Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Survivor's Guilt and Closure

             Instead of me boring you with the definition of survivor’s guilt, I’d like you to use your own experiences in life for a moment. I want you to think about a time where something tragic may have happened. An event in your life where someone died. Think, just for a minute, about the guilt you may carry because of it. Now hold on to that feeling.

            I want to share with you more of my story. From one perspective, it is a story survival. However, the truth is, this story is all about feeling guilty because I survived. Feeling at fault because I lost one of the men assigned to me. I lost one of my soldiers. You see, as a leader, you take responsibility for everything that happens. I believe this applies in the both the military and civilian world. And for some reason thinking that Jody’s family would blame me for his death. Honestly, part of me always wished I was buried in the ground instead of Jody.  I've carried that feeling with me for over 7 years. This is the story of how I overcame those feelings.
            April 8th, 2006. I was wounded by an improvised explosive device, or IED. In the explosion, PFC Jody W. Missildine was killed. I’ve always felt guilty. That his death was my fault, that I should have seen the IED. But I didn’t, no one did. And I regret it. I’ve punished myself since that day. I’ve hated myself since that day. Part of me has always hated the fact that I survived. I didn’t think it was fair. Many days and nights over the past 7 years I have wished it was me that died that day. Because I felt that if I did die, then I wouldn’t have to suffer. I wouldn’t have to live knowing that I survived and someone else died. How could I celebrate life knowing a young man died that day? Hell, I felt guilty that I didn’t even get to go to his memorial service or funeral. I was in a hospital bed, but that didn’t matter to me. In fact, I was scared to do meet his family. I thought they would blame me for his death. Logically, I knew I didn’t plant that IED. I didn’t set it off. But as a leader, you ALWAYS accept responsibility for what happens to your soldiers.

            Well somewhere along the way, I finally had a chance to visit the family of Jody. The story of how this trip happened is not important as what happened.

            It was a Sunday and I flew into Tampa, FL and was greeted by Jody’s sister Nikki. I had previously spoken with her and we became friends. She was going to drive me to her grandparents’ house. Jody’s grandparents raised him, which is important to note. Since Nikki and I were friends, she was happy to meet me and pretty much set up the meeting between me and the rest of Jody’s family. As I arrived in Florida I was overcome with a lot of emotions. I was happy to be there, yet nervous. Jody’s grandparents had practically demanded I spend the night with them. I think they were excited to meet me. I was pretty happy it was happening.

            As I walked into their home I was greeted with smiles, handshakes, and of course sweet-tea! A true southern tradition. Jody’s grandfather, called Papa, by the family began to show me around. He showed me a display case that housed several pictures of Jody, along with newspaper clippings. I was overcome standing there, seeing this tribute to Jody. I was choked up and wanted to cry right there, but I held it in. Jody’s grandmother, Nana, had told me she had questions. I was ready to share everything I knew right then. But she also said, she didn’t want to ruin the evening. She had dinner cooking and the rest of the family would soon be arriving. She told me to make myself at home and relax. I felt grateful.

            After dinner Nana, Papa, Nikki and I sat down. I started to tell them everything I knew of Jody from the moment I met him until the day he dies. I talked about the first day I met Jody in a much detail as I could remember. I talked about a few days while we were in Iraq. Then finally I talked about that fateful day. I told them that I always felt guilty for what happened.
            I hugged Nana, cried, and told her I was sorry I couldn’t bring him home. She told me, “It’s not fault, but I’m so happy you came here.” Papa told me, “I wish I had known 7 years ago, you felt this way. I would have told you then, it’s not your fault.” Those words filled my heart joy. With that, I had begun to heal then I turned in for the night. The next day I was going to visit the final resting place of Jody.

            On Monday May 20th 2013, I did something I’ve waited over 7 years to do. I was able to visit Jody. Part of my guilt has come from not paying my final respects to him. In Iraq, there was a memorial service and of course I couldn’t attend because I was in hospital bed in Germany. In Iraq, there was memorial service, but I was already at a hospital in the states. I remember someone showing me an article in a local newspaper for our unit in Germany, and I just cried at I looked at his picture. Why had it taken me so long to come here?

            As I walked to Jody’s grave site I was cold, nearly shivering. I stood, and saluted him while tears rolled down face. A few moments later I sat next to him. My first thought was that I still had days where I wished I was in the ground instead of him. At that instant I was overcome with a hot burning sensation and I realized Jody wouldn’t want me to think like. Then the sensation faded. I told Jody I was proud of him and that he was a good soldier. I told him it was an honor to serve with him. I let him that his family and the Black Sheep miss him. I apologized to him for taking so long to pay my respects to him. I spoke to him for a while longer and said things I only wanted Jody to hear. I felt a tremendous weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I promised him that it wouldn’t be another 7 years before I came back. With that, I stood and saluted him one final time then walked away.

            I was set to speak the following day and in the audience would be Jody’s family. As I spoke I felt more emotional than in any previous speech. I also added part of a quote from Abraham Lincoln that he had written to the mother of a soldier killed in the civil war. It read, “I pray that our heavenly father may assuage you the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the alter of freedom.” I choked back the tears and pushed on through the rest of my speech. Afterwards, Nana and Papa both hugged me and thanked me. In a small interview with a local reporter Nana was quoted as saying “Every day, Jeremiah’s work honors Jody’s life. That is what Wounded Warrior Project means to me.”

            I had decided to take Jody’s family to lunch on the day of my departure. I wanted to thank them for their hospitality. We sat and talked more about Jody and just life in general. As we were leaving, something very special happened. Papa reached into his pocket and pulled out a Gold Star pin. This pin is given to the families of that have lost a son or daughter in combat. I knew what it was instantly. I put up my hands in protest and told him “I cannot accept that sir, it is only for families.” He replied, “You’re my family now and I want you to have it.” I looked down at the pin and held it in my hand and started to cry. He put his hand on my shoulder and said “Let it go son, it’s not your fault.” I hugged him and could barely get the words “thank you” out of my mouth.

            I left Florida a few hours later. I knew in my heart that I had gained new family members. And I felt as though I had finally moved towards closure. For me, closure cannot really be defined in words. It’s all about the action and feeling of having done something for someone else. But what you find out is that those people you were trying help, helped you in a way that will never be forgotten. 

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