When Ryan Fleming first came home from Afghanistan, his wife felt lost. Why is he so different? Why aren’t we getting along the way we used to? He’s the same person.
“No, he’s not the same person, and he’s never going to be that same person,” his wife, Ryan-Marie, came to understand. “So you just have to remember the pieces that brought you together to begin with, and try to work on that.”
A presentation by the Flemings gripped the nearly 60 people who gathered at the Coonamessett Inn on Saturday for the first Heroes In Transition (HIT) Couples Retreat, facilitated by John and Kristen Alexander. The retreat was established to offer tools to cope with stresses that are unique to veteran and military couples, such as coping with PTSD and re-establishing relationships after deployments.
“A 91-year-old who fought in the Pacific in World War II came up and told me about the starving Japanese children who ran up to them,” said Cyndy Jones, co-founder of HIT. “Then I welcomed a disabled Vietnam veteran whose wife told me that it’s taken until now for him to start talking about his experiences. That vet later complimented Ryan on being able to verbalize his story instead of holding it in. To see the young and old come together to comfort and learn from each other made for a powerful day.”
Ryan and Ryan-Marie Fleming personified the event’s purpose. Coming out of basic training for the Army National Guard “full steam ahead” and taken over by a quest for perfectionism and “wanting to succeed real bad,” Fleming went back to work as a carpenter but signed up for every possible school offered by the Guard. By the time his unit was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan, he had been tapped as a squad leader. While serving there, he was first injured by a motorcycle bomb that critically injured his mentor in front of his eyes and 10 days later by an IED that exploded beneath the armored vehicle in which he was riding. He insisted on returning to his men to finish out their tour, after which he declined the Army’s request that he join a unit that prepares wounded soldiers to transition either back to the Army or to civilian status.
“That was a big mistake on my part,” he told the gathering. He figured that he would just flip the switch back to being dad and husband and friend again. But he soon began shutting down. Eventually, he opened up to a counselor about his depression, and thought the drugs he was then prescribed would solve the problem. Instead, things grew worse, especially between him and Ryan-Marie.
“I didn’t want to open up to her about what I saw,” he said, choking up. “That’s kind of why I did it in the first place, was so that other people didn’t have to. I was like a drill sergeant to my wife and kids, and they didn’t want to be around me at all.”
Taking over the microphone, his wife explained that she didn’t know what she should say or how to relate, so she suggested that he get together with his buddies.
“You guys have to stick together,” she told the rapt gathering. “You can’t go it alone. The first couple of years, we were surviving but we weren’t happy. The last couple of years it’s been a total turnaround. We found those things that made us happy. This is what’s worked for us, talking to other families.”
Also featured at the retreat were Marie Bartram, a certified holistic health counselor who conducted a guided-imagery session, and Dan Riley, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran and career-transition specialist who assured both the veterans and the spouses who supported their careers that their skills are eminently transferrable to the civilian sector.
Appropriately, given its vital role in coping with stress, the day began and ended with humor. To kick things off, Loretta LaRoche , a stress management and humor consultant who has appeared on PBS, urged meditation (even as simple as walking or listening to music) and gave hilarious examples of using humor to reframe stressful situations. Poking fun at one’s own controlling behaviors and foibles are a good place to start, she told her audience, donning a hat that evokes images of Attila the Hun.
“Everyone has the ability to laugh at themselves,” she said. “You just have to work at it.”
But her message also focused on the serious: Stillness and a sense of peace fell over the room as LaRoche asked everyone to pause and think of a person or a pet in their lives who has given unconditional love, and to whom they have given it in return.
We’re all vulnerable, she assured her audience, so embrace your community.
Wrapping things up were two comedians from New York City: Joe Mylonas, an Army veteran with PTSD, and Marine Corps veteran Keith Godwin, who has battled addiction and is part of the group Recovery Comics. The shared laughter was an ideal ending for the day and a perfect bridge to future gatherings: Heroes In Transition organizes monthly get-togethers for veterans and their spouses.
“I just had one woman come up and say, ‘I feel like you’re talking about our story,’” said Ryan-Marie Fleming. “When he first came home, we didn’t really connect with anybody. I like having other couples understand that they’re not alone. You’re not alone, and there’s hope.”