Today, I am so honored to be hosting a very special guest post from I’ll Meet You There author Heather Demetrios, who stops by today to talk about PTSD: how it’s affected her personally, and how it is featured in her book. Thanks, Heather, for stopping by today with such an important guest post!
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It’s fate or something that just when I start writing this post in the passenger seat of my car, my husband drives past Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia. My fingers leave the keyboard and I look up. It’s dark outside and the distinctive architecture of the Marine Corps museum cuts into the sky. I can’t see much else, but I’ve been there before and I can imagine the exhibits inside, discovered during a special trip with one of my best friends almost exactly a year after I’ll Meet You There sold to Macmillan. I’d visited on Memorial Day weekend, which included a visit to the famous Iwo Jima Marine Corps memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. For a lot of people, Memorial Day is a holiday, meant for barbecues and sleeping in. But in Washington DC, it’s more than that. And suddenly, for me, it became more than that, too. You don’t write a book about a nineteen-year-old Marine who loses his leg in Afghanistan and forget what Memorial Day means.
I’ll Meet You There is a love story about a really good girl who’s been dealt a really bad hand, and a bad boy trying to make good after one bomb changes his life forever. It’s also a story about war, poverty, death, grief, and how you can find beauty in unexpected places. And one other thing: it’s about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). A lot of my younger readers might not have any idea what that combination of letters mean, but that doesn’t exempt them from being touched by it. So many readers have reached out to me to say that they have a family member, friend, or someone else suffering from PTSD in their community. When I started working on the book, I was surprised that so few YA novels featured youth in the military. You can join the Marines when you’re seventeen. I remember recruiters being on my high school campus and hearing about who in my senior class were thinking about enlisting. Both my parents were Marines who joined as teenagers and my dad had served in the Gulf War. Yet despite growing up in a family with many service members, I didn’t realize that PTSD affected my personal life until after I started working on I’ll Meet You There.
My dad has PTSD. This is something that he continues to struggle with, even though the war he fought in was over twenty years ago. Ever since I could remember, my dad struggled with drugs and alcohol and his sobriety was hard fought. I had never made a real connection between his battle with addiction and his experiences as a Marine. I think I’d had a few passing thoughts about it, but once I met Josh Mitchell, the Marine in my book, and began researching and reaching out to Marines and Soldiers who had deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan, I realized that my dad was just like them—the war is never really, truly over. PTSD can manifest in many ways. In Josh, we see that he has a short fuse, vivid flashbacks, nightmares, and an attempt to medicate with drugs and alcohol. Things in his daily environment might set off a painful memory or make him forget he’s not in a battle zone. Sometimes he will react to things as though he’s in Afghanistan, surrounded by enemies. A Marine I spoke to who struggles with PTSD described it as a “combat switch” that can sometimes get turned on.
Josh also has survivor’s guilt; for him, it isn’t fair that he got to live when several of the guys he fought with died. Though he’s a fictional character, Josh’s experiences are not. PTSD is one of the biggest challenges the military faces. In 2012 alone, there were more suicides in the military than deaths in combat and most of those suicides were young men between 18-24 years old. As of writing this, more than half of the 2.6 million veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq struggle with physical or mental health problems related to their service. The VA continues to be underfunded and many veterans fail to receive the quality care they need.
As someone with a close family member with PTSD I can say with certainty that it is a horrible, horrible war wound. Part of why this book was so difficult to write is because it’s heartbreaking to know that so many young people are now experiencing it and to realize the extent to which my dad had been suffering in silence. While there are many programs and organizations that are trying to help Marines and Soldiers, there’s still a stigma attached to the disorder and it can be difficult for service members to get help. It can also be overwhelming to untangle the bureaucratic red tape that is necessary to get through before getting help.
My goal in writing this book was, first and foremost, to tell an unflinching story about two young people facing enormous odds. Sky and Josh’s struggle to overcome the obstacles of poverty, the cycle of addiction, and the burden of the past is something that, I hope, will comfort and inspire teens who wonder if they’ll ever be able to meet some of the challenges they’re facing. During the journey of this book, it’s also become increasingly more important for me to talk and write about PTSD so that civilians are aware of the slew of people out there who are suffering from their military deployments. (Of course, PTSD doesn’t just affect people in the military. It’s a common result of a traumatic event, whether it be a natural disaster, a car accident, or any other kind of life altering experience. It can manifest in many ways, some of which I’ve shown in the novel). The Marines have a mantra that I really like: Improvise. Adapt. Overcome. It’s a constant reminder to roll with the punches. I hope I’ve given my characters a chance not simply to overcome the enormous challenges they face, but to exceed their wildest expectations of what love can be.
To find out more about PTSD and other struggles returning members of the military face and to help people like Josh, check out www.woundedwarriorproject.org