Memorial Day is one of those special times of the year when we pause to thank and remember those in the military who have served or are serving our country. However, will we ever truly understand the deep sacrifices that they have made so that we can enjoy our way of life? Do we realize that their families make heroic sacrifices as well?
Several years ago the women at West Point asked me to visit and give a presentation. I fell in love with them that night and promised I’d write them a special prayer book to nourish their Faith and address their special needs and demands. Over the next few years I gave talks on their military bases and at conferences. I realized more than ever that I desired to also shine a light on these hidden military heroes and let the world get a glimpse of their amazing courage while juggling all of the many special, and often heartbreaking demands and fighting the hidden battles on the home front during the umpteen deployments, transitions, and losses. Often, these military women bear burdens alone, and sometimes even silently as they work hard to keep the family intact and sane.
Over the years, I have interviewed several military women who have unflinchingly shared their stories of challenge and triumph. I’m so happy to report that I did come through with my promise and by God’s grace, my book, By Dawn’s Early Light: Prayers and Meditations for Military Wives, was recently released by Sophia Institute Press. I pray that it will be a tangible blessing in countless lives, that it will help Catholic military women to walk steadily—one foot in front of the other in their Catholic Faith, and that it will shine a healing light of Christ on their heroism, giving honor and praise to them and to God, as with Him these women fulfill the duties and experience the joys of one of the noblest of all vocations: that of a military woman.
I’d like to share an excerpt of By Dawn’s Early Light to give you an idea of one of the little known invisible wounds of war. It’s called “survivor guilt.”
Survivor Guilt: She Had Never Heard of It
Our hearts rejoice when our soldiers come back home safely to us and in one piece. We heartily welcome home our wounded soldiers, too, relieved that they are alive. Thank God! Yet, our soldiers have seen the terrors of war — things no one should have to see, experience, or bear in any way, shape, or form. Our soldiers and their families are very much affected by those things. We might not realize that one of the deeply scarring wounds that our soldier might suffer is “survivor guilt,” which affects and debilitates countless soldiers who are desperately trying to transition back into some kind of “normal life.” These poor soldiers feel guilty for having survived — for being alive! How tragic! On top of that, because they experience this kind of torture,
their families suffer, too. Yet, many times, these soldiers can’t put their finger on what is happening to them. They often suffer alone in their pain.
Sometimes called “survivor syndrome,” survivor guilt is an element of post-traumatic stress disorder, but, of course, someone can experience this guilt without the diagnosis. The duration and intensity of survivor guilt varies with each individual, but the person feels guilty because he survived something when others did not or because someone died saving him, or he feels that he could have done something more to save someone, and so forth.
Army wife “Laura” (who wishes to remain anonymous) never expected her husband to go MIA — at least not in their own home. She shared her disconcerting experience with me. She explained that after returning from a deployment, her husband, “Keith” (who will remain anonymous), began to act very peculiar and had become distant, which caused her to fear for his wellbeing, but also for the health of their marriage.
Laura knew something was definitely not right with Keith, even though on the surface everything checked out okay. She shared, “He was dutifully fulfilling all of the roles of a father, soldier, and husband.” She added, “He was doing a great job at work, and our kids were flourishing.” Yet something was dreadfully wrong. His problems seemed to make their appearance in the dark of the night. That’s when he went MIA! Laura said, “I noticed that my husband would wake up after midnight and spend hours out of bed.” She was perplexed. What could he be doing? This Army wife secretly donned a “detective hat” and quietly observed over a few months’ time. She said that when he was missing from their bed in the night, she “also noticed that his cell phone was missing from his nightstand.” Night after night, Keith seemed to take on a strange personality, leaving the bedroom in secret and wandering around the house.
Is Something Wrong?
“Each time I asked if something was wrong, I was met with the mask of, ‘I’m fine.’ And to the outside world, he was; but I knew better.” All kinds of scenarios were conjured up and acted out in Laura’s imagination as she wrestled with this strange ghost each night. “As my husband disappeared from bed at night with his cell phone in tow, I started to spin worst-case-scenario Lifetime dramas in my head.” She even began to blame herself for her husband’s bizarre behavior. “I figured that if everything was ‘fine,’ with him, then something must be wrong with me.” Unfortunately, Laura began to doubt herself. “Perhaps I was too fat, too dumb, or uninteresting?” The list went on and on. She thought, “Maybe he was interested in someone else.” But, no matter the actual cause, Laura shared, “I grew distrustful. I was checking receipts, cell phone records, and Internet records for some horrible cause of the insomnia and disinterest in me.”
Laura suffered terribly and didn’t know what else she could do besides spying on and observing every single thing her husband did. Finally, she had had enough of all of it. She decided to turn to a priest. “I went to Confession with a military chaplain and confessed my mistrust, that I had made my husband’s behavior all about me, that I was spinning myself into horrible hypotheticals about what could be causing the problem, and that I was snooping on my husband. Yes, snooping!” She was embarrassed, but contrite.
To Laura’s relief, in addition to the many graces received, she was given something very valuable in the sacrament of Confession. “My priest gave me some wise counsel and then the most important penance ever: ‘Talk to your husband.’ ” Laura left the confessional with grace and equipped with the confidence and Catholic tools necessary to face this problem head-on. She was not going to dance around it any longer. “I went home that evening, did the normal bedtime routine of bathing the kids, washing dishes, and packing sandwiches for the next day’s lunches. Then, once the lights went out, I went into ‘lay in wait’ mode.” Laura was determined to get to the bottom of it, no matter what it took. One sleepless night was not going to kill her. She was absolutely determined to find out. “I waited for my husband to wake up and start roaming the house, but this time I followed him.” Yes, Laura was determined, but she still did not really want to confront Keith. Yet she had no choice: “Because my penance was to talk with him, I was convinced that I had to face whatever resided on the other side of this conversation.” God would give her the grace.
“I found my husband, illuminated by the blue microwave clock, flipping through his phone, standing in our kitchen.” She said, “I took his hand, pulled him down onto the couch, put on my ‘stern mommy voice,’ and said, ‘What is going on?’ ” Keith kept up his front. “I’m fine” was his answer. “Really?” Laura asked. He shot back, “Yes, I’m fine.” Laura couldn’t accept that veiled answer. She told me, “Knowing that it was my penance to have the hard conversation, no matter how it might turn out, I set my eyes on him, lowered the tone of my voice and repeated, ‘What is going on?’ ” punctuating each word. She waited. “Somewhere I read that if you wait for seven seconds of silence, someone will speak, so I waited.”
Can We “Accept” War Fatalities?
Eventually, Keith’s jaw started to quiver, and he said, “Okay. This is going to sound so stupid.” Laura leaned in slightly and braced herself. “For a split second, I saw a crazy Lifetime scenario flash across my mind, and I braced for the worst.” Keith then let it all out — blow by blow. He told her that during their Christmas travels, he had seen the name of a college friend on a marble plaque that listed the names of alumni who had died in Iraq. Laura said, “My husband explained that he anticipated losing soldiers in his unit in war, and that while difficult, he had accepted those deaths and had come to terms with them.” She continued, “He knew the missions that had led to combat deaths, and he was there to process those deaths with his unit.” It is not as easy as that, however. Although a soldier might “anticipate” that there will be losses, how do you actually “process” combat deaths? War always takes a toll on soldiers’ hearts as well as on their families’ hearts. Some war injuries don’t show up for decades, as is sometimes the case of survivor guilt and other forms of PTSD. Laura explained that the name that Keith observed on the plaque was a college friend “with whom we had studied, laughed, drunk beer, and eaten cheap delivery pizza,” she recalled. “This was also someone who had outperformed my husband in both academics and military exercises,” Laura added.As Keith explained his feelings about seeing his friend’s name carved on that plaque, Laura began to understand his sleepless nights. She said, “To see this person’s name listed as killed in combat, when my husband had survived, was difficult for him to process.” That friend had died more than ten years prior, but, Laura explained, “This was the first time that my husband was confronted with this marble-carved reality. My husband couldn’t sleep because he was feeling a sense of guilt for having lived, while our friend, who was so talented, had not.”
Keith had suffered with the survivor guilt ever since seeing his friend’s name on that plaque. Laura said, “He just could not stop feeling guilty because ‘This shouldn’t have happened.’ ” Thankfully, Keith explained that he was not contemplating hurting himself and that he was not reliving his own combat experiences. Laura was very relieved. She said, “So there we had it. The truth. My husband felt embarrassed that his guilt was, as he called it, irrational.” But, because it was now out in the open, they could both learn from the uncomfortable and perplexing experience. Laura told him that she “thought it was a perfectly rational response to over sixteen years of military service in time of war.” Laura distinctly remembers emphasizing to Keith, “Sixteen years of war is irrational! What you are feeling is completely rational.”
What to do next? They agreed that Keith would speak to a military priest whom he trusted. He’d do so the next day. It would be “a priest who had been with my husband when his unit lost a soldier the previous year,” Laura told me. “This would not be the first time that they had worked through tragedy together.” Laura followed up with her confessor, conveying all the details of her conversation with Keith. She had never heard of “survivor guilt” before her confessor reassured her that it must be what her husband had been suffering. Her confessor encouraged her to ask Keith to talk this out with a trusted individual, a counselor, priest, or confessor. Laura said, “For the past few months, my husband has been checking in with his priest, and he has started sleeping again.” Laura is relieved that the mystery has been solved and that in time and with God’s grace, her husband will heal and so will she. She added, “While he wakes up sometimes, I know why, and we are able to talk about how he is feeling and thinking.”
This couple decided to revisit the plaque together. Sadly, they noticed that the name of another classmate and friend had been added in the previous few months. Loss of life is a very sad reality of war. But if you are a survivor, take heart and stay close to God. Don’t blame yourself. Make it a point to speak to your family about how you are feeling. They love you and don’t want you to suffer survivor guilt. If it is not appropriate to talk to a family member, then seek the confidence of someone you trust, and talk it through with that person.
The Sacraments Bring Hope, Healing, and Peace
There is help and great hope. In the case of Laura and Keith, the graces in the sacrament of Reconciliation came into play. The sacraments are so important to our journeys. We need to seek spiritual health and healing frequently through the sacraments of our Church and not hesitate to seek counseling also whenever warranted. Laura emphasized, “My marriage suffered because my husband and I were trying to face the effects of war independently and alone, seeking to be self-reliant. Once we relied on each other and the sacrament of Reconciliation, my husband’s injury and our marriage was healed.”
Laura reflected further on the experience that she and her husband shared over his survivor guilt. She concluded, “This experience has taught me that the injuries of war can be subtle and can manifest themselves at any time.” She knew she needed help to be able to discern what was troubling her husband and what made her react to his strange behavior. She said, “I went to confession because I was contrite for mistrusting my husband, but I left charged with a duty to work on my marriage.” Much good came out of the experience because Laura decided to seek help from the Church. Laura believes it was a grace to discover that she should work on her marriage. “My husband and I received the grace of reconciling our lack of communication and casting aside a false idea that he was supposed to be able to bear alone the troubles of a career served in a time of war without relying on his wife, or professionals.” Laura added, “This is an aspect of our life that we will continue to process, but I’m grateful to our military priests who have helped us work through it and for the sacrament of Reconciliation, which brought us back to our marriage.”
I hope and pray that our thanks and prayers for the heroic military families is not reserved simply for Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, or some war anniversary. Please consider praying a decade of the Rosary (or more) this Memorial Day for our courageous soldiers and their beautiful families. We should absolutely remember these special families in our prayers each day. They can certainly use our support and prayers. May God bless them and may God bless the USA!