My father always rages against war on Veteran's Day. When he is too tired to be angry, he talks about the innocence and honor of young soldiers. Then he cries and my heart breaks all over again.
Dad was drafted into World War II right out of high school. His unit wound up at Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp, shortly after it was liberated. What he experienced there transformed him from a boy who wanted to work at a gas station to a man who became a Methodist minister.
He married, started a family, and worked hard to bury his war memories. When long hours didn't numb him enough, he drank. Korea unfolded. Vietnam. Dad drank more, but the ghosts of Dachau haunted him. They haunted all of us.
Our world collapsed when he quit the church. My mother picked up the broken pieces, grim-faced, and refused to talk about what had gone wrong. He loved us, I knew that, but angry Dad, drunk Dad, suicidal Dad was someone I was afraid of.
I still cringe at the sound of ice cubes clinking into a tall glass.
The ranks of our 22 million veterans are swelling as troops return home from Afghanistan and Iraq. Because of advances in medical care and body armor, these new veterans have survived attacks that would have killed previous generations. Many of them are bearing wounds like my father's, wounds we can't see.
The Wounded Warrior Project estimates that at least 320,000 U.S. soldiers have suffered Traumatic Brain Injury and 400,000 struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Long after the homecoming parades and tear-stained reunions, veterans and their families will be grappling with the effects of these injuries.
Research released by the National Center for PTSD shows that children of vets with PTSD are at significant risk for emotional problems, sometimes to the extent that they develop secondary traumatization. These kids show the same symptoms as their injured parent; hyperarousal, depression, problems concentrating and sleeping, and crippling anxiety. They struggle in school, have a hard time trusting people, and have to grow up much too fast.
My forthcoming novel, The Impossible Knife of Memory, is the story of a teen forced to become the parent to her father, a traumatized Army captain trapped in his memories of the war. Along with his PTSD and brain injury, her father also struggles with the knowledge that his wounds are making his daughter suffer, too.
Thanking soldiers for their service is all well and good, but we owe our veterans and their families much more. They need our energy and action as well as our respect and compassion. Contact your elected officials and demand that Veterans Affairs deal with the obscene backlog that now exceeds 400,000 disability claims. Visit the Joining Forces website for ways to offer jobs to a vet or a military spouse, and to volunteer with an organization that helps military families. Contact the VFW and make a direct contribution to military families in financial crisis.
Most of all, walk with kindness in your heart.
If you overhear my father at the diner, cursing the latest veteran suicide statistics, or you see an overburdened military wife snap at her kids at the grocery store, or you cross paths with an angry teen wearing his father's camouflage jacket, don't judge. Say hello. Smile. Offer to help. Veterans and their families carry the pain of war long after the guns are silenced. They deserve a country that truly respects their sacrifice and has the integrity to do everything possible to ease their pain.
Laurie Halse Anderson is the author of the forthcoming book The Impossible Knife of Memory (January 7, 2014).