Photo Credit: Alex, Flickr.com
As a journalist, I rarely write articles from my point of view. I do the research, complete the interviews and use my skill sets as a writer, television reporter and anchor to tell the stories of others. However, when I began researching this topic a flood of emotions ran over me. I began thinking about all of the military families I’ve encountered over the years who made it through the unthinkable: mothers who had lost children, women who had lost husbands, children who had lost parents.
Then there were the families who hadn’t lost their loved ones, but lost part of them. There were those who had to wake up each day knowing their service member was coping with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). There were service members who suffered terrible facial injuries, lost limbs or had been covered in burns. No matter their stories, they were all traumatic.
But at the same time…they were inspiring. The individuals and family units didn’t let the awful hand they’d been dealt keep them down. Instead, they chose to shuffle the cards, draw again and move on. And each family did this in a different way. I’d like to reflect on their struggle and their ability to overcome trauma and inspire others along the way.
The death of Captain Matthew Freeman: Overcoming trauma through service to others
Marine Corps Captain Matthew Freeman packed more into his 29 years of life than most people do in a lifetime. His mother, Lisa Freeman, will always remember the moment she learned he had been Killed in Action while serving in Afghanistan.
When I interviewed her, she described it for me in detail. A school teacher, she was at work when the principal came to her classroom and said she was needed in the office.
She collapsed and had to be carried. That is when the Marine formally told her that her son had passed. At that moment, she needed others to learn on, both emotionally and physically. But before long, she would become a pillar of strength and now is someone for other Gold Star families to lean on.
Lisa Freeman poured her heart and soul into a cause that had been important to her son. She recalled a phone call she’d received from her son, Matt, while he was in Afghanistan. He’d asked her to send him pens and paper for the children in Afghanistan. He said they wanted that more than anything, even food and water. So his mother listened even after his death and started The Matthew Freeman Project: Pens and Paper for Peace.
I had the honor and privilege of following her through the beginning stages of that journey. Though she and I had been strangers at first, I could see the light in her eyes sparkle as each day went on and I felt our bond grow. We kept in touch for a while, even after my husband’s career took us to a new duty station and since we’ve lost touch, but her story often weighs heavily on my heart. I think of her. I pray for her and time to time I check in on her progress.
What started as a local collection for pens and paper has grown to a national movement offering scholarships and other services for Gold Star families. Lisa didn’t launch this charity because her son died, she launched it because of the impact he made on others and the way he lived. And keeping his mission to help others alive, keeps him in their hearts and on their minds.
Murder steals lives, yet brings survivors together: Overcoming trauma through support groups
I have met several adults who lost their children to murder. It is something no one can ever prepare for. These individuals didn’t enlist in the military; they didn’t see an enemy coming. But the Survivors of Violent Loss Program and the Cara Knott Foundation offer a safe haven for family members of victims of violent crimes.
Each year, they host a River of Remembrance ceremony, in addition to their regularly scheduled support groups. On that day, they gather to memorialize their loved ones through crafts, storytelling and by painting rocks, turning a cold stone into a beautiful work of art.
Something amazing happened during the time I spent with them: I was the only one wiping away tears. As a journalist, I can usually separate myself from stories and avoid showing my emotions on the spot. But this one was different. I couldn’t imagine the pain a grandmother had felt when her 10-month-old son had been killed. I couldn’t stop feeling empathetic for the grown man who had learned his parents were murdered while on their vacation. There were too many stories and far too few tissues to keep my eyes dry.
So why were my photographer and I the only ones crying? Because we were thinking about the pain and the deaths of the victims. Everyone else at the event was fixated on their memories of their loved ones’ lives. One woman said she knew her teenage son was the captain of God’s basketball team in the clouds. Another woman said her daughter was a hippie on earth and was surely teaching yoga to all of the angels above. These individuals had come together and become a family tied to one another because of the tragic experiences they’d lived through. Yet, as a family they found a way to move past the pain and stand in the sunlight– smiling at the thoughts of their loved ones.
An IED alters a soldier’s appearance: Overcoming Trauma by finding beauty within
I’ll never forget the first time I met him. I tried not to look directly at the Third Infantry Division soldier’s face. Not because I couldn’t, but because I didn’t want him to feel uncomfortable. I had seen injuries, but this one struck me differently. The young man had been so handsome prior to the IED attack that would change his face forever; he could have been a male model.
As I was looking at my notes, jotting down the age of his daughter for background information, I caught him smile out of the corner of my eye. I no longer saw his false eye, the scars on half of his face. I only saw his smile. For the rest of our interview I looked at him head on and worked my way toward asking that tough question, “What is it like to look in the mirror? What does your young daughter say when she looks at you?”
He admitted, it had been hard to look directly in the mirror at first…and he was nervous to let his child see him for the first time. He thought she would think he looked like a monster. Then his smiled weakened and he said, at first…she did. But when his small child, I think she was around the age of four, realized it was only her daddy’s outward appearance that changed and he was still her fun, silly, loving father on the inside…she wasn’t frightened by his appearance anymore.
Then his smile came back and he talked about all of his future goals. He was going to finish his college degree that he’d started years ago. He was excited to play with his daughter when our interview was over and he was eager to give other service members the strength to move on after combat injuries. This Army Sergeant had learned firsthand the lesson so many of our parents taught us as children: What is on the outside doesn’t matter, it’s what is on the inside that counts. His appearance had changed, yet his smile hadn’t disappeared and it was still as contagious as ever.
Each night I go to bed and I thank God for my healthy family, strong husband and my faith. I don’t get caught up in the technicalities of religion. I have my faith and you have yours. Whether or not we worship the same God, say the same prayers or even step foot inside a church doesn’t matter.
But after interviewing countless individuals and families over the years, I truly believe everyone needs someone or something to believe in. Interviewing people, sometimes smack in the middle of the darkest moments of their lives can be tough and it is often hard to let their stories go when I walk out of the newsroom and lay my head down on my pillow. But I don’t walk through life saddened by their stories all of the time, because they don’t walk through their own lives saddened each day.
They are resilient. They find the strength to overcome unspeakable trauma and inspire others. And though each of their stories differs vastly, they all have one common element: faith. Lisa Freeman had faith that her son’s mission would live on through her charity and she could change lives. The family members of murder victims have faith their loved ones are in a better place. And the soldier who suffered physical wounds from an IED had faith his inner beauty would shine and mask his scars.
And I have faith that as a military community we can all work together to help the next people who encounter trauma to get through on the other side…and help them stand in the light and smile once again.