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“The Baby Toe: How We Choose To See” A story of a military service veteran and his dedicated spouse

Updated: May 19, 2020

Fall 2013. They sit quietly, smiling softly: a Green Beret and his spouse, married at least 2 decades, appearing calm, healthy and alert. But I‘ve learned: Listen. Ask. Assume nothing.

He begins, with an urgency that commands attention. He has prepared for today many times; now he desperately wants to pull the trigger . . . to unload years of information that’s been strategically packed away, well-hidden from his wife and family who hold nothing but adoration for this kind, courageous man. But for him, that sentiment is a lie. He’s in pain, and it shows.

“I’m not leaving ‘til I dump it all” he says, “and leave it here.”

His wife stops smiling. I ask her, “Are you ready to hear this?” She explains that she and the family have a nickname for him that speaks to his incredible (and real) accomplishments: “The Guardian”. She—who spent years without him, awaiting his return from countless deployments, raising children, and never questioning the merit of his service—respects him 100%. My mind screams,“Hit pause, Mary”: anything contrary might burst that love-bubble . . . or might not.

They stare at me for direction. “What if what he says isn’t what you want to hear?” I ask her. She’s sure she wants to hear it all. But suddenly that’s followed by uncertainty as she imagines the worst. I turn to him: “What if what you say changes her thoughts about you?” But his need to come clean overwhelms his thoughts of potential impact.

Were they willing to spend the evening writing down what they hoped would happen, what they’d do if that didn’t happen, and return tomorrow? They said yes.

Striding in the next day with 10 handwritten pages, the Green Beret begins reading the first few. He then skips to highly-complex missions gone “wrong”, “mistakes” made, and “preventable” losses, continuing until he’s spent, admitting he’s felt like a “loser” far too long.

At first his wife sits speechless, tearful, taking in the horrific, morally-charged events that would leave most any service member enraged, demoralized, and in pain. He is.

Gently, she validates his pain, and recalls a time when her “baby toe” hurt so badly she couldn’t stand it. She expresses remorse for complaining then, now that she’s seen the “real” pain her husband has had to manage.

Lowering his papers, years of agony melting from his face, the Green Beret finally speaks: “Pain is pain; that’s the way I choose to see it.” Excited, she replies, “It took so much courage to tell me all that—I love you even more . . .To me, you’re even more The Guardian than before.” It could've gone differently; but it didn't.

Still together and newly grandparents, they’re embracing a new chapter of their lives . . . happily choosing to see whatever the other experiences as real, understandable, and equally deserving of compassion—baby toes and all.

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