This is a very personal account of life as seen through the eyes of a child and related through the words of an adult – the child who lived through it. It was not easy to write this. It is a mish-mash of interpretations assigned to unpleasant situations by a child who could not possibly know the depth of the problem.
My father rarely talked about his experiences in combat during World War II. Perhaps he thought it was best to protect the innocence of his little girls. Maybe he didn’t want to remember it himself, although it probably would have helped all of us if he were to talk about it.
Mother appeared to be an enabler – before that term was ever part of common speech. She was a patient, quiet and understanding person by nature. As a child looking on, it seemed that she took Father’s “side” or made excuses for his behavior and frightening outbursts. If she had the information, his secret was safe with her.
The Best of Times … and the Worst of Times
Don’t get me wrong. There were good times. One week each summer was spent at the beach. There were extended visits by/to my father’s brother and his little family living on the opposite coast. We hosted annual family reunion clambakes and picnics to start and finish each summer.
There were outings to historic places. The drives along the Massachusetts Mohawk Trail (Route 2) in the fall are memorable for the New England display of color. Saturday participation in programs at our local public library came right after our piano lessons. Yes, there were those good times, too.
In between the Good Times, I made every effort to remain an inconspicuous non-entity in my somewhat scary surroundings. Believe me when I say I was not always successful. I spent too much time apologizing for things that I couldn’t remember doing or being ordered to recount each step leading to the error of my ways – followed by the apology.
It was inevitable, or so it seemed, that outbursts (and periods of angry quiet) would somehow be traced back to a misstep on my part. Time-out sessions had not yet been invented, no privileges could be removed (we didn’t have any) and there was no possibility of redemption.
We had a chart on the wall that split the chores assigned to each of us. Wrong doings or disrespect (often misinterpreted) was rewarded by frequent use of a strong leather belt during my growing-up years. Did we learn respect based on Love or was it based on Fear? I don’t know.
I do know that everyone admired us. We were well-behaved, perfect children. No problems here. Little did they know. To this day, I still apologize up front and choose my words carefully when I speak.
My personality was that of the middle child, but I needed to fulfill the role of the oldest of two girls who were born barely 13 months apart. I was the protector … the guard. There were times when I thought that my older sister, who died as a newborn, really was in a better place. Why couldn’t I be with the angels sitting next to her at the feet of the Lord?
Veteran’s Administration Has Responsibility to Families
The Veteran’s Administration provided marginal acute care for the affected veteran and no support services for the family. We were living out our own field of combat and it seemed that they just didn’t care. That was 30-60 years ago.
I’m not looking for a purple heart. I have no cravings for congressional medals. Those were given to Father. The only thing I wish is something that I will never receive … caring support for the immediate family. Why?
Father died on Memorial Day some 20+ years ago. Mother dropped dead on her wedding anniversary about 14 years ago. The sister that I loved and felt very attached to now lives 1300 miles away with her only child and his family … a military family living near the army base.
Fortunately, practices have changed and the level of care and rehabilitation is improving. There are still some rough spots. However, thanks to the reports from imbedded journalists and recuperating reporters, long overdue changes are slowly evolving into a healthcare model that addresses both the returning military and their families.
The Value of a Nurturing Environment
It was very difficult, but fortunately my adult boys never experienced the roller coaster life that I knew. Their childhood growth and development years were filled with the best and most loving experiences we could give them. They have the best dad in the whole wide world – a pre-Vietnam peacekeeping army veteran that I had the good fortune to meet and marry 27 years ago. I was lucky. I had my very own little angel in heaven watching over me.
There are many adult children of combat veterans who cannot sustain a relationship for any length of time. They continue to lead lives of quiet desperation or hopeless self-destruction. These are the same traits we saw in returning soldiers from previous battles. There is one exception: it has a new name. Today, we know this condition called “battle fatigue” as an illness referred to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Can the adult child of a combat veteran show the same classic signs of “battle fatigue” as that soldier who was repeatedly patched up and returned to the front lines during a tour of duty? I don’t pretend to be able to answer all the questions, but I can say that I know PTSD can be passed to the next generation.
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