When my dad first bought a video camera I was in fourth grade and I jumped at the opportunity to interview people on film. Using an upside down tennis racket with a foam clown nose stuffed on the handle, I asked my classmates what I thought were pressing questions as he got it all on tape. While a tennis racket is no longer involved in my interviews, I still love asking people questions and helping tell their stories. It is far and away my favorite part of my work.
Over the past couple decades I have interviewed all kinds of people–executives, volunteers, foster parents, recovering addicts, teenagers, immigrants, attorneys, educators, artists, entrepreneurs, and so on–all of whom have fascinating stories to tell. I am always grateful that they trust me with their stories and I have the opportunity to share them.
For the past few years I have had the great privilege of working with the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society. I write articles for the Society’s newsletter and blog. Before this assignment, I had little experience with the US military. I’ve only known a handful of people who’ve served, and admittedly didn’t have much of a clue about what service members and their families experienced.
One of the extraordinary services that NMCRS provides is a visiting nurse program. Nurses travel all over the country–at no cost to their clients–to help combat-injured Sailors and Marines and their families, as well as new moms who serve or are married to service members, retired service members, military widows, and others who have been a part of the US Navy or Marine Corps and need medical help. But medical help is really just a small part of what these people do. They find resources and make connections for their clients and the clients’ families. They help clients navigate the maddening world of mental and physical health care. They provide encouragement, tough love, confidence boosting, and most importantly someone who will listen.
NMCRS nurse Bobbi Crann put it well: “As a nurse we tend to be a jack of all trades. You are an educator, nurturer, coach, and counselor. A lot of what we do as a nurse is listen. When you’ve been a nurse for a while, there’s a sixth sense. You watch the body language. If they’re agitated or have anxiety, it may not come out in words. You learn to read patients as you become experienced. You help them identify what they’re feeling and what’s going on. When they have traumatic brain injuries, it’s difficult for them to hold on to much. It’s difficult for them to remember what you’ve discussed or their appointments.”
I have interviewed many of these nurses and many of their clients and every single time I am astounded by what they tell me.
“For a long time my wife would wake up in the middle of the night to find me under the bed looking for my rifle, speaking Arabic in my sleep,” recalled Sgt. Michael Van Deren. “I was constantly staying busy because anytime I had down time my head would start wandering. I never left the house. I would get groceries at 3am because I couldn’t deal with people. I had to be armed to leave the house, even to take the dog out.”
I talked to Robin Carpenter, the mother of Medal of Honor Recipient Kyle Carpenter, about her family’s fears and anguish when Kyle suffered serious injury after throwing himself onto a grenade to save a fellow Marine, and how NMCRS nurse Kim Bradley was–and continues to be–the family’s rock and lifeline.
When I talked with Sgt. Craig Carp he said, “I fell through a roof in 2003, was blown up in 2004, and was medevac’d again in 2006,” When he was medically retired in 2010, Carp was suffering from PTSD, a traumatic brain injury, shoulder and back problems, and speech and hearing issues.
Former Marine infantryman James McQuoid decided while on security detail in Afghanistan to take the SATs. “When you’re in a foreign country that you’re trying to stabilize, 90% of the time it’s unbelievably boring, interrupted by short moments of intense horror,” he said. After doing demolition in Iraq during a previous deployment left him with undiagnosed traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, and then he found out his wife was pregnant with their first child, he realized he needed to pursue a new path. He decided to become a physics teacher and when he returned home found an online degree program because going to campus would be too challenging for him because of his PTSD.
Most people I interview don’t hold anything back. Staff Sergeant Jay Vermillion said to me, “I came home and I was about ready to blow my head off because no one was helping me,” until he met NMCRS nurse Kim Bradley. “She called me one day when I was at my worst.”
I spent hours talking with Drew Provost and his wife Crystal about Drew’s struggle to make a new life for himself after leaving the Navy. Here’s what I wrote: Even after the encounter in Fallujah when the IED blew out his eardrum, knocked him unconscious, and caused him to vomit, Drew Provost assumed he was fine. As a Navy Corpsman assigned to a Marine unit in Fallujah, he was used to seeing serious casualties. Since he could still walk and talk, Provost quickly went about his work checking on the condition of other Marines and civilians affected by the blast. He was 19 and a rising star. It took four more years, another tour of duty, a divorce, struggles with alcohol abuse, and a new relationship for Provost to be diagnosed with, and correctly treated for, a traumatic brain injury – thanks to the intervention of NMCRS visiting nurse Ruthi Moore.
Tomorrow is Memorial Day, and while clearly the people I’ve interviewed are survivors, it is unmistakable that they mourn pieces of their hearts and part of their humanity left behind in war. Today in church Rev. Aaron preached a powerful sermon about the moral weight we bear by asking our young people to fight and then not taking responsibility for the consequences when they do, and when they come home. Or when they don’t come home. The sermon (watch it in the archives on the home page), and the music, just wrecked me. But in a necessary way.
Rev. Aaron acknowledged that he doesn’t know exactly how we can escape this cycle of violence, make these wars obsolete, or help heal the brokenness of those who have suffered through the wars, only that we must try. I certainly don’t have an answer either, but for as long as I can, I will continue to listen to and retell these stories, because they must be told, and they must be heard.