Why would a combat Veteran write a blog post about a Veteran’s Day experience nearly two months after she lived it? Simple. It’s called avoidance, and it is part of the narrative.
On the evening before Veterans Day this year, I was honored to be asked to be Master of Ceremonies for a Town Hall Veterans event sponsored by Congresswoman Susan Davis. The evening followed a format developed by journalist Sebastian Junger, who believes that Veterans of all generations should encouraged to stand up and tell their stories in a community forum where they can be heard and supported. The Town Hall is straightforward: each Veteran has ten minutes to speak about what it is like to go to war. The event is solemn and respectful, with no judgement, no interruptions, and no question and answer period after each narrative. Veterans have the opportunity to share with a crowd that could include comrades, family members, and complete strangers. Junger encourages all Veterans to consider telling their stories here: “…these are the people you risked your life for; these are the people you went to war for. No one goes to war and returns home unaffected. It’s not fair – or healthy – for veterans to be left alone with these burdens. They belong to all of us.”
San Diego’s Veteran Town Hall of 2016 included Veterans from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the first Persian Gulf War, and both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. We came from all services, spanned all generations. We included infantrymen, pilots, special forces operators. We heard stories from those who served with tanks, artillery, logistics, detainee operations, and medical. One of our Veterans received the Medal of Honor in Vietnam. One suffered with severe PTSD, and survived a suicide attempt before he entered treatment and began to heal. Across us all, I was touched by the two things we all seemed to have in common.
We believed in service — to something greater than ourselves and to the men and women to our right and our left.
And we were brave — it took guts to stand up there and open hearts and memories to a room full of people. It was a night of courage, and support. And it was a night of understanding from people who had not lived what we lived. They moved one step closer to us. And that mattered.
For me, it included something I did not expect. Since my war in 2004, when I deployed with the Marines in a forward surgical company to western Iraq, I have worked hard to maintain control. I like to believe I controlled my own post-trauma growth, which included both traditional therapy and complementary activities such as writing my book and speaking to literally hundreds of groups — about deployment, leadership, trauma, loss, compassion fatigue, and healing.
My war was twelve years ago. I learned so much from it. I love, fiercely, some of the people with whom I served. They understand me in a way no one else could. Every year, I pause, and remember. I still cry on certain days. Specific songs and smells still make me shiver. I still jump, just a little, when the Chargers fire their cannon after they score. That deployment included the best and worst moments of my life, in the same hour. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
And suddenly, in the middle of all that control, the Emcee of this powerful event found herself shaking like a leaf, and once the tears started coming, she couldn’t stop them.
It happened so unexpectedly. A handsome young man, a former Marine, stood at the microphone and told a story about a Marine he loved. A person he considered his brother. “He was beautiful,” he said, describing this young man’s smile, and warm, loving style. “I loved him.”
He went on. He described this Marine he loved, and told us how that Marine made a sacrifice so selfless that he received the Medal of Honor for his actions. They were deployed to western Iraq in 2004 together, he explained. And during an intense, horrible moment, that Marine threw his body over a live grenade, he explained. Two comrades’ lives were saved in that moment. That Marine was badly injured in the blast, and was MEDEVACed to a forward surgical company, he described for the silent community that surrounded him. There he found a group of doctors and nurses who were there to support him as he died — but the story gets more amazing there, he related. That Marine squeezed one of the doctor’s hands. And in that moment she knew he was still alive, he said. He didn’t die there after all. He got all the way home to his parents, he told us — before he succumbed to his wounds.
The young Marine about whom he spoke was Corporal Jason Dunham. I know the story well. I was the doctor whose hand he squeezed.
And suddenly, all my attempts to control everything for the past decade somehow vanished. I trembled from the inside out. Tears streamed down my face and I couldn’t stop them. Congresswoman Davis was sitting behind me. I think she could see my shoulders shaking. She placed her hand on my arm, and leaned forward in silent support. She offered to take my notes and introduce the next Veteran. I accepted her help.
I walked out to the lobby and sobbed. A clinician in the audience followed me. (We are good at knowing these things in other people). She stood quietly with me while I cried. She was solemn and respectful, with no judgement, no interruptions, and no question and answer.
I will never forget it.
And just like that, even twelve years later, I learned that — with trauma and grief — sometimes we must relinquish control and let ourselves just feel. Healing comes in so many ways. We all live it differently. Although I did not officially share my story that night, my story was told. No one judged me. No one asked me any questions. There was so much relief.
After the event, as people dispersed and greeted each other, the Marine who told the story about Dunham approached me.
“You’re her…aren’t you?”
“It’s been so long,” he said. We had only met once briefly back in 2007 at the White House, when Dunham’s parents were given his Medal. I nodded again. And with that, he folded me into his embrace, lifting me off the ground. We took a photo for Corporal Dunham’s parents.
It took me two months to finally write about this. It was beautiful, and haunting. I was honored to be a part of it.
Sebastian Junger would be proud.