NPR

When A Child Comes Home From War

Since 2001, more than 1.9 million sons and daughters have been deployed to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. For many young veterans, homecoming can be a time of mixed emotions and changing family dynamics after a life-changing experience at war.

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jacki Lyden in Washington, in for Neal Conan. This Veterans Day holiday, we take the time to thank our soldiers home from war and to remember those who didn't make it back. Of the nearly two million who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and since come home, one million have separated now from the armed forces.

Welcoming them home from the front is a big event, an emotional time for veterans and their families, and for some, those deployments were their first times away from home. If this is your story, if you recently welcomed your child home from Iraq or Afghanistan, or if you've recently returned from deployment, we want to hear from you. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website, npr.org.

Later in the program, we talk about the legacy of General David Petraeus, who commanded American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. But first, when sons and daughters return from war. Corporal Derrick Jensen was deployed to Iraq three times with the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines. His mother, Tracy Della Vecchia, had so many questions about her son's deployment - he was on base during September 11th, getting ready to ship out - that she ended up founding an organization called Marine Parents, in search of answers.

Today that organization has grown. Twelve million people per week visit marineparents.com. Derrick and Tracy both join us now. Tracy joins us from member station KBIA in Columbia, Missouri; and Derrick joins by phone from Fulton, Missouri. Welcome to you both.

CORPORAL DERRICK JENSEN: Thank you.

TRACY DELLA VECCHIA: Thanks for having us, Jacki.

LYDEN: Happy Veterans Day.

JENSEN: Thank you.

LYDEN: Tracy, I want to start with you. Take us back to that day that your son Derrick Jensen came home for good from Iraq after three deployments. What were you thinking?

VECCHIA: You know, all three of the times that he was deployed to Iraq gave me pause for different kinds of thoughts on his homecoming, and probably the most - the one that is most poignant in my mind is the first one. The third one was certainly, you know, a great deal of relief, and he was going to be out of the Marine Corps by that time and ecstatic that I wouldn't have to worry through a tour.

LYDEN: Well, then, tell us the first one. You said that was the most poignant.

VECCHIA: The most poignant was the first one. A week before his homecoming I had watched a National Geographic program that featured his battalion and what they had done when they were in Iraq. And so I saw his battalion in action, front and center, with National Geographic, and literally a week before he came home.

So I knew what he had done, and I knew what they had seen, and I knew that he was probably going to have a tough time. And he was our hero at that point in time, you know. The first return home was a successful return home I guess I should say. And, you know, we felt like he was a hero, and I think that's kind of the way that America felt, too.

LYDEN: Yeah, so many thoughts and emotions. I can tell that it sounds a little emotional even now. Derrick, let me ask you, you come home, it's your first deployment. This is '03, you've been in-country through the invasion of Baghdad. What are you thinking about as you come home? Had you been away from home before?

JENSEN: Well, I mean, other than going away for boot camp and going to my unit, I was used to being away from home at that point, but to be away from home in a different country, in a country where you could, you know, possibly, you know, become injured or lose your life, it was worrisome. And coming home was great. I never thought I was going to have to go back after that. I thought we were done.

And it was a relief to know that I made it through and was able to make it back home. It was a big relief.

LYDEN: How old were you when you shipped out?

JENSEN: From Iraq I was 19, I believe, and I was going to turn 20 - or wait, no, I was 18 getting ready to turn 19, I think.

LYDEN: Aha, young. So Tracy Della Vecchia, you wanted to talk to other parents. Tell me how this website began, and what did you want to share with them?

VECCHIA: Originally I was - I had really selfish motives. I wanted to find other people whose families had sons deployed with my son's Marine unit. And so I used some keywords, and at that time I knew how to beat the Google search engines, and I put the website at the top of the search engine so I could find other parents.

And then within a couple of weeks, I was literally getting 400 emails a week, and so I realized there was a huge need there for communication with parents. And started with a little, teeny, tiny gosh I think I ought to do this and my son saying I knew you were going to build a website, mom, and away it went. Ten years later it's a vibrant, growing, massive organization.

LYDEN: When we talk about homecoming, so much emphasis is placed on the actual event of homecoming, not the weeks and months thereafter. What advice would you give to parents about those first few months or even years?

VECCHIA: You know, the - for me the most important thing is, and was, to listen, listen, listen. I had read enough and seen enough and heard enough stories of people telling me this is how hard it was for my son when he came home that I had learned what to watch for. And...

LYDEN: Such as?

VECCHIA: Such as withdrawing or angry or not being able to be in crowds of people. Different triggers setting off emotions that he would be uncomfortable with. And I have one of those personalities that, you know, I avoid conflict. And so when my son was getting angry about things that didn't make any sense to me, it was pretty troubling.

LYDEN: Let's turn to your son. Derrick, when you got home the final time in 2006, the transition wasn't an easy one, as I understand. Could you share with us a story of what happened?

JENSEN: Well basically - hold on a second, sorry. Basically I - it was just hard trying to transition into what the real world was going to be like and what it had in store for me. I became very overwhelmed with small things. Everything that I had to take care of on my own as an adult became difficult, trivial things that are simple, as far as, like, going to get your license renewed or having to go to work every day.

It was hard to do just the - I fell into a state of depression where I didn't want to do anything, almost kind of felt sorry for myself and felt like I needed to - needed help with things. I didn't - I wasn't very self-reliant, and I always needed help with, like I said, the trivial things in life.

LYDEN: And this, Tracy Della Vecchia, is where you start to notice that maybe there is something, you should do something more than you might otherwise do for an adult child?

VECCHIA: Right, and when - at that time, going to the VA hospital, they weren't as ready for the military to come back, I don't think that, you know, that many years ago as they are today. Certainly, there's awesome success stories now, going to the Veterans Administration for assistance with medical issues.

But at the time, they really didn't want to pinpoint anything. They didn't want to act on anything. They'd put heart monitors on him and but still not be able to figure out, you know, why he would pass out, why he would have so many anxious moments, things like that that were critical signs of something really intense going on.

LYDEN: Right. We're talking with Tracy Della Vecchia, who is the founder of the website Marine Parents, and her son Corporal Derrick Jensen, who served three deployments to Iraq with the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines. And if you've recently returned from deployment, we want to hear from you, particularly if you've returned to your family of origin.

If you are a son or a daughter coming back to the family unit, we'd like to hear from you. The number to call is 800-989-8255. So you said that at first - what was going on precisely with Derrick, Tracy? Could you tell us?

VECCHIA: He had a tough time maintaining a job and things like that and really kind of figuring out where he wanted to go, what he wanted to do. He was first and foremost a warrior at that point in time. That's what he knew. That's what he loved. And then when he was no longer with the guys that he had been through all of this with, it was tough to make sense of things.

And as he said, little things were difficult for him. I think the complications of that and the anxiety that he felt, he literally would be walking across a room and pass out; not sleeping and some aggressive moments and things like that that were just very, very challenging for him, and really led to a life of, you know, not being able to have a productive life.

LYDEN: And Derrick, how did that situation bear out on people close to you, other people close to you?

JENSEN: Well, I mean, I'd gotten married very young at the time, and so we spent about a year together after the Marine Corps. Excuse me. And like I said, we got married young, and we didn't know what we were doing, and we later found out that we weren't in love with each other like we thought we were. And so that kind of, you know, coming back and not being part of the Marine Corps unit and struggling with life, that was a struggle with my relationships, and it has been since.

To have lasting relationships with someone else has always been a hard time because there's a lot to deal with someone who's come back from overseas, and been in a combat situation because life is just different for us, and we - you know, there's a lot of needs that we have and a lot of needs that need to be fulfilled.

And it's just - it was hard to be able to make that transition. I've had friends that, you know, I've kind of - I'm still in touch with and very good friends with, but some of my friendships have not so much ended but became less frequent because of the PTSD that I suffer from. And family members, too. I'm distant from family members from time to time now.

LYDEN: But you're in school, and things are going - things are going a bit better?

JENSEN: Yeah, yeah, school's great. I'm enjoying it. I'm in my last year of college, and I'm at a school that's very capable and willing to help me with some of the things that I have going on in my life, and they're very understanding. It's a great community here that takes care of me, and follow the Yellow Ribbon Program, and very veteran-friendly.

And I tell you, this has been - being here at this school, this small, private, liberal arts college has been absolutely wonderful. They've taken care of everything that I need and been - it's like a family away from my family, and I've enjoyed it immensely.

LYDEN: Well, Derrick Jensen, we are so very glad that we could share in your story today, and we'll let you get back to class, and thank you. And Tracy, if you would please stay with us. Corporal Derrick Jensen served three deployments in Iraq with the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, and he's now a senior at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. And thank you for your service, Derrick, on this Veterans Day.

Call us at 1-800-989-8255. We'll have more in just a minute. I'm Jacki Lyden, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And to mark this Veterans Day, we're talking about homecomings, when the men and women deployed on our behalf come back to the States and reunite with family and friends. Tracy Della-Vecchia is the founder of Marine Parents. She's my guest. And we'd like to hear from you. If you fought in Iraq or Afghanistan or if you welcomed your loved one back from those fronts, tell us about the reunion.

Call us at 800-989-8255. Or send us an email, talk@npr.org. And let's talk now to Kent(ph), who's talking to us from Greensboro, North Carolina. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Kent.

KENT: Thank you very much.

LYDEN: When did you come back?

KENT: Well, it was my son. My son was a Marine who spent two combat tours in Iraq. And the thing that was interesting to me is I'm a Vietnam veteran who was also a corpsman, and he left, when he left in November evening, and when he left, he left out of the same barracks that I left out of.

And it was difficult - excuse me if I choke up. I'm an old man now, and I do that. So - but it was a different perspective for me as a man sending his own son into war and watching him come back and deal with the things that he has to deal with.

LYDEN: And how would you say the two of you were different, Kent, and maybe how the same?

KENT: Well, I think that, you know, different in the fact, of course, that I'd had, you know, 40 years between, and we left and came back from Vietnam, it was an unpopular, and for - and I would like to thank the men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan for allowing us of the Vietnam era to be able to step forward and tell our stores now, but...

LYDEN: Absolutely.

KENT: As a father, you know, watching your young son - and I can just remember walking by the barracks doors, the same barracks, they haven't changed at all, you know, and reading the different names on the doors and the ages, 19, 20, 21 years old, seeing his own name on the door and then watching him pack his body armor and give me his civilian clothes.

And the emotions that I had were obviously very intense. I just remember that whenever I get ready to leave him, and I put him around him, I start to cry.

LYDEN: Yeah, yeah, is that...?

KENT: He put his hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eye and said: Dad, I'm going to be OK. And at that time, I knew that he'd made that transition because for the first time in his life, he'd comforted his father. When he came back, you know, he came back after one tour, was home seven months, went back for a second tour. He now has some slight traumatic brain injury. He has hearing loss in one ear. He has partial loss of vision in one eye.

But he's in college, and he's going to college, and just being able to - I think the bond that we shared is that of many veterans when they talk to one another but especially with a father talking to a son and helping him try to understand that to make that transition back into a civilian situation where he felt like that nobody understood him, especially in a college environment where he was with 18-, 19-year-olds who had no idea about what it is he had been through and what he was returning to and the adjustment that he was trying to make.

LYDEN: Is that your son's mom I hear in the background there? Miranda - no, no, Tracy Della-Vecchia, yeah, I was...

VECCHIA: I'm saying yes, yes to everything that Kent's saying there. You know, the difference is, too, that Kent knew what his son was going to go through because he'd been there, done that before, too. And I think that when they come back, and you know what they've done, and you know how they struggled to feel civilian again, that's really tough.

You know, Derrick and I kind of skirted around the two years of his life that were the worst and the most traumatic on his homecoming that, you know, it's tough to talk about those things because I know that it changed his life forever. He's not the 18-year-old kid that, you know, I kissed goodbye on his way to war the first time.

And I'll never have that part of him back. But he also says that he wouldn't trade it for anything in the world, either. You know, he's learned so much and grown so much. It's been a long time since I've talked about this stuff. So it feels a little bit emotional to me, too. So my apologies for that.

LYDEN: Oh Tracy, we're just very glad that you're here with us today.

VECCHIA: You know, I think that because they're always on when they're overseas, they're always in combat mode, to come back and then five months later be deployed again and then come home and five months later be deployed again, it was hard to get out of that combat mode. And things that seem normal to you and I are really overwhelming to kids that are trying to get their feet back on the ground as a civilian.

And smells, sounds, too many people, things like that are triggers for them, that, you know, you and I are fine with it, but he struggles through it immensely.

LYDEN: Well, we really want to thank Kent for calling and his son for his service, and let's take a look at the research looking into how service members are reintegrating into their home relationships, their romantic relationships, relationships with their own children if they're vets. There's less that's been - we've done but, but much less is known about what happens when young veterans return to live with their moms and dads.

And we're joined now by another guest, Miranda Worthen. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Sciences at Recreation at San Jose State University. And her 2012 study about young veterans' experiences of living with parents after deployment was published in the Journal of Contemporary Family Therapy. And Miranda Worthen joins us in the studio in Berkeley, California. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Miranda.

MIRANDA WORTHEN: Thank you very much for having me.

LYDEN: So as you've - I know that you've been listening to Derrick and Kent and Tracy Della-Vecchia. Why has so little research been done about young vets coming back home to be with parents, even if it's just for a short amount of time?

WORTHEN: Well, our study was part of a broader study on veterans returning home after war, and it was led by Dr. Jennifer Ahern(ph) here at U.C. Berkeley and funded by the Hellman Family Faculty Fund. And one of the things that I found when we started having these conversations was really just how many young vets were coming back to live with their parents.

So we found three-quarters of vets under age 25 were living with their parents when they got from the military at least some time. Often they would start college, drop out, come back, live with their parents a few months, go back, get a job. So there was this pattern of coming back to the family home and then launching into some other time of their life.

In California, we found that half of unmarried veterans under the age of 30 currently live at home, and given how many people do do that pattern coming back and forth, we think the number who live at home for some period is much higher.

And I can't tell you why no one else has done this research, but I can say that within the military, the emphasis has always really been on communication with spouses and on supporting the family that lives at the base, and that's generally spouses and children and sometimes girlfriends or boyfriends.

And so I think there's that predisposition from the military side, and so from the civilian side, that's where we're really seeing how the extended family - the parents, the siblings, aunts and uncles, all of those individuals - how they're affected and the incredibly opportunity that they have to support their young veterans who are coming back.

VECCHIA: Yeah, 70 percent of the Marine Corps are single men and women. So, you know, the support from the military is to 30 percent of the families that are married and living on the base. There's 70 percent that are out there that are single.

LYDEN: And you also find in your research, Miranda, for a lot of these single young people coming home, it can also be a real net positive.

WORTHEN: Yeah absolutely. Overall, veterans really appreciated their parents' support, giving them a place to stay, helping them connect. I talked with one woman who said it was just helpful to be able to talk to her mom, find out when she was going off to an interview what kind of shoes were appropriate to wear because she had been in the military for so long that she had forgotten for a civilian job just how to dress.

So there's that kind of day-to-day support that can be important. But then on the other side, as I think we've heard from Tracy today and Corporal Jensen and also from Kent calling in, there are issues with strain and conflicts, and these problems are particularly common when veterans return home with PTSD or other kinds of adjustment difficulties.

And I do think one of the things we found was once veterans and their parents had a common language to understand what was happening, so a diagnosis of PTSD, that kind of language enabled the parents to become tremendous advocates for their veteran children and also to take patience and really work with their child to understand what their experiences and what's going on for them.

LYDEN: Let's take another call here. Melissa is calling from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Melissa.

MELISSA: Hi. Thank you.

LYDEN: Hi. So what was it like for you coming home?

MELISSA: For me coming home, I know the thing I remember most about when I first saw my mom, because I was single at the time, was I did not want - I hugged her, and then I'm like, OK, I'm ready to go back to the barracks. Have a nice day, Mom. And she kind of looked at me because I was trying to distance myself and go back to my battle buddies and my platoon. And I actually sent her home early because I just wasn't ready for the interaction. I didn't really know how to respond to an overly emotional parent and...

LYDEN: How long had you been gone, Melissa?

MELISSA: I was - I served during 2003-2004, and then I was out there November last year. I actually shut it down as well.

LYDEN: So you just...

WORTHEN: Melissa, you're not alone here. I'll just share. We actually spoke with one veteran who hadn't even told his family that he had been deployed, so he had been in Afghanistan for nine months, and he told his brother to tell them that he was still on base in Texas. So I think there's a lot of hesitance to just share what you know is going to be extremely difficult and painful for those you love. And it goes both directions. I think parents often try to protect their children from their own emotional distress while the child is gone. And so that transition, that immediate time period is a point where, kind of, everything is bared open, and you see what is there and you kind of have to acknowledge it for the first time.

MELISSA: It was, yeah. It was a lot. I found out when Jessica Lynch was captured, I'm actually blond-haired, blue-eyed when I was a private this time. When Jessica Lynch was captured, my mom actually had a nervous breakdown because they didn't - she hasn't heard from me and I didn't find out until later from my aunt how bad she was, mentally and emotionally, while I was gone. She never told me.

LYDEN: Did she actually have to seek medical help?

MELISSA: Yes.

LYDEN: Wow.

MELISSA: Yeah. They actually had her on tranquilizers and anti-depressants the entire time I was gone.

LYDEN: Tracy Della-Vecchia, if you had known about a situation like Melissa's, I'm sure you've heard of many things like this, what sort of advice do you offer?

VECCHIA: You know, for families that come to us with, you know, how do you cope with deployment, you know, read and read and read. Learn as much as you can about, you know, what they're doing, what they're going to go true and what it's like coming home again. And be ready to listen when they come home or not. It's just as important that you give them the space that they need. As Melissa's saying, she needed space. You know, sometimes they come back and they want to be with family, or they get with family and they think, OK, wait a minute. This wasn't the right decision either.

For Derrick, when he got out of the service, he was so used to somebody else directing his day that making a simple decision, such as what shoes to wear to a job interview, was impossible for him. The military told him how to do everything. And now, all of a sudden, he was supposed to make his own decisions again. So even that was a tough transition for him.

LYDEN: If you just joined us, we're talking about when young veterans come home. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Thank you very much for your call today, Melissa. And let's go now to Mary who's calling from New Haven, Connecticut. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Mary.

MARY: Hello.

LYDEN: Hello. What was it like for you coming home?

MARY: Actually, it was my son that was in Afghanistan and Iraq. And he saw a lot of heavy combat, and we knew that he had PTSD because he said he had gotten 80 percent disability. And he told my other son that it was, you know, it was a lot of nightmares and sometimes (unintelligible). He seemed very - a little bit paranoid but, you know, he was always a very energetic type person. When he's easily aggressive, we didn't really notice anything that out of the ordinary. So when, this last spring, he killed himself, we were surprised, or we were really shocked.

LYDEN: I'm so very, very sorry to hear that, Mary. How - what has been useful to you? You've called in today. I can't really imagine what those first hours and days had to be like. What can you share with us that would be useful?

MARY: Well, I think, like, the first people that spoke when they first - when you first open the program, I think it's really important to try to pay attention to signs of PTSD, and really learn what those are. You know, I thought I knew some of these kind of things, but my son seemed so upbeat when we saw him. He kept talking about the future. We just never imagined that things would get so bleak for him. I guess he would binge drink sometimes in the Army, and that's kind of their culture. And so we didn't really see anything out of the ordinary. He seemed normal all the time that we only heard from his wife who separated from him right near the end that he had been drinking alone and - but still I just couldn't imagine, the times I saw him, he seemed. He seemed so upbeat. I think he was putting on a face for us, that (unintelligible) we do recognize.

LYDEN: I feel like we should learn his name here.

MARY: Oh. His name is Robert Kenneth Roulx.

LYDEN: And we just want to think about him and think about you, and thank you so much for sharing that. Tracy Della-Vecchia, probably not the first such story that you have heard.

VECCHIA: No. No, unfortunately. And my son had gotten so bleak that, you know, his outlook on life was pretty grim, and he didn't want to keep going. And it's unfair for me to tell that part of the story that he didn't share. But I know that he literally was rescued by my son-in-law who's in the Army who listened very carefully to what he was saying. And one afternoon, I found out that my son-in-law was driving to Columbia to see Derrick, and I thought, good grief, what in the world is going on? And he got here, like, in an hour and 10 minutes, which is a record breaker for sure for a two-hour drive. And literally hearing Derrick and talk about what he was talking about and that kind of thing with David, David knew that it was time to act and do something immediately or Derrick was going to take his life and...

LYDEN: So parents need to be prepared at what seemed for such a wide variety for, you know, you don't want to hold them too close. You don't want to push them away. You want to ask questions. You don't want to intrude. It's a conflict.

VECCHIA: And I strongly...

WORTHEN: And I'll just jump in here.

LYDEN: Miranda, yes, we just have a moment left.

WORTHEN: I just want to say I think people refer to these as the invisible injuries of war. But as we're hearing very clearly today, they're not invisible to family. And I think it's important to - for family members to be that listening ear, as Tracy mentioned. But also, Mary, obviously you did what you could. And to honor and to recognize that not, you know, family members aren't the only people who needs to be able to act. And as community members, we also need to be aware of what's going on in our midst.

LYDEN: Thank you so much. Miranda Worthen is assistant professor in the department of health and science and recreation at San Jose State University. Thanks for your time. And Tracy Della-Vecchia is the founder of Marine Parents, a nonprofit source and information, and she joined us from Columbia, Missouri. Tracy, thank you. And thanks to Derrick so much.

VECCHIA: Thank you, Jacki.

LYDEN: And coming up, we'll talk about General David Petraeus, his legacy after a long career and a very sudden resignation. I'm Jacki Lyden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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