|Download PDF of this full issue: v49n1.pdf (28 MB)|
By Autumn W.
When I was a little girl I would stay a couple weeks out of the summer with my grandparents. I always enjoyed this because my grandparents had a nice plot of land, a garden and a little stream that ran through their backyard. I could act like a wild child, run around the yard naked and no one would care. I also enjoyed going through my grandparents photo albums and my grandmothers sentimental items. I came across my grandfathers Vietnam yearbooks, as I like to call them. It was a book of photos from everyone in his unit just like a high school yearbook. He would sit me on his lap and tell me stories about about everyone in those books. His stories were full of heroism and bravery. All of the men in my family served in the military, most were all combat veterans. I had no idea what war truly was at this time.
I told my grandfather, one day I'm going to be a pilot in the Air Force. He said no you're not! He said you need to do something else with your life, enough of our family has served this country. I always assumed my grandfather tried to deter from joining the military because I was a female. As I grew older my grandmother would take me on post with her to shop at the commissary and on the way I'd watch the men do their PT. I told my grandma, I can't wait to grow up and marry a man just like those men. She said, NO, no you're not. I couldn't understand why she wouldn't want me to marry a man that was strong, brave, good looking and intelligent. The last summer I stayed with my grandparents I found a trash bag full of letters in my grandma's closet. They were letters from my grandfather while he was in Vietnam. They were letters full of fear but also full of love. The letters were from a man I didn't recognize.
It would be years later before I'd truly understand these letters. Fast forward to 2003. I got heavily involved in politics. I was campaigning and volunteering for Senator John Kerry's presidential run. During this time I started reading a lot about Vietnam, because I needed to know everything I could about this man I was volunteering for. I had finally brushed the surface for the reasoning behind my grandfathers wishes that I didn't join the military.
Fast forward to 2006. Through a mutual friend I met a man that was being deployed to Balad, Iraq. He wanted a pen pal. I was completely against the war with Iraq and I had already lost a friend due to suicide who had been deployed to Iraq. I wasn't sure that at the time I was up for this pen pal relationship because at the time I was managing two businesses and raising my daughter Rheanna on my own. Mike got a hold of my phone number and he called me from Balad. We talked for 3 hours that night. He was vulgar, loud, obnoxious but in his own way he was also charming. He would call me a few times a week and sometimes everyday. We started to fall in love via emails and phone calls. I actually felt like this was the perfect beginning to a relationship because all we could do was have long conversations. This went on for 9 months. As the 10th month approached, his best friend Eric Smallwood was killed by an IED blast in front of him and everything changed. His personality became darker and he was afraid. I finally started to understand those letters my grandfather had written to my grandma.
When death is breathing down your back it brings out a lot of emotions invoked by fear. Mike came home in August of 2007 for 2 weeks R&R. Those two weeks were some of the best experiences of my life to date. We made a lot of plans and I had finally found that man I told my grandmother I was going to marry. I looked up to Mike with the utmost respect, he was funny, strong, protective and handsome. I couldn't wait for his time in Iraq to end. In September 2007 he came home, his time in the military would be up in just a couple months so we didn't have to worry about him being redeployed and I thought that he could focus on getting mental and physical help, something I told him he would need after the experience he had just been through. The first couple of months our relationship was close to perfect. I thought back on those conversations with my grandmother and couldn't even dream of the reasonings behind her earlier warnings. I was genuinely happy for the first time in my life. The only thing that worried me is that Mike had not signed up for help. He kept telling me he wanted to live and have fun and that he would get the help he needed he just needed time to live a little first. I was pregnant, we were getting married, life was in full swing.
On November 2nd 2007 Mike sat me down the day before our wedding and told me he had re-enlisted before he left Iraq and that there were rumors that he would be deployed to Afghanistan. I was so upset, he lied to me. On this day we had our first fight and he strangled me with a telephone cord. I was in shock, I couldn't believe what he had done to me. Was this really the man I was about to marry? He begged me to forgive him and told me he would get help and that he was just suffering from the traumas of war. I married him on November 3, 2008. On that day, I think I signed my own death certificate. Mike's PTSD and TBI would consume him and our relationship began to deteriorate. For months the abuse escalated, he refused to get help and his family ignored everything that was going on. They pretended as if everything was ok until the day he tried to cut my throat and beat me with a baseball bat, the fight the would result in the early birth of our daughter. That fight was my fault, I had apparently provoked him and I needed to be more understanding.... This according to his family.
After Jayden was born I assumed life would be different but it wasn't. It was so much worse. I told almost no one what had been going on for the last 9 months but I knew I couldn't raise my kids in that environment so I ran away in the middle of the night. I had hoped if I left that I could get him some forced help from afar. I remember sitting at my mom's dining table talking to his CO who was apologetic but his advice to me was to run and hide with my children and they would take care of their soldier.
They sent him deployment papers instead. My marriage had become my worst nightmare but to the military Mike had become the ideal soldier. Before they could ship him off he was medically discharged due to TBI and PTSD.
The next 3 years would be a rollercoaster of threats and violence even though I filed for protection orders and against my own heart's advice, I filed for divorce. The day the order of protection expired he called me, for months we talked and I actually considered going back to him and there was a 3 month calm before the storm until I made him angry one day and he threatened to kill my entire family. One month later Mike ended his own life on June 20, 2011, just 10 days after his 26th birthday. After all of the shit that we had been through it wasn't until I was sitting across from his casket that I finally realized why my grandmother had warned me.
In my family abuse was a common occurrence, but it was something people in my family didn't talk about and it took me living through it myself to understand that it's ok to talk about abuse, it's ok to seek help. It's been said that I shouldn't stain his memory, but that's not what I'm doing. Unless we all speak out and hold the government accountable for the effects of war on our families, nothing will change. My story is just one of thousands more just like it. So please, if someone shares with you their story don't mistake it for some sort of disrespect against a veteran, listen to them and encourage them to be honest and to seek help.
Autumn W. is the former wife of Army SPC. Mike Willfond from the 875th EN BN out of Paragould AR. She's also the daughter, sister, niece and granddaughter of other combat veterans. She enjoys writing, therapeutic art, and volunteering for anti-recruitment.