Photo by Brandy Setzer
In 2009 Stacy Bannerman’s husband, Lorin, returned from the Iraq war with severe PTSD. His bizarre and violent behaviour eventually destroyed their marriage. Stacy is the author of two books documenting the battles she and thousands of other military families have fought in order to raise awareness of problems facing military families and their returning veterans – Homefront 911: How Families of Veterans Are Wounded by Our Wars (2015) and When the War Came Home (2006). Living in Southern Oregon, she now dedicates her life to helping individuals, organizations and communities develop initiatives of peace and reconciliation.
Three-quarters of Americans now consider the Iraq War a mistake; that mistake destroyed everything I loved. I opposed the war in Iraq before it began, and began speaking out against it while my husband, Lorin, was still fighting in it. In 2010, he retired after 27 years of service, but the war wasn’t done with him. He developed post-combat trauma, and as his symptoms worsened, I became his caregiver and an advocate for veterans and their families. When my beloved husband—who actually never came back from war (a familiar stranger came home instead) —strangled me to the point of unconsciousness, and when he started shooting crystal meth, still I tried to love him back to life.
Eventually it became too dangerous and I filed for divorce, put our house up for sale, and in July of 2015, fled the only home I’d ever owned and placed my horse and two goats at an animal sanctuary. I moved into a travel trailer in a mobile home park, where it took everything I had to get out of bed in the morning. My sense of self was all I had left but then my identity was stolen by a crystal meth drug user who Lorin let move into our house after I moved out. In less than 90 days, I was stripped of my home, marriage, companion animals, health care, social and economic status, and finally my identity, too. When the house sold, Lorin threatened me with an M-4 semi-automatic weapon, and then tried to commit suicide-by-cop.
Grief burns from the inside out, and I remember sobbing for hours on end. As I mourned and tried to make sense of things, I would think about my identity thief and how bad things must have been for her to want to become me. I didn’t want to be me because it hurt too much. And so I began to understand how, if you felt you were all alone in the world, it would be easy to start shooting meth to stop the pain. And because I understood, I found I was able to forgive my identity thief, and my ex-husband too who was unable or unwilling to deal with the demons of combat trauma and crystal meth. I realized too everything that had happened to us was a consequence of the primary cause: the Iraq War.
I didn’t think I could ever forgive the people of America who wanted that war but refused to fund it, fight it or end it once they decided it was a “mistake.” I blamed them for all of my friends’ kids who were killed in Iraq, or who killed themselves when they got back. I blamed them for the deaths of the military spouses I knew who had been murdered by their returning veteran. I blamed the 76 percent of people in this country who wanted that war, and the 99 percent of Americans who sacrificed nothing for it. I cloaked myself in moral outrage and the power of the persecuted. I wanted everyone who supported that war to suffer.
However, once I had forgiven my beloved (ex) husband and once I had forgiven my identity thief, it became clear that my most difficult work of forgiveness remained: forgiving my fellow Americans. After I lost everything, I had to forgive everything, or I would live the rest of my life controlled by rage and the desire for retribution. I had to decide that being reconciled to what had happened was more important than being right about why it never should have occurred.
So I prayed for new eyes and a new heart, since mine was so badly broken. It had been shattered, to the extent that now I couldn’t keep anything or anyone out. And when everyone was in my heart, I could no longer wish them harm. Grace or something like it began to fill the cracks in my heart, and instead I wanted to cause no more suffering in the world.
Maybe it was the suffering so many Americans felt in the wake of the horror of September 11, 2001, that fueled their rage and the desire for retribution. Maybe the grief that swept across this nation fired the engine of a war based on lies, and became one more turn in mankind’s endless cycle of attack and attacking back. And wasn’t I doing the same thing now?
Then one morning in the spring of 2016, I walked into a talking circle/support group at The Haven in Ashland, Oregon. There were only four of us, and when I was invited to speak, I shared how the war had affected me. I didn’t like being so vulnerable, exposing my pain and anger to complete strangers. They squirmed in their seats as I talked, so it wasn’t easy for them either, but they listened and then, one-by-one, they spoke. They told me how ashamed they felt knowing they’d done nothing to try to stop the war, knowing they hadn’t behaved like the people they wanted to be. They apologized and told me how sorry they were for all I had lost. I saw the weight of what they carried, and said how sorry I was for what they too had lost. They saw me in all of my aching humanity, and I saw them in theirs. I knew that I could have been them, and they me and there was nothing left to forgive.
Forgiveness won’t change the past, but it can change the present, which is where the future starts.
America cannot legislate conscience, but we can construct public platforms upon which this nation’s better self can stand. We could start with an American Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on the war in Iraq. Those called to testify would include politicians and pundits who championed the war, grassroots and spiritual leaders, and those who were harmed and their affected communities. They could come together to create solutions to promote repair, reconciliation and the restoration of relationships. An American Truth & Reconciliation Commission on the war in Iraq could create a container for bearing witness, facilitating forgiveness, and advancing atonement so that this country, and this generation of Iraq War veterans and their families would be less likely to carry the hurt and anger forward for decades, seeding future generations with the traumatic legacy of war. This has now become my life’s work.