No matter how any of us feel about it, there is a lot going on with our nation's military. Agree, disagree, like it, hate it. Doesn't matter. Its a reality. What's happening to those who serve and their families is something that should concern all of us as individuals and as a society.
To say there is a lot to be concerned about is a massive understatement and an oversimplification. News items and articles abound. Higher suicide rates, instances of domestic violence, substance abuse, divorce, traumatic brain injuries, and post traumatic stress in our veterans are some of the problems talked about most often. Slow or inadequate help through the VA system is another big issue. Injured soldiers are surviving, but often with more extensive physical and psychological damage. Multiple deployments are common and lead to increased risk for PTSD and other emotional fall out.
Most soldiers come back okay and in tact physically and psychologically, but for those who don't, there can be a range of serious issues to deal with that impact the individual, their family, their workplace, their health, and all other areas of life. There are plenty of memoirs, documentaries, blogs, and other sources of information available to those who are interested in current military issues. Normally, I would suggest nonfiction sources on topics such as this because there are so many good ones. The book I want to talk about in this entry is actually a work of fiction. Kristin Hannah's novel "Home Front" is an excellent read for anyone wanting to understand more about some of the issues faced by deployed soldiers and their families.
"Home Front" is a love story, a story about family, a story about honor and loss and healing. The novel describes the challenges of one family (wife who is sent to Iraq, husband left home with kids, daughters ages 12 and 4) before, during, and after overseas deployment. The main characters are a couple in their early 40s and their two daughters. One is in middle school and the other is a pre-schooler. The wife/mother, Jo, has made a career of the Army and National Guard. Her husband Michael is a defense attorney and has no interest in her military career. Her husband is grieving the loss of his father and is having trouble coping with this loss. He becomes caught up in his work, which leads to conflict with his wife. Right before she finds out she is being sent overseas, they face a marital crisis. Tension between them continues during and after Jo's deployment.
At first, Michael is angry about the added responsibilities he has to take on due to Jo's absence. He's not the most likeable guy during the beginning of the book. He seems selfish, preoccupied, and clueless. His mother is a tremendous support throughout the book. Not everyone in this situation has the help and emotional involvement of family living nearby. As he handles day to day responsibilities caring for home and daughters he realizes how much he took his wife for granted. He begins to miss her more and more and to regret the problems they were having before Jo was deployed.
Jo's adolescent daughter is angry about the disruption to her life and finds the attention she gets for having a Mom in the military embarrassing. She rebels in typical small ways. I often went from feeling sad for her to being annoyed with her for being such a little snot, which is exactly what the author intended I expect. The four-year-old doesn't completely understand and just misses her Mommy. She's portrayed as cute, but like an actual four-year-old, as well, which means she can be irritating at times, too.
Meanwhile, Jo is coping with stressful conditions in Iraq. She is proud to be serving her country but misses her family. She feels pulled in two different directions and is scared that she might not make it home. She wonders what will happen between her and Michael. Though a lot of things are going on in Iraq, she tries to keep up a front of being strong and doesn't share things with her family that would make them worried. She sends them emails that contain little items of interest but keeps the tone light. She shares motherly advice and talks about how much she misses her girls. She does not write directly to Michael. Their phone conversations are tense and she focusses on talking with her daughters. She saves her honest thoughts and feelings for her journal and for conversations with a close friend who was deployed at the same time.
News reports are unavoidable, though. Jo's oldest daughter sees them and knows Mom is in a dangerous situation. She resents the reassurances her parents give her that things will be okay. She knows something very bad could happen to her Mom. She is worried and wishes her parents would be honest and open about these realities.
Daughter Betsy is right, of course. I don't want to get too specific and ruin the story if you want to read it. There is the suspense, tragedy, and drama we expect from a good novel. Basically, Jo is wounded in combat. She has to face painful physical limitations and rehabilitation. She also has psychological issues, such as nightmares, flashbacks, hyperarousal, guilt about surviving when others close to her did not, numbness, and irritability. At the same time, she is caught in self pity and afraid of the changes in her mind and body. The current situation brings up traumatic events from Jo's past that were never dealt with, as well.
At first, Jo tries to "fake it. "She denies and avoids her feelings and the distress she is obviously experiencing. She is used to being tough and self reliant. Vulnerability is weakness to her. She comes home a different person, though, and finds she can't slip back into the routines that used to be so easy and familiar. She can't relate well to her chhildren, can't open up to her husband, and is unable to cope with daily life. Jo closes off from her loved ones. Like many wounded soldiers, she turns to substances as an escape.
Her daughters are scared, angry, and confused about the physical and personality changes they see in their mother. They were eager for her to come home, but don't know who she is now or how to connect with her. Michael, meanwhile, has taken on a case involving a soldier with PTSD and learns about the condition. He recognizes symptoms in his wife but has a hard time reaching her. He wants to encourage her to get help, but she is closed off to him because of the issues they had before her deployment.
One of the saddest moments in the book is when, in a moment of self awareness, Jo finally admits what's happening is more than she can handle alone. She tries to reach out for psychological help only to learn she'll have to wait months for it. This, sadly, is a reality for many veterans. Then, additional losses send her spiraling further downward. Just when it seems like this family is going to be another series of tragic statistics, things begin to turn around. That's what we expect from novels, after all. Several events lead to the start of this shift, of course. With the support of her husband, Jo begins the slow process of emotional healing. They also begin taking small steps towards restoring their marriage and they are able to begin providing a stable environment for their children again. The story doesn't end with everything all wrapped up in a neat bow, but by the end of the novel, the reader feels confident that this family is on a good path.
The author did her homework, and has written a story that is moving and accurate. I know from clinical presentations I've attended that the topics Hannah addresses in "Home Front" are based on solid information. She obviously wanted to use the craft of writing not just to entertain but to shed light on a topic of social relevance and I respect her for doing so. I think she took on this subject matter with skill and responsibility. The plot, characters, and settings in this book are presented with sensitivity and honesty, and with a tremendous amount of insight. She gives attention to how each person is impacted by what is happening. She is realistic in her presentation of how children at different ages react, the difficulties faced by the person deployed vs the spouse left behind, the marital issues that exist for this couple and what contributes to them, and the impact of serious injury, loss, and trauma on the individual and the family.
Important information about PTSD, family and marital stressors and how deployment impacts them, and the experiences of being overseas in a war zone are skillfully woven into the story. They aren't presented as educational points or facts; they are simply part of the narrative. You will be learning a lot just by taking in the story.
Hannah's writing style is straight forward and solid. It is almost as if the author wanted to keep her language simple so that it wouldn't distract from the story itself. Its not about "Wow! What a unique wway of capturing that in words" or "what a clever turnof phrase." Its about the story and the words that are necessary to tell It. She accomplishes the tasks a good book should accomplish, including making characters believable, keeping the reader interested, and conveying emotion. She also does some educating and consciousness raising along the way and not everyone could manage to do both as well as they've been done in this book. She puts things in every day language so that the reader doesn't have to be particularly intellectual to understand what she is talking about. I recommend "Home Front" as a relevant and entertaining read.
"Home Front"has a happy ending, or at least a hopeful one. Not every true story of this sort does, though. The fall out and how it is dealt with (or not dealt with) in so many cases is disturbing and sad. Progress is being made in terms of recognizing and meeting the physical and psychological needs of returning vets and their families, but it has been too little too late in far too many cases. The problems caused by gaps in care have often been tragic and likely could have been avoided. There is a long way left to go to make sure these needs are recognized, appreciated, and adequately addressed. I am glad to see change happening. I hope and pray this trend continues for the sake of individuals, families, and our society.
For more information on the needs of our soldiers, visit Wounded Warrior Project at