October 19, 2010
By Jacey Eckhart
Sue Diaz watched her student Ernie take the microphone to read his story. “All these memories had been neatly boxed up and compartmentalized into a safe little area in the back of his mind,” read Ernie, a Vietnam vet. “But as the years progressed, the box began to deteriorate and the recollections that he harbored began to seep through the façade.”
Listening to Ernie at that public reading in connection with the writing workshops she leads for veterans at the San Diego Vet Center, Sue recognized that box. Because she had one, too. And it wasn’t the brown leather box stored on a shelf in a bedroom closet where she’d saved newspaper clippings, printed emails, journal entries, and photos from her son’s time in the service. It was a different sort of box, the kind you carry as the parent or spouse or child of a combat veteran. Even though you may know your beloved has been part of a battalion in combat—in Sue’s son’s case, one in Iraq that dealt with hundreds of IEDs, was mortared or shelled nearly every day, was shot at constantly—you can’t tuck that box away on a closet shelf. This box holds your fears, your worries, your memoires, and your hopes. And you carry it in your heart.
“My son has his box, too,” Diaz writes in her new book Minefields of the Heart (Potomac Books July 2010). “It is the one that soldiers returning from war carry within themselves, the box that holds everything a combat vet has seen and felt and heard and done in the line of duty.” That box isn’t so easily stored.
Sending our people into war means that we—as family, as friends, as a community, as a country—must deal with the presence of that box. Professional caregivers and therapists are trained to deal with the box in one way. Fellow service members deal another way. We at home seem tasked to deal in a third way, a way that is more art than science. In her book, Sue and her family try to deal with their soldier in so many emotionally intelligent ways that I called her to see if she could give us a little insight on the art of dealing with that box. Here are some of the things she had to learn:
Combat is unlike any other experience on earth.
We may think we know all about combat from watching “Platoon” or “Saving Private Ryan.” We don’t. We just don’t. And that’s the first thing we have to accept. “In a war situation, it is the most difficult situation humans find themselves in,” Sue said. “To kill other human beings? To have your friends killed? It isn’t like any other experience.” We have to understand that combat isn’t like serving in an office in Kuwait. It isn’t like serving on ship or in a plane. It isn’t a car accident or a difficult class or a struggle with parenting. War, actual war, is completely unique. Let it stand without trying to comprehend it as being like something more familiar.
Understand you might not be the chosen confidante.
Even though Sue and her husband Roman Sr. were very close to their son, when he was (and is) dealing with his experiences, some part of him wanted to protect them from knowing too much. He talked things over with his sister Anne. With his wife-to-be. With friends. But not with his parents. “It might not be you (who becomes the confidante). Respect that,” said Sue. “Let them know you are there and that you love them. Just that, can be enough.”
Pictures are a safe place to start.
Demanding that the contents of the box be opened, spilt, dispersed is shocking to the system of the returning combat vet. They seem to need plenty of time when they get home, time to let the contents of the box cool. “Readiness is important. You just have to be as sensitive as you can. Not to push and not to press but to offer an opening in case they want to go through it,” said Sue. She found that looking at pictures of Iraq with her son on his computer was a way to nudge the lid. Pictures of Iraqi children and helicopters against a red sky and buddies posing with their weapons gave her son a chance to speak about it in the way he could speak about it.
Be available for others.
“It’s ironic that I can draw out stories from workshop participants but not my own son,” says Sue. Her son is still putting her off with a promise of someday. Someday I will tell you all about it. Leading the writing workshops for vets is a way for her to carry part of the burden for some other mother’s sons. You never know when someone will need you.
Write about it.
As writers, Sue and I are both big on the benefits of writing about an experience in order to understand it. But as Sue points out, there is a ton of substantive empirical research on the health and healing benefits of writing as a way to deal with trauma. It also may be a way for family members and friends to deal with some of the hurt and confusion of loving someone in combat. “Even when you write about the most difficult, most challenging things in life, you feel better,” said Sue. And getting our combat vets to the place of feeling better is what we most need to do. Sue Diaz is an award winning journalist who writes frequently for the Christian Science Monitor and National Public Radio. Since 2007 she has conducted writing workshops for veterans at the San Diego Vet Center. Her book Minefields of the Heart: A Mother’s Stories of a Son at War is available at booksellers everywhere, including amazon.com. For more details, visit the Potomac Books website.Jacey Eckhart is a military life consultant in Washington, DC. She is the author of "The Homefront Club" and the voice behind the award-winning CD "These Boots." Facebook Jacey or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.