The dichotomy of the returning warrior

Bill Munsell knows all too well the struggles that come after returning from battle — he’s done it twice.

“I have to be a dad and a husband and still deal with the things I saw,” says Munsell, 54, a sergeant first class in the National Guard. That dichotomy — that there are two sides to a soldier — is integral to understanding how to help veterans, he says.

We'll be hosting a presentation April 26 in West Brookfield to help you learn more about what your community can do to understand and support veterans. Learn more here.

Munsell says there’s the warrior, the side of the soldier who has to do a job, forgetting familiar feelings. And there’s the side that has to step “outside the wire” and be a husband, a son, a sister, a mom. The biggest struggle for returning veterans, Munsell thinks, is when the warrior side emerges. “It’s fight or flight,” he says, and people have to understand that’s what a soldier is going through.

And, while he appreciates the thanks and the graciousness and the welcomes he receives pretty much daily, he scoffs that he is a hero. In fact, at his company’s recent Christmas party, he was asked to give a speech. “My soldiers know how I feel about the army,” he says, so he didn’t bother talking about that. Instead, he said, “You call us heroes but the true heroes are the supporters. They let us know there’s something worth fighting for.”

Munsell’s wife of 21 years, Jeanne, continues to amaze him with her patience and love. There are nights, he says, when she wakes up to find him across the room, talking to himself. She gets up and sits beside him until he wakes up, listens patiently, waits for him to come to terms with his memories. His daughter, Kaitlyn, now a college student, recently wrote an essay for a class in which she talked about his absences, the unknowingness of his departures — and her unbounded pride in his service. “They are the true heroes,” Bill Munsell says, “because of what they’ve given up.”

Serving his country is an honor with a simple inspiration: “I love my country and I love the people in it.”

Munsell served in Iraq from 2005 to 2007 and in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011. He still serves full-time with the National Guard, working with FEMA on homeland response to disasters.

Even though he’s been back in the U.S. for almost four years, he admits there are still struggles, like the middle-of-the-night talks and the daily memories of fallen colleagues. And people have to understand, that’s when the warrior side comes out. Things happen, things are said, things are remembered and it “brings us back to a bad place,” he says.

“It’s difficult to share those stories. We don’t know how. Sometimes we just need someone to listen — no guidance, just ears.”

That’s one of the aspects of the Brookfield Institute’s Care for the Troops program that he is most thankful for — the help soldiers can get when they’re ready. “They support soldiers and give them strength and educate them,” Munsell says. “You just let those soldiers come in and you help them.”

Those are true heroes, he says, the people who are there when you need them.

Come learn how you can support veterans and active duty military at our April 26 presentation.

Vietnam War pins signify more than you’d know

The pinning ceremony is scheduled for Thursday, March 15, after the Yoga Warriors class that veteran Roy Dennington credits with giving him a renewed resilience in his post-war and post trauma life. The pinning will begin about 12:30 p.m. at Central Mass Yoga and Wellness, 45 Sterling Street, No. 28, West Boylston, Mass (top floor of Causeway Mall — intersection of Mass. Rtes. 110 and 12).  Belinda Morrone, a retired Air Force colonel and nurse who supported U.S. military air evacuations from the Gulf wars through the ongoing post-911 Mideast conflicts, will present the Vietnam War Veteran pins.

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Heading Toward Home Base

As part of a panel of veterans and those who work with veterans, Ryan Casavant plans to tell his own story and then tell others about Home Base. The nonprofit was founded by the Red Sox Foundation after the baseball team made a trip to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The players had been planning to spend just a few hours there, but ended up spending an entire day and having to be dragged out at closing time. “They realized they wanted to do something” and Home Base was born, says Casavant. Massachusetts General Hospital is a partner in the program, which is self-funded through donations and fundraising and specializes in helping not just veterans, but their families as well.

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Returning from war

Roy Dennington remembers all too clearly the ordeals he had after returning from war, both immediate and delayed.

There was the initial homecoming, when Vietnam veterans were ostracized to the point that Dennington and his comrades went into hiding. Then there were the problems adjusting to civilian life, including stress, bankruptcy and “way too much drinking.”

Then, decades after Dennington’s service, things became problematic again. “What had not been apparent earlier became more apparent,” says Dennington, 73, of Clinton, Mass. He had monumental health problems, a heartbreaking family tragedy and was watching his life unravel in front of his eyes.

“I don’t like to say PTSD, but that’s my diagnosis,” he says.

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Beyond 'Thank you for your service'

Beverly Prestwood-Taylor, cofounder of the Brookfield Institute and executive director of Care for the Troops - Massachusetts, sat down to talk about how our workshops,  like our upcoming one March 11, can benefit anyone who wants to reach out to veterans and active duty military.

 Beverly Prestwood-Taylor

Beverly Prestwood-Taylor

Vets and active duty military have given so much to serve our country. Can we civilians sacrifice a day of our time to try to better understand and respond to the needs service members and their families might have. 

Why do you think people need to be educated in how to help veterans?

Most vets are the kind of people who want to offer help rather than receive help. There has also been a stigma in the past around receiving help. In this workshop, friends, neighbors, family members and professionals who work with vets will be able to identify when help is needed, know some strategies to offer support and some resources and providers that have an excellent record in working with veterans and active duty military.

What do veterans say about the way they’re treated?

Most vets appreciate the outpouring of gratitude from the general public and the way they have been thanked profusely for their service. However, because such a small percentage of the population has actually been sent to combat, most people don’t have a close family member or friend who served. Hence, they don’t have first- or secondhand experience about what veterans face when they are deployed and what they face when they return. A small percentage of families have had to deal with all of the sacrifice of multiple deployments, and most of their neighbors and friends don’t have a clue what it is like on a daily basis. It can be very isolating for military families. 

It helps when a person is willing to take a step beyond saying, “Thank you for your service” and offer some concrete assistance. It could be as simple as helping a neighbor with the snow shoveling or offering to babysit so the couple can get out together, or inviting the spouse over for a cup of coffee or tea. Or just asking, “What do you need?”  There are simple neighborly things to do, but they mean so much when a spouse is deployed or coping with the challenge of re-integrating. Assisting with a job search or job skills is invaluable help. 

You mention first responders and health care workers as groups that would benefit from this workshop. What types of things should they do differently with veterans than they do with other people?

When a vet is re-experiencing combat or is “triggered,” he or she may act violently or may not immediately respond to a police officer or medical personnel. If they have strategies to use to engage vets, the outcome is better for everyone. 

Is Trauma Resilience training complicated? Will it work with people other than veterans? 

The training is easy to learn and has concrete applications. Much of it will be helpful to anyone who has experienced trauma or worked with trauma recovery.  

Learn more about our March 11 workshop, Got Your Back: A Community Supporting Veterans.