(77) Double Reverse Culture Shock: Coming home from war

Molly, the service dog

 Golly, Miss Molly

A blog about a service dog and her Veteran with PTSD

(Supporting the Veteran and the family caregiver)


 As Foreign as Chinese

Landing at the Taiwan International Airport, soldiers with machine guns, AK47s, and other assault weapons lined the runway. As the plane pulls into the terminal, rigid jaws and straight backs held firm, showing no sign of weakness or kindness. The Chinese man sitting next to me on the airplane explained that Taiwan is always in a state of war because of its proximity, relationship, and history with Mainland China.

I spoke no Chinese and as a college senior at 21, my naiveté and vulnerability exposed me to things I could not control. Street signs spilled characters resembling spaghetti. Cars screamed through intersections, disregarding pedestrians and traffic controls. Rooftops curved like lips with a secret. Sewer rats floated along the streets, winking as they jumped from garbage to the sidewalks.

Within just six months, I was caught between two men wielding knives at one another. A foreign man accosted me in an alley on my way home from class. Touring with classmates along the island, children from one city threw rocks at us and chased us to our bus. Worst of all, the US normalized relations with Mainland China, leaving Taiwan on its own with no protection. As US foreign exchange students, quarantine kept us isolated and away from classes until the protests simmered down.

Despite the horrors I faced overseas, coming home presented new trauma. Seeing things in a new way, my stomach churned at manicured lawns; complaints about public services in the absence of open sewers and dirty water; and, public outcry against teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). I felt caught between two worlds no longer fitting in either.

The Warrior’s Collision 

I have never been to Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, or Iraq. I never trekked through a hot zone, and never experienced gunfire, IEDs, or punji pits. Imagining what young men and women experience in war is something I will only gain from books, documentaries, or listening to conversations at the VA Hospital. What I do know, however, is how different living in a foreign country can be and the reverse culture shock of returning home.

In the warriors’ case, they are guaranteed to suffer reverse culture shock on top of dealing with any injuries sustained in war. Post-traumatic stress from what they had to do to survive and witnessing the bloodshed of others sticks with them for years or a lifetime, leaving them with a double portion of trauma. 

As a family caregiver or friend of a returning warrior, patience as the warrior adapts may not be enough. There is no timeline to the amount of adjustment time needed. Just as my semester in the Republic of China changed me forever, you can be certain war changed your warrior forever. Things will never be as they once were.

My Warrior, My Veteran, My Best Friend

My husband went to Vietnam at 18. He returned broken, injured, and depressed. Rejection by others, including family, left him on the verge of homelessness, addicted to drugs, and often wanting to end life. I did not meet him until two decades later. I knew he carried pain from his service and I accepted what life would William above canyonbring as a result. At 36, naiveté struck again and I walked into a relationship that turned my life upside down.

After 21 years of marriage, I accept the good with the bad—just as any married couple. I make accommodations for his weaknesses and benefit from his strengths. His strong and caring arms cure most any ill. I never worry about my safety because he protects me without regard for his own safety. He gives his coat to a man shivering in the cold without a home and helps the man find shelter. He hands a large bill to a single mother of five for Christmas gifts for her children. He steps in when a man raises his hand to strike his girlfriend or when a father berates and threatens his child in public.

William and PennyI am fortunate and proud to be married to a Vietnam Veteran. While the journey is difficult, it is well worth it. He will require treatment and care for the rest of his life. His double portion of reverse culture shock and war horrors will never leave him. As a human being, he stands proud as an American and remains ready to serve again should the need arise. Frankly, I cannot think of anything sexier, more mature, and more likable than my Veteran, my best friend. He makes me proud.

Post your Comments: 

How have you helped your Veteran readjust after coming home from war? Please comment below.

Photo credits: pculbrethgraft

About the blogger 

Dr. Penelope “Penny” Culbreth-Graft is a retired city manager and graduate professor. She lives with her disabled Vietnam Veteran husband, William, and his service dog, Molly, on Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. She writes, paints, cares for her husband, and spends time with her grandchildren.

2 thoughts on “(77) Double Reverse Culture Shock: Coming home from war

  1. Rick

    As always, Penny, your thoughtful observations carry tremendous impact and reality. As always, I wish you and William continued good times together. We miss our life on Cheyenne Mountain, enjoy every minute of it with the bear, foxes, deer, and the views….

    • Penelope Culbreth-Graft Post author

      Thanks, Rick. A whole crop of turkeys walked in front of me on my way up the driveway today–eight females chasing the big male. Loving spring in the Rockies. Thanks for continuing to read Golly, Miss Molly. Penny

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