Heroes and Hollow Men

by Luke

{This is a guest post from Jill Harms, the wife of Storyteller Luke Harms, and should be read along side its sister piece by Luke, running today over at Deeper Church}

His hand, so tightly holding mine, let go as the words were patriotically uttered from the pulpit:

“If you have ever served or are currently serving in our armed forces, please stand.”

He stood immediately and proudly, hands folded at parade rest. The entire church clapped. Strangers hugged him. The pastor said a prayer of blessing over the veterans, soldiers, and America. My sister and I even looked at each other from across the pew and ‘proud smiled’. I was so overjoyed to be his. I felt safe. I felt proud. So did he. And I knew we were in this together.

He was only in town for the weekend, but it was the beginning of us, and where this story really begins.
He had surprised me, unintentionally, by knocking on my sister’s door late one night. He was taller than I remembered him. Maybe it was just the perfectly pressed Army uniform he was wearing. A whirlwind of romantic and serendipitous events led to another and that winter we were married, with the first of many military jolts shaking us just hours after the ceremony.

The phone rang. We thought it was a practical joke from one of Luke’s groomsmen, but the call was from his first sergeant.

“Saddam Hussein has been captured. We’re leaving for Iraq in 3 weeks. You need to get back here.”

We were young and scared. He would return as a hero, but a hollow one, learning the most important lesson of all: to keep the horror of war locked away inside of him.

He was the driver in a humvee accident early in the deployment. He should have died, along with the two other men he managed to remove (with a shattered wrist, no less) from an upside-down, water filled truck. He returned with severe injuries, though not all were visible.

Weeks of doctor visits lead to a 14 hour surgery, followed by nearly a year of slow withdrawal from me and the rest of the world. there were lots of prescription drugs, and even more alcohol,  but the haunting persisted, hollowing him out even further. There were times I would wake up to him wearing his helmet and checking my breathing (sometimes even the dog’s). His nightmares were played out with screams of horror and rage, and would often end in tears.

But the tears, more often than not, were mine. He would rarely awake from these night-terrors, but I would lay beside him and pray, often fearful of the day these scenes may play out in real life.

I didn’t understand what was happening inside of him. But I knew he was a hero. I mean, he had saved two other men, both whom regarded him as such. There was no question that he should be proud, that he should act proud.

It was a last minute decision, but we made it to church that Veteran’s Day. His arm was in a cast and I’m certain he was hungover from the pain meds and whiskey. We knew it was coming, maybe it was the reason we went…

“If you have ever served in the armed forces, please stand so we can acknowledge you for your bravery.”

He didn’t stand as quickly this time, his head a little lower than the last time we did this. I told him I was proud of him, but he just shrugged. I brushed it off and called it humility, but what was happening inside of this soldier wasn’t modesty. The lack of eye contact and a “you’re welcome” in response to the “thank you” from the older lady sitting in front of us was the beginning of a series of truths yet to unfold for our family.

He was more easily angered, and it would come out at random times, like during a football game gone bad or a simple discussion at dinner. He became very quiet-the silence between us was sometimes deafening. After a while, since I wasn’t getting answers anyway, I just stopped asking questions.

“Maybe it’s better that I don’t know what he’s thinking,” I thought.

I would often see him accept the thankfulness, but saw that he was unable to hold onto it long enough to believe he was worthy of it. I would see his eyes glistening in the darkness if he ever managed to sit through a war movie, or I’d see him hit the ground when a car back-fired in a Wal-Mart parking lot- his war instincts exposed and laying there on the pavement beside me.

You see, that’s the trade-off. We hold this experience of war in high-esteem, but to do so, we have to accept the other side of the coin: the fear.

Four years, and a total of 28 months in Afghanistan off and on, and we were sitting there again. Different church, barely holding it together, and there was that same call from the front:

“Would the men and women who have served this country please stand so we can honor your sacrifice…”

I practically had to push him to his feet. He stood last and sat back down first. He didn’t want to be acknowledged for any “good” he had done. I could see that he was in an honest place about his journey as a soldier, and I could sense that the walls were about to come down.

It would take having our first son and an isolating cross-country move to hit rock-bottom. And when the wall fell, every brick and piece of mortar crumbled down with it.

He finally told me everything…
The depression, the suicide attempts, the escalation of his anger, the fear of telling the truth. The prescription drugs he had hidden for years, the excessive alcohol. His own fear of what a future lived openly against this idea of heroism might look like. It was all out on the table.

No more secrets.

I often think of the progression of these military acknowledgements over the years. The way I watched a young, proud soldier-ready to defend and conquer in the name of God & country become a man unable to express the severity of his pain.
I think of how I almost lost him. I think of how he was only seconds from the unimaginable, and had it not been for our son’s night terror that night, he likely wouldn’t be sitting beside me tonight.

I also sit here tonight with another reality. While many years were lost to darkness, I have seen hope and healing take place. While being the spouse of a soldier has had its own hollowing effect emotionally, I’m starting to see that this redemption in us always has the potential to become redemption through us.
I remember the first time the story of a hero was told to me after that first deployment-The one of my husband fighting for his life, then going back in the water for one friend, and in once more for the other. I think the heroism we’re called into is about going back in after the wounded. It’s about a relentless love to listen for the faintest of voices being swallowed up in the darkness. It isn’t about asking the hero to stand up. It’s about being a person who will go in after the broken and carry them into the Light.




12 Responses to “Heroes and Hollow Men”

  1. Aprille @beautifulinhistime.com November 11, 2013 at 6:27 am #

    Thank you, both of you, for your willingness to share the less-popular, less-stereotyped, less easy-on-the-eyes picture of military life. My husband didn’t see or experience some of the things that your husband did, but he’s had his dark days. The Army and two deployments to afghanistan changed him and not for the better. He doesn’t like to stand when they honor Veterans, but he does, because he’s supposed to. It’s awkward for him. We are out now and both ready to leave a lot of that behind.

    I shared both of these posts in hopes that more people would understand the true reality of what soldiers go through.

    • Jill November 11, 2013 at 7:59 pm #

      April- It touches my heart to see a fellow spouse respond here. The truth really does set us free, and I will pray for your family to find what that looks like for you as you move on from the military life. -Jill

  2. Brenna D (@BrennaJD) November 11, 2013 at 8:12 am #

    ” I think the heroism we’re called into is about going back in after the wounded. It’s about a relentless love to listen for the faintest of voices being swallowed up in the darkness. It isn’t about asking the hero to stand up. It’s about being a person who will go in after the broken and carry them into the Light.”

    Beautiful, Jill. Seeing from a distance the way that you and Luke live that out, the way you speak out for all the broken is an honor.

    • Jill November 11, 2013 at 8:04 pm #

      Brenna- thanks for these words. Luke and I didn’t have anyone speaking hope into us while we were in this place, and are prayerfully trying to add hope to the dark corners of this community. Thanks you again for your support.

  3. Leigh Kramer November 11, 2013 at 10:38 am #

    Oh, wow. What a powerful post, especially that closing paragraph. Thank you for sharing this part of your story, Jill.

    • Jill November 11, 2013 at 8:04 pm #

      Thank you, Leigh.

  4. Diana Trautwein November 11, 2013 at 12:52 pm #

    This is one of the bravest acts of love I’ve ever seen, Jill. Thank you so much. Going over to read Luke’s piece now.

    • Jill November 11, 2013 at 8:07 pm #

      Luke and I said at dinner tonight that if we could add a third “grandma” to this home…you’d be it. Your constant encouragement and overall gratefulness for other’s vocalization of their journey is humbling, and an honor for us to receive. Thank you.

      • Diana Trautwein November 11, 2013 at 8:10 pm #

        What an honor that would be. I am a believer in story and when someone is brave enough to tell me one AND they tell it exceptionally well, then I’m gonna say so. It’s about as simple as that. Thanks to you both for these stories today.

  5. Anna November 11, 2013 at 6:47 pm #

    Thank you for all your family has given and continues to give. These dark places our veterans bring back are every bit as hard as the battlefield. God bless you both.

    • Jill November 11, 2013 at 8:07 pm #

      Thank you, Anna.


  1. November Link Love | Beautiful In His Time - November 30, 2013

    […] Heroes and Hollow Men “It isn’t about asking the hero to stand up. It’s about being a person who will go in after the broken and carry them into the Light.” […]

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