Just shy of eleven months ago, I began contributing a blog series to TIME.com to highlight the issues facing military families. The experience has left an indelible mark upon me as a veteran, retired military spouse, mother of two brats, and equally so, as a writer. This morning the post went live: “After thousands of posts dating back more than two years, Battleland is calling it quits…”
I must admit, my heart ached when I received a preliminary message of this decision on Mark Thompson’s part. No matter how much I’ve experienced change in my life, change without much warning and with little control still puts me in a bit of a funk. If most are honest, I’m not alone with those feelings. Mark has covered national security in Washington since 1979, and for TIME since 1994. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing him on my co-hosted weekly radio program, writing under his mentorship, and building a rapport with one of the nation’s most respected journalists. Those are some of the timeless blessings in having written for Mark Thompson at Battleland.
With every opportunity, we are best to seize it when it arrives and be willing to let it go when TIME says. However, I must add, that doesn’t mean we can’t re-invent opportunity and savor what we’ve learned. So today, I’m introducing “Bratland” here at Hope Matters. With the same heart-matter I brought military family stories to Battleland, I will continue highlighting the issues facing military families with Bratland posts, right here.
As it was to-date, I will publish monthly articles which highlight the issues at hand – through diligent research, in-depth interviews, and with the journalistic style taught by my “M-30” mentor at TIME. Reader comments to Battleland’s post of “bowing out,” indicates I’m not the only one looking for an outlet. So, please consider our “breaking news” here at Hope Matters a call for submissions. We’re specifically interested in stories that inspire, encourage, and celebrate military families. Contact us here.
Thanks, Mark Thompson for inspiring others more than you know!
Now, let’s move onto our 1st BRATLAND post, proudly dedicated to the Hale Family.
WHEN HEROES COME HOME
Currently, there are more than 1.5 million U.S. military members deployed globally to war zones or combat missions. Since the war on terrorism began almost 12 years ago, 6700 service members have died and nearly 50,000 have been wounded. The Wounded Warrior Project reports that “with advancements in battlefield medicine and body armor, an unprecedented percentage of service members are surviving severe wounds or injuries.”
As the U.S. shrinks its presence in Afghanistan, the war’s fall-out on families will perhaps come more to the forefront. According to Gary Bowen, professor of social work at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, “many of the estimated 2 million children who had parents deployed in the past decade” have struggled emotionally. “But the impact is worse for kids with parents who return from war with missing limbs or suffering from mental-health problems,” he conceded.
Yet, it’s important to note that there are remarkable families, who serve as role models for others who must endure the unfathomable. As I sat among nearly 1500 members of my community, honoring Colonel George “Bud” Day at his recent memorial service, I marveled over his resiliency and that of his family. Senator John McCain shared sentiments about his dear friend and POW cell mate. “His fierce resistance and resolute leadership set the example for us in prison of how to return home with honor,” he told mourners. Colonel Bud Day was the most widely decorated officer in modern U.S. history with more than 70 medals, including The Congressional Medal of Honor, for service in WWII, Korea and Vietnam.
As I departed Colonel Day’s memorial service and drove past the troops lining the roadway, my mind wandered back to an interview I’d had nearly three years earlier with his wife, Doris Day. Just as she had with thousands bidding a final good bye, Doris offered me a window into life with her wounded warrior. In writing about deployment, I asked for her thoughts on the nightmares common with post-traumatic stress disorder. “Sometimes, I’d find Bud sitting at the kitchen table, in the middle of the night, having a little milk and cookies.” When war’s fall-out invaded his sleep, she quietly met him where he was at, without question, ready with patience and love.
It’s no doubt that after 5.5 years of captivity, Bud Day’s wife and four children faced some unexpected challenges upon his return home. While some may say children shouldn’t be expected to take care of an ill or injured parent, the reality is, millions are doing so. An NPR segment on young caregivers revealed that there are “more than 1.3 million young people in the U.S. between the ages of 8 and 18 caring for sick or disabled family members.”
The National Industries for the Blind noted that “the war in Afghanistan and Iraq have created more injuries resulting in blindness than any conflict since the Civil War.” For SSGT Aaron Hale, that presented even greater challenges when his wife was diagnosed with malignant melanoma just two months after “the lights went out” for him. With three of their four children being school-aged, the dual treatments could have created a logistical nightmare without external support systems.
The 14 minutes it took for the medevac team to arrive in the field now seems instantaneous, compared with the Hale family’s journey since December 8, 2011. SSGT Hale arrived at Kandahar after having lost both eyes, fracturing his skull, breaking every bone in his face, leaking spinal fluid, suffering burns and countless shrapnel wounds – all from an improvised explosive device. With five years as an Army EOD tech, eight years as a prior Navy chef, and three preceding deployments, Hale was not unschooled about what could – and did – happen. Yet, nothing could have prepared him for this type of battle.
Hale has undergone 26 surgeries to repair and rebuild his face, and still more to create eye orbits fitting of prostheses. His wife, Kelly has endured her own surgeries and chemotherapy while juggling her husband’s medical care and their children’s needs. They credit Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland with exceptional care and pain management. After an intermittent stay in Tampa, Florida for traumatic brain injury surgery, followed by six months of daily mobility training at the blindness rehab unit in Augusta, Georgia the couple moved the family to their second Fisher House stay at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
After sitting down with the Hale family, using the word “resilient” seems an understatement. SSGT Hale recounted his story, and his struggles, with absolute clarity, while turning toward his wife for her take. Their oldest boys, Sheldon and Bailey, spoke openly with me about the fear and worry they felt in simultaneously having an injured and an ill parent. Yet, they mirror the fiercely determined spirit of their parents. “I’ve always acted mature, but I thought taking care of a baby was Mom’s job. I know what to do when he cries, how to deal with his moods,” speaking of his almost three-year old brother, Cameron.
“The hardest thing was not being stable and wondering if your parents are going to be okay,” Sheldon continued. The boys noted moving and leaving friends behind as undeniably difficult, and magnified by their parents’ health crises.
Just as the Day family courageously carried on after the war’s fall-out, the Hale family has set their own course. SSGT Hale briefly returned to the EOD school. “It served two purposes. It helped me to teach the next crop of techs about getting through, and it helped me express my experience by putting the uniform back on to work with practical problems,” he explained.
The Hale family now resides in a permanent home, adapted to meet Aaron’s needs, thanks to the collaborative gift of Building Homes for Heroes and Randy Wise Builders. Kelly Hale spends her time as a Warrior Advocate and Missions Spokesperson for the Building Homes for Heroes Foundation, in between cancer check-ups and family duties. She’s determined to help other wounded warriors and their families. SSGT Hale jogs daily using a dog tug-a-war rope that keeps him and his running mate aligned on the path. He earned his Associates Degree online and plans to continue his education. He also signed on for a Soldiers To Summits “no barriers” expedition. The nonprofit provides an integrative rehab process to restructure veterans’ approach to the past and future.
Sheldon Hale summed up the family’s model for resiliency. “Stay positive, have a goal to go towards, try to keep your mind off things you worry about.” With an affectionate grin, SSGT Hale added, “We learned we can rebound from anything. Our kids have been amazing. It was tough watching them have to grow up fast, but they have done so admirably.”
*Note: Daughter Mackenzie Hale was not present for this interview.