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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Flashbacks

What Is the Aftermath of War?

July 2020

What is the aftermath of war? My husband had no idea what he started when he came home from Desert Storm with a gold camel pendant for me. At first, we both thought he simply gave me a lovely present. It stayed in its box for most of twelve years till after he had retired from the Army in 2000. Then the Afghanistan and Iraq wars started. At that point, I realized how important it is that these men and women come home…and soon. Any family member will tell you that they never come home soon enough. I decided to wear the camel on a gold chain a good friend had given me, a good friend whose husband died years ago when someone shot down his plane during the Vietnam conflict. Of course, it changed her and her daughter’s lives forever.

I decided to wear my gold camel every day till our troops were home. That way when someone asked me about my camel, I could tell them, as a military wife, how important it was for the troops to return home to their loved ones. I wanted to mention the military to them so that they didn’t live their civilian lives oblivious to the truth that there were people from our country who were in danger, that there were civilians in Syria, Israel and Palestine, in Central America, Africa, or Afghanistan who lived their lives in grave danger of injury, torture, or death. I wanted people to think a bit differently when they watched or read the news the next day or week. I wanted them to have some sense of hearing shots fired, IEDs, RPGs, or bombs exploding, their child injured or dead, their spouse, son, or daughter wounded. I wanted to give them even a small piece of what war can feel like. I wanted them to have sympathy or even empathy for the military and civilians in war zones.

My first book about being a military family member began through a conversation with Donna Lee, the wife of poet Li-Young Lee, when she asked me about the gold camel I wore. As I told her the story of my husband’s military service and his giving me the camel, we both realized that I had more than one story there. As I thought I have a book here, she said, you have a book here—stories from spouses and partners about being in a military relationship. Yes, I thought. I started with a couple of stories of my own. I wanted to know what I was asking people to do. I wanted to know what it felt like to ask someone to write about war and personal reactions. A “couple” of my stories turned into about 68 poems and 30 short prose pieces, a book of its own.

Golly, I hadn’t realized how much I thought about war and hid those thoughts below the surface. Buried shallow or deep, those stories burst onto my computer screen. Coming back from a consulting trip to Hawaii, I stood in line to board the plane, gave my ever so slight nod at a young man in uniform, a nod only someone in uniform, or with that military haircut, would see as acknowledgement. He returned the gesture, imperceptible to a civilian. A dozen people later, another man in uniform. I looked, gave my nod but knew he would not return it, for he had the thousand-yard stare. How many times have I seen that look? Too many. From too many. Did someone see that look on my husband's face when he came home from two years in Vietnam?

I still thought about collecting stories from others in a relationship with a veteran. While working on the first book, The Soul of My Soldier, I set about interviewing wives, husbands, and partners. When I delved further into some of the stories people told me at book signings, lectures, or readings, the response was “Let me check with my husband.” “Let me check with my wife.” Fair enough, but no one ever got back to me, even though I followed up with a couple of emails or phone calls.

If I’m going to do this, I thought, I’m going to have to widen my scope. Several veteran friends shared their stories and writings with me. Some children of war families were willing to share their stories. As so often happens, the book took a new turn. If these veteran friends were writers, they were willing and happy to share their own poems and stories. Family members are willing to share, but not spouses or partners.

Spouses say it’s not their story, but as a military wife, I know that these stories are very much a part of the life of anyone living with a person in a past or present war. Active duty or veteran, or even civilian (think COVID-19 or living in a war zone) reactions to situations come up in the night or in the amblings of a day. Dreams, loud noises, firecrackers, helicopters overhead, crowds, trashcans, gun shots in the street—the list goes on. As a spouse we have to know what’s occurring and not be alarmed or reactive; we must remain calm. Otherwise, we just escalate a situation already fraught with potential difficulties. It took me ten or fifteen years to learn how not to react to, what seemed to me, a volatile situation, a situation that had nothing to do with me.

I have come across three critical quotations about war and suicide that stay in my thoughts, even though I deal more with PTSD than suicide.

“It is only the dead who have seen the end of war.” Plato.

“Suicidal or dead airmen cannot safely and effectively fight and win wars. ”Kent A. Corso, clinical psychologist, Air Force officer and veteran, and a colleague and friend.

“Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Carey Van Sickle, clinical social worker who was a work colleague.

All three quotations represent the aftermath of war. Unfortunately, all are true. As my husband and I watch a series on World War II, we realize that humanity will never stop fighting. Plato spoke correctly.  

Kent Corso, the clinical psychologist whose specialty is suicide prevention, said, “Suicidal or dead airmen cannot safely and effectivelyfight and win wars.” We live in a country that spends thousands training each military troop. No country wants to throw away that that life or that investment. But we do.

Carey Van Sickle did not work with the military but with civilians. However, her statement—Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem—still rings true for anyone.

Common triggers for suicide are relationship, legal, or financial difficulties. For someone who has been to war, a trigger for suicide or PTSD can also include horrific events the person has been a part of or witnessed. A person who had the perspective to look back from ten years in the future would see that oversimplified statement of ‘it will all work out.’ With suicide, the pain of the moment, though, is so great that there is no thought of tomorrow or even this evening. There is only the pain and urge of the moment, which may be as simple as a thought to stop the pain.  

So what is an individual’s personal aftermath of war? For some it is physical or psychological pain, memories that won’t go away, flashbacks that hurt, or anger, confusion, isolation, and occasionally, even decades later, the thousand-yard stare.

I think next month, I need to offer some routes to solutions.

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