When I was in my late teens, there was a karaoke bar that I used to go to with my friends.
There was always this middle-aged guy who would be drunk way too early, and he would get up on stage and sing Wildflower by Skylark to me.
I never knew his name. He never asked me my name. We weren’t attracted to each other or anything. We never talked. But, right before I left, every time I went there, he would get up and sing me this song.
It was flattering and it also cracked me up.
After everything that’s happened recently, the song has come back to haunt me. There’s one particular line that’s on constant loop in my head.
The way she’s always paying for a debt she never owes.
I’m going to sound like all those bitter people who woke up one day, middle-aged and unhappy, and talking about how you shouldn’t marry young.
I’ll never regret marrying young.
Everything happens for a reason. If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t do anything differently.
But, I will owe up to the fact that I was very young, very naive and very ignorant.
I knew when Jason and I married that being a soldier was important to him.
I always knew he wanted to re-enlist.
At the time, his PTSD was in its infancy, so-to-speak. I always thought a little counselling, and possibly medication, and he would recover so, I always knew it was possible he would follow-through with re-enlisting.
But I always told him, “I married a veteran, not a soldier.”
I was so young and ignorant that it didn’t occur to me what that statement meant.
All I could think about was having to be away from him if he ever re-deployed and how I didn’t think I could ever spend that much time away from my husband. I told him I didn’t think our relationship would survive if he left me for several months at a time. I certainly didn’t want to care for our children alone, while he was overseas. I don’t care how much money he thought he could potentially make and what benefits he would earn.
Again, it never occurred to me how true that statement actually was and what it actually meant.
“I married a veteran, not a soldier”
When we started dating, I remember watching all these documentaries about Iraq.
I reflected on Operation Iraqi Freedom.
I remember the night America invaded Iraq. (I watched it live on CNN as a teenager.)
We talked about what he believed he was doing and the orders he carried out.
When he enlisted, it was during war-time. He knew he would deploy. He knew exactly what he was signing up for.
I wanted to learn so much about this thing he loved — the Army.
I never tried to find out about the negative things — the prevalence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The prevalence of depression, guilt, remorse — basically, the mental illness or illnesses that many — NOT ALL — eventually came home with.
I didn’t think about the veterans of previous wars, and how their service affected them.
I didn’t research how our government and the governments of our allies, whether intentionally or unintentionally, often abandoned veterans.
I don’t know why I wasn’t thinking about veteran homelessness, about the lack of support when transitioning from service to civilian life.
I feel like I blocked those things out.
I feel like I told myself that we were fine, and that we were not one of “those” families.
I remember at the time, Grey’s Anatomy was obsessing over PTSD. I remember seeing the episodes where Owen’s character would hurt Cristina. I remember thinking, “That’s not how it works in real life. My husband’s great. He’s nothing like that. Thank God.”
***TRIGGER WARNING RE: CLIP BELOW***
(PS — Grey’s Anatomy is still wrong. That’s not how PTSD works.)
We know now that PTSD doesn’t necessarily manifest itself immediately after a veteran returns. We know it could take several years.
We also know that PTSD is not the only mental illness that can ail a veteran.
We also know how complicated mental illness is in general — veteran or civilian.
But anyway, I went about my life. With things slowly getting worse and worse.
For some reason, I had convinced myself that the army was behind us and that it wasn’t something we’d ever have to deal with again.
The other side
Once the metaphorical bomb dropped and I stood on top of the rubble, I found myself repeating those words to myself.
“I married a veteran, not a soldier. Why is this happening?”
It’s hard for me to put into words what I’m thinking when I say that to myself.
I guess I was so young and ignorant that it never occurred to me that the things Jason was asked to do, the things he saw, the things he experienced — that those things would never leave him. That in some ways, they would haunt all of us (his family), for the rest of our lives.
Even if he never wears that uniform again, the 5 years he spent in the army will always affect us — especially our kids.
Going back to Skylark
Sometimes, I find myself extremely bitter. As if I’m paying a debt I never owed.
There’s a reason why I’m not a soldier. Why I’m not a cop. Why I’m not a public servant.
Maybe you can chalk it up to selfishness.
Actually, I’m just not that brave. If I was, I probably would take on one of those jobs but frankly, I fear pain and suffering. For a good part of my life, I feared death (which, I don’t fear so much anymore).
I’m afraid of getting hurt.
So, I do other jobs — writing, baking, parenting — other things.
But in many ways, I feel like my kids and I are paying a price for a debt we never owed.
Even though we didn’t enlist and we didn’t go to the same lengths as our veterans and service members (I will never say that we sacrificed like they do okay, so, don’t go there), we are still paying a price for freedom and democracy. One that we never thought we’d be paying.
Freedom isn’t free.
Selfless, honourable men and women pay up to and including their lives for us to enjoy the freedom and democracy that we have.
I think it’s important to remember that a lot of family members, not just spouses, but also parents, children, brothers, sisters, etc. — that they also pay a price when the government doesn’t step up and do the right thing when our men and women return.
Actually, the debt is on all of us
The truth is, every time a veteran falls through the cracks — it’s on all of us.
In a democracy, we need to take care of those who fight for our freedom.
Unfortunately, we aren’t doing enough.
So, in many ways, the Skylark quote is inaccurate.
Freedom isn’t free and we all need to do our part.
Maybe, that’s what God has laid out for me — the role of helping this veteran, since he fell through the cracks.
So, in that way, it’s a debt that I do owe.
It’s a debt we all owe.
To take care of our veterans.
But, I’m not going to lie. That price — it’s heavy.
And right now, I feel it EVERY SINGLE DAY.
EVERY. WAKING. MOMENT.
And once in a while — I’m pretty bitter about it.