It’s common knowledge that the effects of wartime combat can be physically devastating. Era after era, war after war, Americans who return home from overseas deployment – the ones that make it out alive – are often maimed, wounded or worse. Those, certainly, are scars that will never fully heal.
It leaves its mark on soldiers who remain physically intact, too. A staggering number of combat veterans come home with the stress, fear and horrors of their deployment etched in their brains, haunting in perpetuity their thoughts both conscious and in sleep.
This is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Col. Beverly Smith-Tillery (RET.) has lived with it since returning from the Iraq/Afghanistan war in 2009. She retired from the military in 2011.
Smith-Tillery was a registered nurse anesthetist, a longtime Army reservist called up to active duty in 2003. She spent the last three years of service at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where the young men and women wounded in the Middle East were transported for surgery.
As she makes all too clear in her book The Invisible Wounds of War: My Redemption, Smith-Tillery’s experiences were horrific. She saw things that will never leave her subconscious.
This began a lengthy journey to deal with – there is no “cure” – her chronic PTSD.
Published by St. Petersburg Press, The Invisible Wounds of War chronicles the progress Smith-Tillery has made through writing poetry about her experiences.
“I thought maybe if I put these thoughts down on paper, it will help me deal with them,” says the resident of Seminole. “So if I woke up and I had a nightmare about a soldier that I was taking care of in the operating room, who didn’t make it, I would sit down and I would write phrases about that.
“And then gradually they came together, and I thought ‘I could write a poem about this.’ And I had never, ever written poetry before, so this was a new way of dealing with my PTS memories.”
It turned out to be its own sort of combat – a way of fighting off the demons that permeated her restless sleep.
“It made me feel like this: If I write this down, maybe tonight when I go to sleep, I’ll have a peaceful night.”
She was a gold medal winner in the National VA Creative Arts Competition in 2018.
Smith-Tillery and her husband Mark spend most of the year in Pinellas County; the rest of the time, they’re at their second home in Kentucky.
She was a registered nurse in the Bluegrass State for 20 years, and raised three sons, before becoming a reservist in 1988.
The trauma began long before her military service – at 17, she was beaten and raped by someone she trusted.
She survived the deaths of two of her sons.
In time, poetry became her relief valve. Her hope is that reading her book might be the first step in some sort of relief for veterans, reservists and active duty personnel: “If they could see that I went from being absolutely crushed from PTSD to a time of hope, and coping, then maybe my book can serve a purpose,” Smith-Tillery explains.
“PTSD is not a hopeless situation. There is a journey that you have to walk. And sometimes it’s so black that you think about suicide. And I did.
“And there are days that you think ‘It’s not so bad today. I slept last night, and I didn’t have a night of terror. So maybe there’ll be more days of waking up and not thinking I can’t go on with this.’ And that’s what I wanted to show to any military person who deals with PTSD, or even a young woman who’s been raped, or even a high school student who’s been in a school with a mass shooting … it’s not completely geared for military people. There is hope. There is a faint light at the end of the tunnel, and if you keep walking toward it, it will get brighter. And the days will get better.”
Each poem in The Invisible Wounds of War is introduced by a brief story explaining the circumstances surrounding its creation. These introductions put each poem in context.
Smith-Tillery, who received treatment from the Bay Pines Veterans Administration Hospital (where she was once an employee), has what she terms a “rocky history” with Bay Pines, and with the entire V.A. system. She has not been entirely satisfied with the results of her interaction with the V.A. administration.
Writing, she beams, has turned out to be a most effective form of therapy. “You realize that there is a life not after PTSD, but there is a happy life with PTSD. And that’s what I want to show.”
The book is available from local booksellers, and through Amazon.
St. Petersburg Press is owned by the St. Petersburg Group, parent company of the St. Pete Catalyst.