He was my first online date. Fortified by a good friend and a glass of wine, I had created my profile. My friend and I checked out the men online, laughing at some of the responses I was getting. I thought about accepting a date with one or two of them but I was nervous, and shy. I had spent the better part of the past year plowing through a difficult divorce and wondering where my life was headed. Then he found me. We shared a few emails and discovered we had a similar sense of humor. It didn’t take long to exchange phone numbers, which led to some flirty texts. Within a week we had made a plan to get together.
We met on beautiful fall day. It was a first date we did not want to end. We had an immediate connection. I shared a little about my life including the revelation that I was going through a divorce. I talked about the challenges of raising three teenage girls on my own. He told me about the graduate program he was in, the interesting people he was meeting. We shared stories about our children and discovered that we both liked to take long bicycle rides. Since he was new to New England, I warned him to be careful when riding on slippery, wet leaves. With a little smile he thanked me for my concern for his safety.
He casually mentioned that he had retired after 23 years in the military from the Ranger Regiment. I had no idea what that meant. I grew up in a Jewish household in a suburb of Philadelphia. After graduation from high school I attended college, worked, got married young and soon had my first of three daughters. Where I grew up we were not exposed to the military. As a Christian, he grew up in rural Maryland and enlisted in the Army before graduating from high school. He was the first military person I had ever spent time with.
On the way home that afternoon I called my father to tell him about this nice man I had met. Of course my dad wanted to know about his background. When I had filled him in, my dad suggested I Google “Army Ranger”. The series of training videos I watched changed everything for me. I could not believe that I had worried about this man slipping on wet leaves. I was embarrassed and truly wondered if I would ever hear from him again. But as I was watching his world unfold before me on YouTube, he emailed an essay to me that he had submitted for one of his classes. It was about soldiers returning from war facing the struggles that come from reintegrating into society and coping with PTS. He shared with me a moving photomontage that he had created. Set to the beautiful The Road Less Traveled, by George Strait, the photos showed him and other soldiers in Iraq playing with children, accepting food from a local woman, waving from their tanks and driving by the wreckage from an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). It was incredibly moving. That was our first date.
We quickly began spending a lot of time together. Soon this ultimate “quiet professional” started to open up, but only in little bits. I learned that he didn’t sleep much; but there was studying to do. He didn’t eat much; but he was busy at school. In a restaurant he would subtly seat me with my back to the door, so that he could face out. A truck backfired on the street, and he would duck. “Just reminds me of past experiences”, he would say.
One night we were having dinner with friends whom I had invited to meet the man I’d been spending so much time with. The restaurant was crowded and noisy. We arrived late and were seated with our backs to the door. In the kitchen, a waiter dropped a serving tray with a tremendous clang. My date nearly dove under the table. He was mortified. My friends were more than surprised. Later that night, once we were alone, he apologized. I could not imagine what he was sorry for. It was then that he told me that he didn’t want to be seen as weak. I was stunned. When you’ve spent six years in Iraq and Afghanistan, been blown up five times in your Stryker, engaged in fire fights…how could you not react to a sudden explosive noise?
One night, unsure of how appropriate my timing was in this budding relationship, I made a late night phone call. I had been doing some research. With a deep breath and hopes that I wasn’t crossing the line, I told him that I thought he was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS). I could relate to a lot of the symptoms. I experienced sleepless nights, anxiety, and a loss of appetite — my own PTS from my divorce. It was not exactly what he wanted to hear from someone he was just getting to know. On the outside he had it all together. But the symptoms were so clear.
We started to talk about PTS. I told him our soldiers and Marines should wear PTS as a badge of honor. They earned the right to feel whatever they felt after being conditioned by experiences civilians can never understand. I couldn’t stand to think that my handsome, strong soldier felt embarrassed by his reactions. Our call proved to be the start of an open dialogue we have continued ever since.
The effect that these wars have had on our soldiers and Marines is profound. Their invisible wounds affect their loved ones. Their ability to contribute to society in meaningful ways depends on our willingness, as a community, to embrace our military and in turn to help them to embrace the experiences they have had. This new generation of veterans, their families and their communities have so much to gain from embracing PTS and the hard work it takes to live with it.
On Veteran’s Day I sat in the audience as he gave a moving speech about his experiences at war. Together we have spoken at events on behalf of Veteran’s support. Together we are building a strong bridge connecting the civilian-military gap. I have exposed him to my world and he has opened my eyes to his. We just celebrated our eight-year anniversary. It took some time to get through to my soldier, to get him to open up, to really talk to me, but it was worth it. Now we just have to be careful biking as the leaves fall.
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