Kate’s new book, Brave Strong True: The Modern Warrior’s Battle for Balance, here
or at your favorite book retailer.
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