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Galveston Monthly

The Soldier and The Bear

Oct 31, 2019 10:32PM

They gave each other hope. Now their story gives hope to others.

 According to a report released by the Department of Veterans Affairs on September 20 of this year, sixty-thousand veterans have committed suicide in the last ten years. Less than a week later, on September 26 the Pentagon reported that the rate of 325 suicides among active-duty military personnel in 2018 was a five-year high, and it was the highest rate recorded since the Pentagon began tracking these numbers in 2001.

 Each of these individuals was a human life before they were a statistic, and the precursor to most of their ill-fated ends was the life-altering disease known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The effects and intricacies of PTSD are highly misunderstood and underestimated, and as the above numbers indicate, the “post” does not necessarily mean post-service.

  In fact, PTSD is by no means an experience exclusive to the military. It is also highly common among first responders and nurses, as well as people of any age who have survived domestic violence and sexual abuse - within this realm, the effects can be dangerously cyclical as the trauma left untreated can later turn the abused into the abuser.  

  To further complicate the effects of this disease, PTSD is not one-size-fits-all, rather it encompasses an array of symptoms or any multitude of combinations therein that are unique to each person. This complexity is compounded by a lingering stigma that surrounds the issue of mental health, and because the disease itself is seen as unorthodox, so often are the remedies.

  For example, medicinal cannabis has proven highly effective in mitigating symptoms of PTSD, but fortunately, another distinctly potent treatment comes in a form that is much less controversial - dogs. Sometimes, these furry friends are trained service animals, but in truth, all dogs are therapy dogs, even the ones who themselves have suffered. Such is the story of Conrad and his Bear. 

   “I came in when Conrad was at his worst. He was reclusive, taking sixteen different medications from the VA - he was practically a zombie.” “We met after he came back [stateside] - he had just gotten Bear,” remembers Patricia DeGrace, whose love for her now-husband and his four-legged companion has manifest into her first work, The Soldier and The Bear.

  As with most veterans, the horrors of war were etched in Conrad’s memory, shrinking his sense of purpose and imprisoning his inner life within the confines of that most basic instinct that had served him so well - survival.

  But somewhere deep within, Conrad had made the decision to be healed, and although his forward-facing vision was still blanketed by the fog of war, that desire put him on the path where he would first find Bear and then Patricia. Bear effortlessly instilled purpose into Conrad’s day-to-day, “but he still had no foresight to see any meaning in his future,” Patricia explains.

  “He was in a dark place. I believe God put me in his life to give him the stability he needed to restore his vision for the rest of his life.”

  Unbeknownst to Conrad, the very journey that had broken him was also the story that would restore him, as well as countless others in the process. All that he needed to help him along was the heart of a Bear and the hand of his wife.

  In 2012, the Wounded Warriors extended Patricia an invitation to a Writers Guild workshop in New York City. “I got to work with prominent writers, we learned how to write and how to create a story,” she says. “then we went back six months later, we were assigned mentors, and we were able to choose any kind of writing project we wanted. And I chose to write a story about my husband.”

  

 The full realization of The Soldier and The Bear took nearly four years. Wisely, Patricia did not force the project but allowed it to take shape organically, slowly but deliberately.

  “It took time for my husband to reflect clearly enough to talk to me about what happened in the war,” she explains. “It took time for him to process the things that impacted him the most and also what drove him to want to commit suicide.”

  And then there was Bear - sick, neglected, passed around between four homes in two years, the last of which was the shelter where he had lived for the last six months. Patricia poignantly remembers, “I wanted to know what it was about the brokenness of both of them that forged this bond.”

  Indeed, despite the graceful despair that flows from the war stories of “Sarge” (Conrad) in chapter one of her book, “The Soldier,” it is the dog lovers who should brace for the waterworks induced by the story of Sarge meets Bear.

  Patricia’s loving and respectful treatment of the dog-human relationship refreshingly sets it apart from the current trend of dog-themed books and movies. This trend drags readers and viewers through the mud, with the writers using their obviously deft imaginations to dream up every traumatizing and gut-wrenching scenario for the dog to endure, only to end with an unsatisfying and anticlimactic attempt to make it “all better” through reunion or reconciliation.   

  Instead, Patricia makes quick work of Bear’s backstory, saving her real tear-jerking moments for the “love at first sight” nature of their meeting and the beauty of the love that transforms them both. She dares to capture the true, powerful essence of what a human can feel for an animal, not merely a silly interpretation of what the animal feels for a human.

  “…He turned as the shelter door closed and glanced at the sign that said, ‘Animal Rescue.’ But this time, he imagined it to say, ‘People Rescue.’” (The Soldier and The Bear).

  More than just a warm and literally fuzzy love story, The Soldier and The Bear seeks to elucidate the issue of mental health, especially regarding PTSD. “I don’t think our country really has a grasp of how debilitating MDD (Major Depressive Disorder) and PTSD can be, they don’t know what that looks like,” Patricia says.

  “While this story is about a veteran, the fact is that people all around us are dealing with PTSD. It’s not just about soldiers. People in abusive relationships, victims of childhood abuse, sex and human trafficking - there are so many reasons it happens. But no one is disposable, and we really need to make a better effort to understand this disease. It affects every nationality, every age group, and ignoring it is why people commit suicide. For us, it was really our faith in God that carried us through, but even if it is not that for someone else, we want them to know that there is still hope.”

  The Soldier and The Bear by Patricia DeGrace is available in hard copy and e-book at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. Follow Author Patrica DeGrace on Facebook or contact her directly for speaking engagements at [email protected]

  If you or anyone you know is experiencing symptoms of PTSD or thoughts of suicide, please call the National Institute of Mental Health at 866.615.6464 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800.273.8255.