I had a neighbor for several years. We became good friends because he felt that I, as a single parent, in a less than perfect neighborhood, was a vulnerable and an often sitting target.
As we got to know each other, I noticed the limp in his walk, endless hours on the phone he would spend, pacing back and forth. And I would hear is seemingly agonizing nightmares he would live through at night, even when all windows and doors were tightly fastened. He was a mystery to me.
Until one day, needing to borrow a tool that he had, I walked in on him crying, and looking through a box of memorabilia. It was then that he told me his story. He showed me his double Purple Heart medals from Vietnam. He showed me pictures of the day he enlisted. He showed me newspaper articles celebrating his heroism.
I assumed his limp was from the heroic injuries he sustained, and applauded him for his service. I assumed the phone calls were to a long lost lover or child. I assumed his nightmares were due to his poor health habits.
But it was then that his face grew dark, and the demons flitted across his countenance like the nightmares I heard him relive at night. His body froze in a twisted position of terror. He then started convulsively sobbing, reliving his victimization, as a first year enlistee, of being raped and sodomized by his commanding officer, leading to destruction in his body that would never heal properly. His hours on the phone were with the VA. For years he had drank his agony away, and only then had the VA doctors and counselors finally begun to address my neighbors experiences. His nightmares harkened him back to that night when not only were his innocence and idealism ripped from him, but every semblance of trust in authority, trust in himself, and trust in his ability to ever be lovable or love again. I sat and just absorbed who he was, what he was saying, what he was saying when he didn’t speak at all, and I walked away from his house that day, forever changed.
I then became his defacto advocate, driving him to the VA, talking to necessary parties on the phone for hours, all while seeing this gentle hulk of a man who often shadowed into a fetal position, a shell of who he once was, slowly start to stand straight, a semblance of a smile flitting across his face, a strain of laughter filling the air.
As the years of opioid addiction racked his body a second time, due to the constant pain he experienced, the VA decided to use medical cannibis to treat him; so I was asked to be his medical marijuana caregiver. I took him to his doctors appointments as he was on full disability and couldn’t drive. He started bbqing and would often feed us, and we gardened in our shared plot together, what was once very clearly a delineated line between my thriving garden, and his weeds, became a single lush space.
Once he shared his story with me, and I believed in him, this whole other side of his personality emerged. It was like I was seeing him whole, unbroken, like the young boy he once had been. He would keep the neighborhood nasties away, and I would make sure he took all of his meds, ate on a regular basis, and would sit silently with him and just “be” when he needed to talk.
Then one night, after a couple of harrowing weeks of conflict with a friend of his, who had betrayed him in a business deal, I woke up to lights and sirens and commotion outside. Sheer mayhem. Found out the next day that my neighbor had 51-50’d himself, the grief of losing that friendship being the straw that broke this camels back.
So remember, we don’t celebrate today simply for those who never came home, for those for whom we know why the flag is lowered to half-mast. But we remember those who DID come home, but will never be the same. And we need to remember those whose lives are a daily struggle, often lived at a half-mast capacity, because they did the most heroic thing of all; they lived to tell their story, and owning it has almost destroyed them.
Glenn, I don’t know how you’re doing, or where you are anymore; but if I could see you, I would tell you thank you for your sacrifice, thank you for protecting my kids and I when we couldn’t protect ourselves, thank you for allowing me to bear witness to your story, to hold space with you, to help carry your grief, and know that your brokenness and survivor stance kept me from going off the deep edge in addressing and owning my and my children’s own story of trauma and violation. Your struggle was not in vain, and even while you struggled to maintain a sane and living relationship with reality, you played a pivotal role in me staying rooted and grounded in mine. I will never forget you.
#ptsd #veteran #woundedwarrior #sexualassault #memorialday #owningyourstory