After a 5 day absence serving at a retreat in Washington, I came home to a dead plant. Not just any plant. One I’d brought home from my Daddy’s funeral 15 years ago this month. Naturally, I’m sad. The plant held special meaning for me. To see it neglected, limped over and dried out evoked unexpected emotions in me. I cried.
Even so, it’s just a plant. I shed my tears, dried my eyes, blew my nose and let it go.
After serving with Hope for the Home Front and Operation Homefront for the past year, having the honor of meeting countless young women attending retreats for Wounded Warrior Wives, I’m learning much about letting go, living with disappointments and leaning in to what really matters. These brave women, most in their 20’s, represent a living classroom of right priorities and clarity of perspective. A dead plant would be the least of their worries.
In a 3 day retreat, one woman in her mid-twenties received over 430 text messages from her wounded warrior spouse experiencing separation anxiety, wanting to know when she was coming home. Another woman spent an entire week preceding the retreat lining up volunteers to stay with her spouse, dress him, feed him and give him meds in her absence. Still others repeatedly left sessions because a husband was calling confused about something or angry that she was gone or stressed out because the toddler was crying. One young woman received a phone call from her neighbors at 10:25 p.m. They spotted her husband wandering streets on foot, experiencing traumatic flashbacks from the battlefield. The police were en route to defuse the situation and escort him home.
Women wearing t-shirts bearing the Wounded Warrior Wives emblem, and one “Marines with one leg are HOT” shirt, shared stories of how dramatically life has changed since their husbands came home from war with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, missing limbs, missing memories, missing coping strategies, missing identity. The prevailing questions throughout the weekend retreats are always, “who is this man returning from war?” and “where is my husband?”
Like most of us, these women grew up with dreams. They fell in love with a man who wore a military uniform and they married him with hope of building a life of happy memories together. Many carry a picture of their wedding day, a reminder of more peaceful, loving times. Somewhere along the home front of a returning warrior, dreams abruptly crashed and burned. As my dear friend Marshele Waddell puts it, “Fort Fantasy became Fort Reality and we realized nothing would ever be the same.”
Their disappointments extend far beyond a sentimental attachment to inanimate objects like house plants.
Purses formerly toting make-up, nail files, chewing gum and a photo album of the newborn now overflow with bottles of pain pills and sedatives, a day planner filled with medical & counseling appointments, and emergency contact information. An extra-large diaper bag that held Huggies for the toddler now carries Depends for the husband. She hasn’t slept through the night since his home-coming from Afghanistan in 2008 ushered in night terrors, screaming, uncontrollable trembling, bedwetting, violent outbursts, and hallucinations. A home sold when she had to give up her job & income to become his stay-at-home caregiver. Her goal of completing a college degree is still on hold while student loans continue to accrue interest for the 5th year in a row. She traded her bright red Pontiac Sunbird for a van to accommodate his wheelchair. A sweet, thoughtful man who once never forgot a birthday or anniversary, who even surprised her with flowers for no special occasion, now often cannot remember her name. The sweetheart with broad shoulders for her to cry on now says he feels less than a man and won’t let her touch him. Marital intimacy ceased; she can’t even remember the last time he kissed her. These are only a few of the stories of heartbreak and hopes gone awry. Many others are too painful to print and too graphic to recount here.
Yet, these women stay…committed, devoted, determined. Friends in the civilian world often question, “Why don’t you just leave?” Comments like, “you’re so young…you’ve got the rest of your life ahead of you…you deserve to be happy,” rip through her soul like shrapnel. She pulls out her wedding photo, her heart longing for the tenderness of that blissful day. But as much as the picture reminds her of dreams long-since dead, it also recollects vows she made and meant… “for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health…til death us do part.” To be sure, not every marriage will survive, but it won’t go down without a fierce battle.
Any woman attending a Wounded Warrior Wives retreat is a hero every bit as much as her husband. She musters tremendous courage just to leave her home front for 3 days to show up. On any given day, she fights on battlefields of exhaustion, frustration, misunderstanding, government regulations, red tape. Her weapons are her heart and soul, her voice and relentless commitment to the one she loves. Her cause is a matter of life and death for her home, marriage and children. Her utmost priorities are faith & family and she’s determined nothing else in this world will steal these from her. Her perspective is selfless sacrifice for the man who sacrificed for her, even when she no longer recognizes that man.
An empty plant stand in my room tugs at my heart, reminding me there is a hedge which cannot wither like a neglected house ivy…this hedge of protection guarding life’s most precious gifts of love and belonging. Seeds sown by Wounded Warrior Wives, watered by her sweat and tears and nurtured by her love, sprout deep roots. Ultimately, her courage bears fruit even if only in tiny increments unnoticed by most civilians. Believing what emerges from her devotion to relationship matters more than anything else in this life, she courageously plants and she trusts God for how it grows.
You can learn more about Hope for the Home Front at http://www.whenwarcomeshomeretreats.com and Operation Homefront at https://www.operationhomefront.net/donationform.aspx?id=15425 .