Learning How to Talk About War Helped Their Family Heal

Editor’s note: This is the third essay in a three-part series about succumbing to years of trauma, and learning to how to heal on his own, and with his family. Read his first essay and his second essay.

Christmas of 2016 started as most Sims gatherings had: lots of Steve Martin movies, funny YouTube videos, and good-hearted ribbing and banter. But this year, Theresa and I began to broach with our kids the subject of our quest for healing and growth and, surprisingly, the jokes stopped. As we began to disclose some of the struggles we had faced as a couple during our military life, our kids began to do the same.

The Sims Team at home on the start of their Healing Journey. Courtesy of John Sims

Starting with a suicide bombing in Kabul on May 18, 2010, we unpacked, as a family, some of the difficult events I had experienced and brought back home during our war years. Theresa and I had learned that you can’t keep much from your kids, regardless of age, and just as they’d picked up on the hard times Theresa and I had endured, they also had begun to pick up that she and I were working hard to change.

A Portrait of a Soldier—Inside Those Lines Was the Story of War

It floored me that our children saw traumatic wartime events, from the Kabul bombing to attacks of 9/11 to countless Permanent Change of Station moves, with clarity equal to mine. Until now, I had seen the trauma from my vantage point, but now, I was hearing it from the perspective of those I love most. Revelations about how these events had affected them were painful to hear. For the first time, we were opening up about deep feelings, and, while not without lots of tears and sadness, the process was largely therapeutic and positive.

Marcella’s Graduation from George Mason University in 2015. Courtesy of John Sims

That Christmas began to feel more like a wellness retreat than a holiday gathering. In the past we had spent our time laughing and quoting lines from our favorite Steve Martin movies, but this year we shared the latest books we had read and wellness tips we had learned, from yoga poses to breathing techniques. These weren’t potato chip books, but meaty, substantive books about growth that comes from struggle by authors like Viktor Frankl, John Steinbeck, Brené Brown, Deepak Chopra, and others.

Our conversations began setting the foundation for us to become emotionally healthier, more compassionate individuals and a stronger, more loving family. I shared how I was benefiting from my daily meditation practice, Theresa offered her faith and spiritual growth, Marcella shared stories of how she had become more compassionate with struggling Marines and Soldiers, Billy kept us riveted us with his harrowing and dangerous climbing adventures, and Annalisa and Johnna gave great cooking tips and kept us well fed. Through these experience, we began to sense that we had grown from and were stronger as a result of our past trauma and struggles.


The Sims family with Danny Boy at Boulder Crest Retreat on New Year’s Eve 2016. Courtesy of John Sims

For the first time in years I felt that I was not only in the same space as Theresa and our children, but that we were truly connected not just physically through hugs, kisses, but also intellectually and spiritually. The cone of silence cracked. The suppressed fear and sadness we had all endured from Desert Storm, Kosovo, the Pentagon on 9/11, Iraq, and Afghanistan began to dissolve, and made room for a kinder, gentler, wiser me. By acknowledging my fear and sadness, I began realizing there was nothing wrong with me, just that bad things had happened, and now I was learning how to leave them where they are: in the past.

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The Sims family at Boulder Crest Retreat. Courtesy of John Sims

Theresa suggested that New Year’s Eve could be a symbolic and powerful day to start anew. The six of us drove to Boulder Crest Retreat, a little over an hour from our home in Alexandria, VA. Ken had invited us to visit when the grounds would be quiet, while everyone was gone for the holidays. After walking through the gardens, we spent some time with the three former race horses that live on the grounds. Their great presence felt like an invitation to connect with them, and challenged us to surrender control, something I hadn’t been good at doing. In my previous visits to Boulder Crest Retreat, I was drawn to Danny Boy, an awe-inspiring and massive workhorse. Watching Theresa and the kids connect to the horses gave me a sense of peace, and I was thankful to slow down and be with them.

Time stands still when I’m at Boulder Crest. I feel as though I’m on sacred grounds; this was once home to native warriors. There’s a historical richness I relish, knowing the land was surveyed by George Washington. And at the eastern edge of the property is a labyrinth. For centuries, those in search of wisdom, from warriors to monks, have walked labyrinths’ single path in and out as a meditation practice to gain inner peace and clarity.

The labyrinth at Boulder Crest Retreat on New Year’s Eve 2016. Courtesy of John Sims

Our family began to walk. Some of the kids carried large rocks to symbolize the weight of their struggle to release. We walked in unison and with similar purpose, but there was also space for us to be with our own thoughts. I began to think of us as a “warrior family.” We were accepting our experiences as an Army family, both good and bad, and we were choosing to thrive.

The day was drawing to a close, and it was time to get back home to Alexandria. On our drive out of the Blue Ridge Mountains we stopped into Mom’s Pies for slices and cups of coffee. As we sat together and devoured our slices of apple, blackberry, and pecan pie, a warm blanket of love seemed to engulf us, and we began to repeat Steve Martin lines and tell jokes.

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We unloaded a lot of junk from our rucksacks that Christmas holiday of 2016. It didn’t just fall out on its own, we took it out. We did it through honest conversations, attentive listening, and lots forgiveness and empathy for each other. The work’s not over. There’s still a lot to unpack, but now there is more room for greater peace and joy. Today, we are more accepting of life’s ups and downs. Our struggles aren’t over, but from this hardship we are now better equipped to forge a new path of service after the Army. Where this path might lead we shall see.

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John Sims

John Sims served 30 years in the U.S. Army as both an Infantry NCO and Field Artillery officer. His assignments included command and staff positions from squad to strategic levels. His operational deployments include Desert Shield/Storm, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He was the senior operations officer in the National Military Command Center during the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the Pentagon. John and his wife, Theresa, have four children, all serving in or in support of the United States military.

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