Why veterans struggle to share their stories with their kids

"My wife and my kids never knew what I did for many years."
Lt. Col. Paul Huszar reunites with his family after returning from his deployment to Iraq.
Lt. Col. Paul Huszar reunites with his family after returning from his deployment to Iraq, where his convoy hit an improvised explosive device.Courtesy Paul Huszar
/ Source: TODAY

Lt. Col. Paul Huszar had been on a mission for nearly 20 hours. Exhausted, he was riding in the second of four military vehicles making their way back to Joint Base Balad, about 60 miles north of Baghdad, Iraq.

It would take Huszar years to process what happened next. Like many veterans, he avoided speaking openly about his combat experiences because he didn't want to worry his family.

As the convoy rolled back to Balad, Huszar saw a flash of green light and heard a loud explosion. The first vehicle in the caravan had struck an improvised explosive device.

“This green flash of smoke goes off and it blows the truck up in front of us,” Huszar recalled of the 2010 incident. “It blew off all the tires and disabled the vehicle.”

Huszar, at the time a U.S. Army battalion commander in charge of 1,000 soldiers, quickly instructed his team to use infrared cameras and other technology to find any additional threats before helping their fellow soldiers. Fortunately, no one was hurt. As Huszar exited his vehicle and began walking, he looked down at his feet and saw what appeared to be a piece of exposed metal.

“I just said, ‘Hey, everybody halt!’” the combat veteran told TODAY Parents. “I think I almost stepped on a mortar round.”

Once he made it back to the base, Huszar gave his wife, Elise, a brief overview of what had happened. Almost immediately, he began worrying about the questions he knew would eventually come from other family members and friends — and, most significantly, from his kids. He wondered how he’d ever be able to tell them about what happened in Iraq.

Lt. Col. Paul Huszar leads the 37th Engineer Battalion Task Force Eagle off the plane after returning from Iraq.Courtesy Paul Huszar

Dr. Shannon Curry, a clinical psychologist specializing in war-related trauma and PTSD, said it’s common for combat veterans to struggle to open up with their children and other loved ones about what they’ve experienced. This is because war causes such profound psychological stress.

“The experiences of war can be horrifying, confusing and — what most service members aren't prepared for — embarrassing,” Curry told TODAY Parents. “PTSD or not, they all have experiences they weren’t prepared for. They come out thinking something they felt, thought or experienced wasn’t right or wasn’t normal, and it becomes this deep dark secret.”

Curry said many veterans suffer in silence for years.

“That shame turns into loneliness,” she explained. “Deep down, they assume that if anyone knew the whole story, that they would judge them negatively.”

Buried stories of Vietnam

Bill George, a 71-year-old U.S. Air Force and Army veteran, said he and other combat veterans he knows have blocked out certain memories.

“You aren’t able to recall the blood or the wounds,” George said, describing the selective recall as “a protective device from God.” “I personally don’t remember a lot. Stories told to me about what I did or how I behaved under certain circumstances have become ‘my’ memory.”

Combat veteran Bill George told TODAY that this is the only photo he has of himself from his time in Vietnam.Courtesy Bill George

George credits Staff Sgt. George Renfroe with his recollection of the events from September 1970 when they were enlisted in the Air Force as part of the 17th Special Operations Squadron in Vietnam.

“We were in a church with about a dozen others when a nearby explosion shook the building,” George told TODAY Parents from his home in Hawaii. “All of us were on the ground under the pews and George looked at me. I looked at him and said, ‘What do we do?’”

When George and Renfroe got up to investigate, their discovery was gruesome.

“About 100 yards away, we found ‘debris’ — a boot with bone sticking out, shreds of material, a depression about half the size of a soccer ball in the packed earth, pieces of metal,” he recalled. “The (deceased) Airman ... took a direct hit from a 122mm rocket.”

George’s experience in Vietnam would be buried for decades.

“I was a PTSD denier. My wife and my kids never knew what I did for many years,” George said of his years in combat. “I kind of clammed into a shell. I was in my late 40s or early 50s before I started to talk to with guys I went to war with. The reason why was because in my memories, I was like a dictator. I was afraid to see how these guys would react (to me) — that’s why I never made contact. When I went, it was the opposite. They said things like, ‘You saved my life.’”

Curry confirmed that many people who experience trauma have difficulty remembering segments of past traumatic events.

“Our brains do occasionally take measures to protect us from severe psychological trauma, and dissociating during a traumatic experience is one of the more common examples of this,” she said. “The individual experiencing the trauma is in an altered state of consciousness which serves the function of lessening their distress in the immediate moment.”

Why sharing can be so healing

Facing up to past experiences and talking about them openly, as George did, can mark an important turning point for combat veterans.

“We thrive when we feel connected to and understood by our fellow human beings, and we suffer immensely when we are harmed or do harm to others,” Curry said. “The human psyche is not intended to experience the horrors of war. Exposure to prolonged and intense combat is traumatic, regardless of whether the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD is met. Not surprisingly, as social creatures, sharing our experiences happens to be one of the healing activities we can do.”

Today, Huszar, 52, of Tampa, Florida, makes an effort to share his combat experiences with others. He feels it’s important to do so, because so many Americans don’t have an accurate understanding of war.

“That’s one of the challenges we have: The rest of society doesn’t have a clue, so it’s hard to share those experiences in general,” Huszar said. “I always told my soldiers if you don’t tell your story, the only thing American people are going to know about you is what they see in movies.”

Lt. Col. Paul Huszar, an engineer, greets the Iraqi Army Chief of Engineers.Courtesy Paul Huszar

Huszar said fielding questions from his children — Grant, 22, and Madison, 20 — continues to be challenging for him a decade later. Still, he does his best to answer them honestly and incorporate humor whenever he can.

“I have a piece of shrapnel from that mortar round (I almost stepped on) and it’s on my bar,” Huszar said with a laugh. “Why? So I can tell this story now.”

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