My dad landed at Omaha Beach with the First Infantry Division on June 7, 1944, into the carnage of D-Day. He was wounded in action in October of that year, hospitalized for five months, and returned to service. His Purple Heart is next to me as I write.
I grew up seeing the physical scars–a deep shoulder gash and shrapnel marks here and there. The emotional scars are impossible to fathom. He spoke little of his combat experience, until he wrote his World War II memoirs 54 years later, a factual account with few glimpses of personal perspective. He wrote at the encouragement of family, not because he felt he’d made a significant contribution or sacrifice. After all, he survived.
My dad was one of the lucky ones who returned home to his family in good physical condition. Over the years, his typical mention of WWII involved references to foxholes and C-rations, or stories about the good people he met in England, France, and Belgium. He answered questions about his experience when asked. When I was very young, I asked him if he’d killed anyone in the war. He said yes. I couldn’t imagine my daddy killing anyone, but I understood that war required killing the enemy.
I also understood that the war had affected families in ways that weren’t discussed openly. Comments made in whispered tones about changes “since the war” hinted of irreparable damage. I still hear remarks about how a couple’s relationship was “never the same after the war”; about episodes of depression “after the war”; about children who never reconnected emotionally with their father as a result of the long separation, or because the father who returned from war was a strangely different person. Family dynamics were permanently altered. Yes, war is hell . . . for the entire family.
The Purple Heart medal is awarded for injury or death in combat. I imagine it represents much more than recipients can express, those who survive with the ability to communicate.
What about the families?
There should be a Purple Heart equivalent for family members of those who serve in combat to acknowledge their sacrifice. Their wounds are often dismissed, while the scars may be permanent. The effects of long absences on a relationship; the stress of single parenting; a child’s anxiety and fear of losing a parent; rifts among the extended family over unmet needs–these are but a few of the wounds of war.
War is hell for the entire family. What can we do about that?