Thursday, October 02, 2008

Suffering in Silence

Generally, the soldiers who are wounded or killed overseas-and their families-get the most attention from the media, and most of the sympathy from the American public. And deservedly so. But this NY Times article highlights the suffering of the families of members of the National Guard, as they struggle with long and repeated deployments that force them to put their lives on hold, deployments that see soldiers return home as shells of their former selves, see families torn by conflict between husbands and wives, and see children spend the first years of life without their mothers and fathers:

Combat takes a toll — even for men like Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Roldan, who returned outwardly healthy the first time, rejoined their families, resumed their jobs and are now back in Iraq.

Mr. Jefferson had several close calls during his first tour, and when he returned in 2005, his wife and children told him he wasn’t the same outgoing, fun-loving Dad and husband they remembered.

His first New Year’s Eve back, the family attended a midnight service at Victory Temple United Holy Church in Paterson, and as they walked out, someone celebrating set off a firecracker. Mr. Jefferson ran away, leaving behind his surprised family, including his son Thomas Jr., then 9. “He had this embarrassed look,” said Mrs. Jefferson. “He was embarrassed that little Tommy had seen.”

Mr. Jefferson has such a beautiful voice that when he finished singing to Cathy at his wedding, the whole church gave him a standing ovation. He’s done theater, served as a Prospect Park town councilman and has always been involved with his children. At young Thomas’s football games, Mr. Jefferson’s booming sideline voice was a regular feature.

That changed after his first tour. “He was standoffish — basically he isolated himself from the family,” Mrs. Jefferson said. “He’d be in the same room as the family but not interacting.”

Mr. Jefferson became aggressive, had bouts of road rage, did not sleep well, dreamed of things blowing up, could not concentrate for a course he was taking.

“I’m used to someone just talking to me constantly and then I had this shell of a person who came back,” Mrs. Jefferson said. “I kept asking him: ‘Can I help you with something? Do you want to talk?’ And he never wanted to discuss anything with me.”

Mr. Jefferson made visits to a Veterans Affairs therapist, switched to day hours, and slowly, the Jeffersons said, started getting back to himself.

And then came the second deployment.

“Just when we thought we were getting some kind of normalcy,” Mrs. Jefferson said.

A week before leaving, Mr. Jefferson said, “I still can’t say I’m 100 percent.”

Mr. Walls, the accountant, joined in 2005, in part, he said, because he was looking to add some excitement to his life, without disrupting his family too much. He knew mobilization was possible, but he and the recruiter, a friend, figured it was far off, because New Jersey soldiers had just returned from Iraq. “He told me the deployment was coming up, I think it was in 2010, 2011,” Mr. Walls said. “We figured we had a few years, Mr. Bush would be out of office, things would be different.”

When he got his deployment notice, his wife, Iris, was so angry, he said, she was speechless. “Ever try to sleep beside someone so angry that her anger keeps you up?” Mr. Walls said.

When she could finally talk, it wasn’t good. “I started crying and yelling, ‘What are you going to do?’ Mrs. Walls said. “I just sat on the couch — ‘This cannot be happening, this is crazy.’ ”

IN June, when Mr. Roldan left for two months of training in Texas, Brandon cried for days, but eventually grew accustomed to his father’s absence. Mrs. Roldan didn’t want to reawaken that sadness, so in August, when the soldiers got a final four-day pass before shipping to Iraq, she traveled to Texas alone. She bought a new dress, did her hair and nails, and, though she flew in flip-flops, was wearing high heels when she stepped off that plane. “John noticed,” she said.

They spent their time with two other military couples, staying out late at clubs, drinking and dancing, then meeting in the Holiday Inn lobby for breakfast at 9:30 each morning, as if they had no children or cares.

But like Cinderella, the soldiers held passes that expired at midnight, on Aug. 29.

“I would not let go,” Mrs. Roldan said. “He was telling me, ‘I have a minute more, I have a minute more,’ and I just didn’t care. I didn’t want to let him go.

“I hugged and I kissed him and just told him to be safe and to be back because I know my two kids need him and I need him to be a family again.”

By the time she got back to New Jersey, it was Saturday night and all she wanted was to sleep, but Brandon was so excited to see her, she had to let that go. “I played with him and talked to him and he had a lot of questions, and I answered every question he had.” Mother and son didn’t get to bed until 1 a.m.

Brandon keeps asking when his Daddy will be home, but he is too young to understand how long a year feels, so Mrs. Roldan explains by using the holidays. “Right now, he’s waiting for Halloween,” Mrs. Roldan said. “He knows Halloween is pretty soon. And then there’s Thanksgiving and Christmas and his birthday. He didn’t know about what Valentine’s is, but then there’s Easter and Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and finally, his Daddy will be there.”

The absence of these men and women from the lives of their families imposes a toll that can't be measured in dollars, a cost that will be paid in mental and emotional problems for the deployed soldier, the spouse left behind, and the children who grow up not knowing their mother or father. To respond that they knew what they were getting into when they signed up is callous and disingenuous; they knew of the possibility that they would be sent overseas, but could not have known that they would be sent repeatedly, asked to serve their country all out of the proportion to the commitment they made, asked because our leaders did not see fit or downplayed the cost this war would exact on our nation. Some would not regard this sacrifice as much of a tragedy, because the story doesn't end in the heroic death of the soldier, a flag-draped coffin, trumpet salutes or accolades about sacrifice and patriotism. There's little glory to be found in a father who simply disappears from his infant or toddler's life for months or years at a time, in a child who measures his father's absence in the holidays he misses. But this child's sadness and anger are just as real an element of human suffering and misery imposed by this war, no less so than the suffering of the children whose parents have died in Iraq just because his suffering is not as great, or doesn't last as long. And it is no less a part of the unmeasurable cost we imposed upon ourselves in money, lives lost or ruined, families broken and torn assunder, and marriages destroyed. For what? 

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