November has been declared National Veterans & Military Families Month and it serves as a time to express gratitude for all of the sacrifices that members of the military and military families make every day. We at PA Parent and Family Alliance want to give our thanks to these incredible individuals, and sit down with a mother; Melissa Wasson, who is the spouse of a Marine Veteran, and mother of Hunter Wasson, who is in the Marine Reserves. Melissa sheds some light on how being in the military or being in a military family can have an impact on a person's mental health, and what steps military families can take to continue to make mental health a priority.
"I am a spouse of a Marine Veteran and my son is semi-active; he is in the reserves. My husband was in Desert Storm from 1990 until 1996," explained Melissa. "My son Hunter signed up when he was 17 and he has been in for 2 years now. He is signed up for a total of 6 years. Since the time he was 5 years old, it's what he wanted to do with his life. It is the only track he stayed on. We are very proud of him and know how many wonderful things come with serving our country, but I hoped he would change his mind up to the very last minute. I was so happy to see him have a goal and reach it, but I was dreading him going there. He was just so young, I had hoped that he would have gone to college first before he served but looking back I don't think he would have been truly happy if he didn't go. You have to let them make their own decisions, no matter how difficult it is."
Before Hunter even left for basic training a spotlight was put on his mental health and it became the top priority in both Melissa and her husband's minds. Not only because of the first-hand experience in the services that his father had but because right before Hunter left for basic training a friend of his that was 2 years older and in the Marines himself had committed suicide.
"We were, and are, very aware of his mental health. You think about PTSD and you think it only impacts a veteran with war trauma. Bootcamp impacts their mental health too. We went into boot camp knowing that we had to pay close attention to his mental health. All of those changes they are undergoing there can really impact it. Every phone call, every letter we received from him we were conscious of making sure that he was okay. We understood he would go through changes but we paid close attention to things like; 'Was he talking like himself? Was he sharing things with us?"
After Bootcamp Hunter came home and according to Melissa; "a flip switched in him." "He was very nervous about being in public, he was so used to just being with his group. Even going to the grocery store. We talked to a Staff Sargeant and he said this was very normal because of how big the change is. He went from having the nonstop discipline to now only going one weekend a month. He barely ate or slept, and because of COVID he couldn't find a job, and then the reserves switched to virtual for a little bit, and it just wasn't the same."
"We gave him a little time and space for the transition but knowing what we know about his friend we didn't want to give him too much space to wallow in. It was hard to watch because this is a person who goes from being on top of the world before boot camp; your family, your friends, your teachers, your community they are all so proud of you and what you're doing. Then you come home and because of how infrequent the Reserves were it was hard for him to identify with it still. We talked to someone and ended up getting him a peer support partner, someone who was his age that gets what he is going through, and that has been helpful."
Melissa's husband was and is a role model for Hunter. She noted that Hunter was wary to show his dad any weakness but his dad wanted to reassure Hunter that not only was it okay to feel the feelings he has, but that his dad was always there to talk to him about them. " Melissa explained that her husband joined the marines in peacetime but right after enlisting in the U.S. got involved in Desert Storm. "My mother in law told me she was so nervous she broke out into shingles. We had Hunter sit down and read all of the letters that his dad sent to his grandma when he was newly in the service. He sees his dad as this big tough guy but here in these letters, he is telling his mom how scared he is. I was happy my husband shared those with my son. He wasn't concerned about looking like this tough guy he wanted to show his son it was okay to be scared."
His son enlisting brought a lot back to him. "Right after the military, he suffered from nightmares. When we were together he never had any but when Hunter went to boot camp they came back. I tried to get him to talk to his military friends to admit to them that it was flooding back. He knows I get it but I haven't been in the military. After a few weeks they kind of tapered off and they did better."
Melissa herself comes from a military family and said that this was helpful but also; "It's worst for a parent who knows more, kind of like a doctor who gets sick." For Melissa, it was very difficult for her own mental health. "A lot of nights I couldn't sleep. I would be up late worrying or getting panic attacks. There would be days that I was supposed to get a call or supposed to get a letter and I didn't and my thoughts would spiral. It was always something simple that came upon his end that prevented the call or letter but every time it worried me. I did a lot of crying."
It was talking to other people with lived experiences that helped Melissa cope the most. "Talking to my mother in law helped me a lot because she knew what kinds of thoughts were going through my head." She also found comfort in joining Facebook groups of people whose children were going through what Hunter was. "Each branch has a Facebook Page and you can move into each year group. I think if you're out there on your own your mind goes 1,000 different places it can help you stay focused on; 'Okay, this is what they're doing right now.' You go from knowing everything your kid does to nobody telling you anything, it's really hard. Weeks and weeks go by without you being updated."
"I wouldn't discourage anybody from joining the military. I think they have made great progress and make it a huge priority to keep an eye on and help any member of the military's mental health. All I would say is to do as much research as you can. Get as much knowledge about what you or your child are signing up for. Go past the recruiter and talk to anybody and everybody you know who has experience. You can ask your school to see if they have any contacts with past students or staff that served. Learn as much as possible before making that important decision."
We are thrilled to welcome Melissa to our team as our Outreach Assistant in Greene County. By joining our team Melissa is able to bring her breadth of knowledge on the unique needs of military families. If you are in Greene County and are interested in getting involved click here to reach out to Melissa.
Check out Melissa's favorite resources for military families here.