There are many holidays set aside to honor, remember and celebrate the courage of military members active, retired and reserves.
From the civilian perspective these holidays are three-day weekends off of work, cookouts with family and days to party.
For the military community, these holidays have deeper meaning.
Memorial Day, mostly known as a celebration, is actually meant to remember those lost in the line of duty and those lost as a result of their service.
The Fourth of July, a day to celebrate the independence of the United States, can be triggering to service members struggling with the aftermath of their service.
Veteran’s Day is a day for the military community to reflect on their service and to celebrate and honor those who have sacrificed everything for their country.
These holidays only span three days of the year, the struggle with PTSD and other service-related traumas never cease.
Austin Summers is an Afghanistan combat veteran.
Tom Baker is a Vietnam combat veteran.
Marsha Lee Baker is the daughter of a World War II veteran and wife of Tom Baker.
Each carry with them memories of their past but have slowly found ways to heal their unseen scars.
Austin Summers is a 25-year-old combat veteran. He served in Afghanistan for roughly 6 months and lost three of his friends.
Austin enlisted in October 2016 and shipped out January 2017. He worked as 91B wheeled vehicle mechanic during his time in the Army.
During his deployment to Afghanistan, he was part of a ground unit ODA, operational detachment alpha, of Green Berets.
Austin witnessed his first losses while in a village fighting the Taliban.
Sergeant First Class Will Lindsay and Sgt. Joseph Collette had sprinted around a corner while taking fire and both received fatal wounds. They died next to each other in Kunduz, Afghanistan.
Austin witnessed their deaths through surveillance footage.
Later, on a mission traveling between Maymana to Mazar-I-Sharif the convoy Austin was a part of, encountered three IEDs. The first two hit Afghan vehicles that were accompanying them and the third hit two vehicles in front of the vehicle Austin was in.
Austin maneuvered his vehicle into a recovery position to aid other members that had been hit by the third IED while the Taliban ambushed the convoy. They waited until nightfall before they were able to move the convoy back to the base.
“After we hit that third IED I was like yeah, we’re not making it home,” Austin said.
Austin was recognized for his boldness and bravery when he got back to base.
For Austin, the war didn’t end there.
During the preparation for his last mission, Austin mounted an M134 minigun on one of the vehicles in his convoy. The armor shield that is normally mounted over the gun was left off.
On the last mission in Afghanistan, Austin and his unit traveled along the same route they hit the three IEDs. Sgt. Major James “Ryan” Sartor opted to man the minigun in the convoy during this mission.
Sgt. M. Ryan was in the Army for 19 years and was on his last deployment before rejoining his wife and four kids.
That was the last mission he ever went on.
He took a round roughly the size of a .50 caliber bullet to the head and was dead before he knew what happened.
Austin started spiraling once he got back state-side. He turned to alcohol to cope with the traumas he endured while serving with the Green Beret unit in Afghanistan.
“I got to the point where I was drinking till I was blacking out pretty much every time for about three months,” Austin said.
He realized that he needed to slow down when he began waking up in the morning with pain in his liver.
“I didn’t realize I was drinking to cover up a lot of the thoughts I had and trauma that I had went through and not really processed,” he said.
It took one of his buddies, Noah, who had also served in Afghanistan, to tell him that he had a problem and that he needed to seek help.
“I didn’t want to admit that I needed help,” Austin said, “I wasn’t a Green Beret I didn’t think I had it as bad as they did.”
Noah and his mom convinced him to seek help through the VA.
He would go off and on for about two to three months and would think he was better and stop going. Two or three months would pass before he would start having issues again.
It was an endless cycle.
In the fall of 2021, the reactions to the unprocessed trauma started to manifest even more. While attending the funeral of his girlfriend’s grandmother, bagpipes started playing and triggered a panic attack.
“I started hyperventilating I wasn’t able to breathe, I didn’t know what was going on,” Austin said, “I just kept on saying ‘I’m scared, I’m scared, I’m scared.’ I didn’t know what to say, that is all I could say.”
Two months after this incident Austin was walking on campus when someone started playing bagpipes near the fountain.
“I got to where Hillside Grind is and I just paused,” Austin said, “I covered my ears and started humming.”
He broke down to his professor the same way he did at the funeral. The professor escorted him to CAPS, and Austin realized he needed more help.
He started attending therapy through the VA consistently and was diagnosed with panic disorder, generalized anxiety and depression. He was not able to find a medication regiment that helped.
Instead, he went to the trauma center in Asheville as a last resort. He went through the process of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which is a psychotherapy treatment meant to help trauma.
He sat in the office with a physician moving their fingers in front of his face and was told to recount what he went through while following the physician’s hand with his eyes.
“Each session I would go through a different experience from Afghanistan, and I would have full mental breakdowns. I would be able to smell the way things smelled over there. I would remember little things that normally people wouldn’t remember,” he said.
These sessions helped him process his entire deployment and come to terms with his trauma and not compare it to other people. It is his trauma, and it is his to bear.
He manages the side effects of his trauma through smaller things that he is able to control. He always sits at the back of the classroom, he always insists on driving and he is always hyper aware of trash bags on the side of the road.
These are things that will stay with him. For veterans like Austin, there is a community on campus that he bonded with that has also helped.
“There is this understanding between all of us of what the military is. There is a language that is shared between us. There is this itch that my other friends at college don’t understand that these guys do,” he said.
The brotherhood on campus created by Austin and the Student Veteran Association reflects that of the military. There is a community that supports one another, that shares similar experiences.
Tom Baker is a Vietnam veteran that has suffered from PTSD for over 50 years. He enlisted in the Army at 19 years old.
“Nineteen years old and you think you’re God’s gift to the war,” Tom said, “I wanted to jump out of airplanes. I wanted to get the bad guys.”
The civilian world did not take well to the Vietnam war. There are countless stories of veterans coming home from being overseas for so many months only to be greeted with harsh words and being spit on by passersby.
“They called us pot smoking, baby killing losers,” he said.
Those on the outside may not have agreed with the government’s decision to go to war in Vietnam, but they did not know what those service members endured while serving in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
“You’re exposed to sudden loss, which is something that not many people experience at a young age. I had to go from this gung-ho guy to somebody that pretty well knew that he wasn’t going to make it and wanted to take as many of them with him as he could. You get hard. You have to stay alive, you’ll kill, and you don’t think about it,” he said.
Tom was in his last firefight in Vietnam three days before he was back stateside. There was no transition period between fighting for your life in a war zone to the calm city streets back home.
“I killed my first human being when I was 19, got shot down out of the sky when I was 19, put my first American soldier in a body bag when I was 19,” Tom said. “When I came back from ‘Nam I was much older than 20.”
He was silently battling his PTSD for 40 years before he came to terms with the diagnosis, before he started working to cope with the trauma he endured.
“It stays in the back of your head, it’s kind of like a bird in the attic,” Tom said. “Every once in a while they come out – a certain sound or certain smell. The demons are screaming that I didn’t do enough.”
In 2007, Tom and other veterans formed the Jackson County Veterans’ Organization so that veterans like him coming back got a better reception and have a community around them, so they are not alone.
Tom deals with survivors’ guilt after losing his best friend in the war. He tells his story to help cope with what he has gone through with the hopes that it also may help others who are struggling, who need a lifeline.
“I owed my friends that,” he said.
There is an endless battle that veterans will face. Tom was not welcomed when he came home from the battlefield, but it was the veterans who came before him that welcomed him back into the civilian world and encouraged him to keep going.
With the changing attitude toward veterans, there are more avenues than ever for veterans and their families to be compensated and aided in their endless fight with the trauma they have endured.
“If you keep it all inside it will eat you alive and it’ll eat your family alive,” Tom said.
There are still those that are in denial that there is an unseen burden weighing down on them. The Veteran Association (VA) reported 6,392 veterans committed suicide in 2021.
No matter the era, service members have always had a tough exterior and belief that they are invincible. Many do not want to admit that they are suffering and need help.
“Talk to some veterans and at least listen to them,” Tom said. “You may not understand, and you may not have been in long enough or been in a firefight or whatever. But listen to them.”
Marsha Lee Baker
Marsha Lee Baker’s story reflects the side of the military community that supports from behind the scenes. The families of service members endure alongside the service members and have unseen scars just as the service member does.
When service members are battling their demons, their families battle along beside them.
Marsha Lee grew up as, what the military community calls, an “Air Force brat”, which is the child of a member of the Air Force.
Her father was a career man, serving about 20 years flying cargo planes for the Air Force during World War II.
She moved around most of her childhood, going wherever the Air Force said to go. This is a timeless and common story that all military families are familiar with.
Marsha Lee grew up in a time when talking about military service was taboo.
“[My father] never told us anything. I remember one time when he was already retired, he had a video taken of him in the cockpit that my mom wanted to show my brother and I. We never talked about that together,” she said.
Marsha Lee was able to see her mother’s life through open eyes. The conversations with her mom about what to do and what not to do on a military base made sense to Marsha Lee once she was able to have deep conversations with her mother after her father left the service.
Marsha Lee and Tom got married on May 17, 2003. At the time, she was an English and composition professor at WCU.
“Tom, from the beginning, helped me gain a perspective that has helped me understand more about why life was what it was with my parents,” she said.
She was not aware of the alcoholism and abuse that ran rampant in her childhood home. Her father did not know, nor was he told how to cope with his PTSD, which led to him taking it out on her mother behind closed doors.
Tom was able to relate to Marsha Lee’s father and he helped explain what her father was going through.
“My dad could go off and sit over [in a corner] and talk with Tom. He was able to tell me things about what my dad actually did and what he experienced. I’d never know. It started opening up a whole new way of me to think about my mother – I started to see what it was like being an Air Force wife,” Marsha Lee said.
During the early times of Marsha Lee and Tom’s marriage, his trauma would make an appearance through angry outbursts at other drivers and nightmares causing sleepless nights.
“How can you be this angry at human beings just on the same road with you,” Marsha Lee said.
“I learned about things, I guess kind of connected to the PTSD. I remember one time at a Western football game when fireworks were going off, and that move put him in a freaked-out position. I’ve learned, as the woman who loves him, to pay attention to those kinds of things and understand more about what war really is through his telling me stuff,” she said.
Marsha Lee’s English background aided in Tom’s healing process allowing him another avenue of dealing with his trauma – writing.
As Tom wrote about the traumatic things he endured in Vietnam, Marsha Lee would read and edit the memoir. These writings would turn into Tom’s book “Warrior Wannabe: A Memoir”.
Together, they have learned how to manage PTSD.