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A veteran-to-veteran storytelling project designed to let Miami Valley veterans describe their own experiences, in their own words with a special focus on stories of re-entry into civilian life.

Veterans Day: A father and daughter share a story of forgiveness

Eric and Elizabeth Worthen.
Eric and Elizabeth Worthen.

Eric and Elizabeth Worthen, father and daughter from Dayton, share a story of forgiveness gained through honest and painful storytelling. Eric is a military veteran, who overcame PTSD to rebuild his relationship with Elizabeth.

Eric Worthen: The first time I was in was right after I got out of high school. I went. I went in in 1985 and went through training, went through jump school, went through a Ranger indoctrination program and and did my first stint. I ended up down in Honduras for a while and and came back and got out. I had done a number of things in the interim. I went got a degree social science education. I'd been an emergency medical technician. I've worked, worked a farm, worked as sawmill. I've worked, managed Ohio's boot camp program for convicted felons. I had supervised Montgomery County, Ohio's Board of Elections during the 2004 presidential. I just I needed something different. I needed to break out of the mold of it. And and I've always felt that doing something for others is compulsory. For me, it's it's always been a defining feature of my life and my profession. There was there was a lot in the media at that point in time. And I went back in it was it was 2007 when I re-enlisted and the Army wasn't meeting its recruitment goals. And and, you know, both Iraq and Afghanistan were were were both in in full flames at that point in time. So I joked about it and I joked about going back in and. And the joke evolved. And at 40 years old, after after a very long time of being out of the military, I re-enlisted after a waiver and and went back in.

Elizabeth Worthen: From the beginning, I understood that my dad was going to fight in war. I knew what war was. I knew that there was a chance that he would not come back. I knew there was a chance that he would not come back healthy. I didn't know what PTSD was. At that point, morality was black and white for me. I understood that there were the good guys and the bad guys. So how could you come back from war? Not triumphant. You know, you're not the knight fighting the dragon. You are a person in war. And so I think that when he came back, that was the hardest thing to come to terms with. And it's something that I still process to this day, is that my father went away one person and he came back another. And so I got to — I had to live with that person and to learn to live with that person for a long time. And that person was angry. He was sad. He was. Drinking.

Eric: It was hard. It really was. And my my ex-wife and I'm Elizabeth's mother. We we had been we had been enduring some some strains during that time. And, you know, it it must have been very unsettling for her to have to have me moving out of the house to being away.

Elizabeth: I grew up with babysitters a lot of the time. My mom did what she could. But it's not easy being on your own in any capacity, whether you are on your own due to circumstances beyond your control or because you've chosen. It's not an easy process.

Eric: Things started to manifest very quickly. Being obsessive compulsive about cleanliness. Organization in a lot of it had to do with control issues, and it was trying to control my own environment and my own thinking. I could see myself doing it and I and I knew that it was damaging. And I could not stop it. I could not rein in the feelings that I had. And I knew it was damaging and, you know, especially for young children to to be subjected to that. And as a result, you know, my drinking increased trying to quiet things down. You know, it's so common in, you know, the combat veteran community.

Elizabeth: I remember you broke a mirror.

Eric: I did.

Veterans Day: A father and daughter share a story of forgiveness
Extended version.

Elizabeth: Broke a shelf.

Eric: I did.

Elizabeth: And I was confused. I was angry at you for leaving because that night you packed up and you were gone.

Eric: I was.

Elizabeth: And it was sudden and I hadn't seen it coming because everything was that was just how things were up until that point.

Eric: And and that was probably. The week following. That was probably the emptiest I have ever had in my life.

Elizabeth: You came back midway through to pick up your things and you were cooking dinner for us. And midway through dinner, you were gone again.

Eric: And I just I just couldn't keep it together. And that was when that was when I went back up to New Hampshire and. Yeah, and and that's where I moved off guard. My grandfather had a 440 acre farm that that after he passed away was was divided up among the family of which I got 35 acres. And that's where I went. And I had a little pop up camper and and a very rough road that went down in there. I had a well-drilled with a hand pump, but but no electricity. That first summer and winter was was nothing but survival. And I mean that on on the most basic scale, you know, trying not to freeze to death that first winter was was a challenge. I'm a big fan of reuse, repurpose and recycle. So and I'd used materials that I had. I had recovered from a barn that had been redone down at my grandfather's place. And I built this 96 square foot cabin. And, uh, and that's where I, that's where I stayed for the next three years. You know, one of the great things about Mother Nature is she doesn't enable. She doesn't she doesn't care about excuses. And and she is demanding and and will extract what she needs from you, whether you are a willing participant or not.

Elizabeth: The divorce was finalized around Christmas. For about a year, we didn't we didn't really see him. My mother's family had property up until recently in New Hampshire, and we went up the next summer. Everyone was going on a hike to see my dad's property and I did not want to go because I was young. I was confused and angry and just hurt. But over the next couple of years, I kind of understood where it was coming from. Depression runs in the family I had developed over my teen years a pretty intense case of depression and anxiety. And I understood finally the feelings of, 'Oh my gosh, the world is pressing in around me. And there is there there's no way out!' It clicked, and I got it. And I understood why he would leave.

Eric: Yeah. That whole. It was so painful for me if I knew how much I knew how much I was hurting you. And I didn't feel that I had a right to interject myself in your life. I felt that I had I had given up that right. And and I did not want to taint you. I viewed myself as being caustic. I viewed myself as being poisoned. And in any interaction that I had with you, I was afraid would rub off on you. And that's I mean, that's all part of the the lack of self-esteem. That self-destruction mentality that goes on. And and I needed to get it right. You know, at that point in time, I had a hard time looking family in the eye. You know, I couldn't look my own mother in the eye. You know, and this is the nature of a moral injury. It is deep. It is profound. And it and it totally under undercuts your feelings of self-worth, your feelings of belonging. And and you feel as if you've betrayed the people that you love. Elizabeth's mother was very clear. You know, she wanted me to have a healthy relationship with the children, with an emphasis on healthy. And I wasn't capable of doing that at that point in time.

Elizabeth: It started when I was around 14 after my first hospitalization. And I got on meds and I started getting. Better. And I was I was still pretty bitter towards him at that point. It was kind of like seeing a stranger in my father's body before that. And then he got better. And it's it's a whole new person. It's a whole new relationship.

Eric: It rocks.

Elizabeth: It does.

Eric: It does. It does.

Elizabeth: It's it's fun to hang out with him. And it and we can we can talk about serious things. This man has a mind for intellectual debate like you would not believe. I have found that humor is healing. They say laughter is the best medicine. And it was in our case and and it helped me realize that he wasn't angry anymore. I know that he's not going to flake on me as he has in the past because he's a different person than he was then. And I had time to understand that forgiveness does not mean what they did was okay. It means that it has no power over you anymore. And that that was my core realization. To say that. Yes, you hurt me. But I believe that you can be better. And I believe that I can still love you. I believe you are worthy of love. And I want a dad.

Eric: See? And this is how lucky I am. She beat me to the punch on figuring it all out. It took me. It took me another year. Six weeks of inpatient therapy and the rest of it to realize that it was all about forgiveness.

Elizabeth: It's a difficult topic to talk about, really, and I admire my father all the more for being able to talk about his struggle with PTSD.

Tony Holloway is a self-taught radio producer and has been contributing his “Mixtape Stories” to WYSO since 2017. He has since become an editor for the Center of Community Voices and for a new season of "Veterans' Voices" called "Veteran Champions". He served as the Project Coordinator, facilitating conversations with all the participants.