A Different Type of Mission Creep
By Janet L. Rail
*This is an article from the Fall 2023 issue of Combat Stress
When I was a little girl, I remember watching my father take a nap and in the middle of it he started twitching and moving around in his sleep. I was going to wake him up because I thought something was wrong, but my mother stopped me. She said, “Let him sleep. Sometimes it’s better not to remember a dream.” This happened more than once, and the answer was always the same. Mom would always calmly lead me away so my dad could finish his nap undisturbed. When I was older, I finally asked my mom what she meant and what was it that my father was dreaming about that could be so bad. The simple answer – “The War.” Dad served in the US Army during World War II. He was part of the 1st Division (the Big Red 1), and even though he is very proud of his service and what he did he never spoke to me about any of it. I was a child – and a girl – and back then, you just didn’t talk about things like that. I knew he drove an ammo truck and spent a lot of time in Germany but while we were children the details were very sketchy. I’m sure my dad was involved in a lot of things that would give anyone nightmares, but he never said anything to us. It wasn’t until my older brother entered the military that my father talked to us about his time overseas, and even then, most of what I learned was good memories and things that would not be upsetting to anyone. The “nightmares” of the war remained unspoken.
When Bob came home from his first mission in Bosnia there was more than one time he started twitching and moving around in his sleep. Laying there next to him I started to instinctively reach out to him to wake him up, but then I heard my mother’s voice, calmly say, “Let him sleep. Sometimes it’s better not to remember a dream.” I would lie there, not moving because I didn’t want anything to wake him up and I would wait until he would stop moving around. I would gently reassure him that he was home, and everything was okay. Sometimes he would wake up and sometimes he would sleep through the whispers, but I always noticed his body starting to relax. Most of the time, he would be able to go back to sleeping peacefully. Even after you are thousands of miles away from the fighting, the war can sneak up on you.
After Bob had been home awhile, the nights of rough dreams became fewer and farther apart, but when he returned home from Kosovo and Iraq once again the nightmare of the war came home with him. Talking about things during the day helped make the nights much better. The military may call it debriefing but just “listening” can be very helpful for both the returning soldier and the family that is waiting for them. Most of the time, the thoughts being recalled are random – good things and bad things, all mixed together. Stress will mess with your memories and there aren’t many more stressful situations than being in a war zone. Sometimes it would be the same story he told me the week before and sometimes it would be all new information. What was important for me to remember was that Bob was not trying to hide information from me. He honestly had forgotten about some incident until that moment. There were things that happened in Bosnia that he remembered after he came home from Iraq.
Watching the news reports just before going to bed definitely did not help! And it didn’t have to be news about the war. It could be something that seems totally innocent about an event that happened in a small town near home but there could be something that reminds him of “something that happened over there,” and the floodgates of his memories were opened.
Time is truly the great healer. As the days turn into years the number of nights the war sneaks back into Bob’s dreams is less and less and this is good. Sometimes I wonder if my dad still has nights when the war sneaks back into his bedroom.
Footnote – When I first started talking about this topic in 2010 my dad had still not shared very much with any of the family. It was after he read some of our printed work that he finally started talking to us about some of the less pleasant things he was involved in with the war. Just before he passed away in 2018, he told us about his part in the Normandy invasion. His ship had been hit and was taking on water. All soldiers were on deck, wearing a life vest and having to decide if they wanted to attempt to swim to shore or hope the engineers could pump the water out fast enough to keep the ship from sinking, taking all the soldiers and equipment down with the ship. They were close enough to the shore to see the men being shot as they swam in, so he decided to take his chances and wait. Over half the men on his ship lost their lives that day. He carried that memory in his heart, all by himself, for over 60 years. We will never know what other nightmares he took with him to his grave.