My sister is leaving her husband. The last intact marriage of my dad’s six children is coming apart in the face of her husband’s bizarre symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. My brother-in-law returned from Vietnam with multiple decorations, including two purple hearts. He also brought back a Marine Corps-instilled conviction that strong men do not seek help for emotional or psychological problems because they are not “real” problems. They tough it out and move on.
So my sister cries and cries, grieving her lost dreams of growing old together along with the loss of the man she thought she married. She told me about their separation today. I have known for some time that they were struggling to keep going. Now there is one more chapter in the unending nightmare that is my family’s emotional life.
My father was a World War II veteran, a former prisoner of war who died of tuberculosis of the spine, the aftermath of tuberculosis contracted in a prisoner of war camp in France. After the war, he and my mother had six children, all of us boomers. We grew up in a household filled with chaos and emotional turmoil caused by my dad’s attempt to escape into alcohol and my mom’s determination to hold things together, no matter what. My dad died young, at age 55. Five of the six children were still living at home. After a long battle, the Veterans Administration recognized the service-connected nature of his illness and death and paid my mother a pension. Our lives went on.
One of my siblings has never married. Five of us have attempted marriage seven times, without success. Although we grew up in a strong Catholic household, where my mother certainly did not consider divorce an option, it seems some component is either missing from or broken in our psyches that makes it impossible for us to choose partners and maintain relationships. We thought my sister had managed to overcome “the family curse.”
My mother has always maintained that the war (World War II) changed my dad, that the man she married was not the man who returned from the P.O.W. camp. In my adolescence, I used to accuse her of making excuses for his destructive behavior. Now I realize that her observation was undoubtedly quite correct. In those days, however, we did not even have a name for the condition from which he suffered. Now we would call it post-traumatic stress disorder. Naming it helps, at least minimally. At least it takes our family’s suffering out of the realm of a mysterious and strictly personal failure.
These are the hidden and largely unacknowledged costs of war. We describe the high divorce rate and the high incidence of mental illness among Vietnam-era veterans as an anomaly, while veterans of Desert Storm struggle to have their service-connected illnesses accepted by the Veterans Administration. Now we are sending a new generation to Iraq. We are instituting a cycle of personal suffering for many that will last for decades and be visited not only upon them, but upon their children and grandchildren. As a society we remain largely blind to these realities.
I am not a pacifist. I have always believed that there are values worth fighting for and even worth dying for. I recognize that the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq may be achieving some good along with the suffering. But as I support my sister through our latest family tragedy, I wonder if the same decisions would be made if the hidden costs of war, the costs we so easily ignore, were ever looked at in the light.