By Thomas Brennan

I destroyed my Purple Heart citation on Christmas Eve.

I tore it to shreds. Then I threw my medal in the trash. I stood, staring down at it, angry. Tears rolled down my face. I hoped I would never see one again. That medal reminded me of the moments that ruined my life.

In 2010, my psychiatrist diagnosed me with severe post-traumatic stress disorder after I suffered a traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan. For more than a year and a half, I participated in vestibular and cognitive rehabilitation as well as prolonged exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy exploration.

Though I made progress, I’m not close to the person I used to be. I’m not the person she fell in love with.

Combat changed me. Getting wounded changed me more. And the aftermath broke my wife’s heart. I don’t blame her for any of what has happened. That wouldn’t be fair.

For a year and a half, I focused on fixing myself. I thought I was doing our relationship a disservice if I didn’t. What I didn’t do was pay attention to my marriage. I ignored it. I ignored her. Not once did I think about what it was like living in her shoes and dealing with what I had become—an angry, depressed shell of who I once was. Not once did I think about what it was like for her to get that phone call the day I got injured. It didn’t even cross my mind what it was like to almost lose your husband.

Thomas Brennan re-enlists in the Marine Corps in 2011. | Photo credit Courtesy photo

I have hurt my wife in ways that I am sure I will never be forgiven for. Even if I am forgiven, she will never forget. One of my fondest memories in life is taking her hand and saying “I do.” I swore on that day that I would be forever loyal and that I would be the best man I could be for her. She deserves that.

I have failed. I have been less than a man. I have been a coward. I hid myself from her in fear that she would not love me for me. I never gave her the benefit of the doubt that she could love an emotionally wounded man.

People used to ask me what it means to have earned the Purple Heart and I never knew what to say. How can you explain losing a part of yourself?

Now I know that purple and gold brass medal cost me the one thing I held closest to my heart.

My wounds physically hurt me. What hurt more was hearing my wife tell me she was no longer in love with me and that she didn’t know who or what I had become. Hell, I didn’t know who I was anymore.

I thought therapy had brought me back to my own form of normal. I thought I was a little bit of what I used to be. Little did I know that I had drifted so far from what I was that getting back might be impossible. Listening to her talk about how I changed broke me even more. It was a harsh dose of reality and it still stings.

Despite it all, I am even more determined to become the man I once was, or at least a man I am content with—one she can love.

For now, and hopefully forever, my wife and I are still together. I am also still involved in therapy, but rather than ignoring my family I must find a balance between the two. I hope I can find what I lost, that little bit of something that made me who I am. If not, I hope that she can fall in love with me all over again.

I am sure someday I will regret throwing my medal in the trash. In doing so, I disgraced what it stands for and the people who have given their lives to earn it and the families who use it to remember their loved ones. But for now, there are more important things for me to get back than metal and cloth.

–Thomas Brennan is a medically retired Marine and a former staff writer at the Jacksonville (N.C.) Daily news. He is a member of The Military Order of the Purple Heart and founded The War Horse in 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @thomasjbrennan.

You can send a message of support and thanks directly to service members via the USO’s Campaign to Connect. Your messages will appear on screens at USO locations around the world.