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Can children handle an injured parent?

Holding the family together: when Dad comes home hurt

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In 2004, a sniper in Mosul, Iraq, fired a shot that would alter the Villanueva family forever. 

Catressa Villanueva, Staff Sgt. Javier Villanueva’s wife, explains the incident simply: “They went on a patrol and were ambushed.  A sniper fired a shot that shattered the tibia and fibula in his left leg.”

Now nearly three years later, Staff Sgt. Villanueva, called simply V, or occasionally Javi by his wife, prepares to go in for his ninth surgery.

“This is not something he’s going to wake up and be normal from,” said Villanueva. “Meanwhile, life goes on,” she added.

Life in the Villanueva household includes four kids, ages 11, 10, 8, and 4.

“There have been surgeries I’ve had to check him in and go home,” explained Villanueva, pointing out that at 3 years old children have little tolerance for hospital waiting rooms. 

While the older children may have more patience waiting, they also seem to understand some of what their father is going through.

“The older two understand the gravity; the younger two not so much.  They just know it means that Daddy’s going to be on the couch a lot, and they’ll have to avoid Dad.”

Early on, said Villaneuva, “They had already lost a friend.  They were terrified that he (their father) was going to die.”

The children were clingy and had nightmares.

The Villanuevas found help from Sandy Bonvouloir, the school counselor at Hillside Elementary, whose weekly grade level group encourages children to place a name and intensity to the emotions they’re feeling. Though this is generally used to help children maintain scholastic function, it’s also a way to encourage children to “build a language of feelings,” according to Bonvouloir. “Expanding beyond mad/sad/glad,” she explained.

Then, Bonvouloir encourages the children to engage in self-help.

She starts with the question, “What’s the smallest thing you can do to feel better?” and then helps the children brainstorm self-help solutions.

“They really are capable, and so insightful at it,” Bonvouloir said.

Sometimes, feeling the sad emotion is the start of the solution, but Bonvouloir will limit the time that the child sits in that feeling, usually asking the child how much time he or she needs.

Sometimes, with boys, Bonvouloir suggests “ratcheting up the active expression,” like letting a boy run off angry feelings.  But she also adds, at the elementary age group, both genders “allow themselves to be vulnerable.”

In the course of their time together, Bonvouloir will see changes in the children.  At this point, she’ll refer to the initial intensity, based on the child’s reference to the “feelings thermometer.” When progress is made, Bonvouloir will emphasize the child’s power in affecting this change, reinforcing his or her ability to work through emotional healing.

These skills are lifelong ones the child can refer back to.

“I really have this innate sense of hope and mission beyond what I’m doing,” said Bonvouloir. “Seeing their pain and seeing them heal — the best is seeing their parents come home.”

When Staff Sgt. Villanueva first came home injured, the kids responded to the positive energy they must have seen between their mom and dad. “They gravitated to him right off the bat,” Villanueva said.  “He was propped up a lot and in a wheelchair; the youngest wanted to jump on him.

“The kids were great about everything, making cards, singing songs, putting on plays,” she said.

Even in stressful times, Villanueva has tried her best to maintain a sense of normalcy. When the kids asked questions, she would remain optimistic, speaking to them realistically.

“We made a game of the rods in his leg,” she said, giggling as she recounts walking through the airport with her husband. “He sets off all the sensors.”  As Staff Sgt. Villanueva was taken aside for further security testing, the statement, “My daddy’s in a glass cage!” pierced the air.

Staff Sgt. Villanueva’s ironic statement, “I felt like a terrorist,” sets his wife off into more giggles, and she explained, “We’re always giggling.”

“Kids are such a product of their environment,” Villanueva explained. “I did my best to have a positive attitude.

“But there would be days when he’d be sore, the meds wouldn’t work, the youngest would be clingy.”

Circumstances also seem especially tough for the oldest daughter. While, according to Villanueva, she’s been “Javier’s little girl since she was five months old,” she also has a biological dad who’ll be sent to Iraq imminently.

Frequently, she’ll ask her mother, “Is this going to happen to Daddy Gilbert?”

Villanueva has her own theory about difficulties piling up: she calls it “Military Families Murphy’s Law.”

For Villanueva, the difficulties have included a brain hemorrhage in 2002, her husband’s injury in 2004 and all the subsequent surgeries, and the implications of war on the home front: through the course of the war, 35 people in the Villanuevas’ lives have been killed or injured.

“My kids are raw,” Villaneuva said. “They’ve got friends who’ve had daddies die; we went to a funeral.  I didn’t want my kids exposed to this, but they are.”

Villanueva talks about her husband, reflecting back to how things were before Iraq, before the injury: there was T-ball coaching, involvement in Boy Scouts, running behind bicycles while the first three kids learned how to ride on two wheels.

“My children are grieving,” Villanueva said. “He won’t be able to run ever again.  He won’t be able to teach the youngest one to ride her bike,” she explained.  Her sorrow is apparent, but passes quickly as she draws on a positive change in the subject.

Villanueva explains that the family copes with positive attitudes, favorite activities, laughter, and a little community help, like that from Bonvouloir.

Among the activities that the kids find help them to cope, Villanueva cites things such as the eldest daughter’s writing, while the 11 and 8 year olds enjoy putting on plays and acting in community productions. All four children have open access to crafts in the house, provided because of Villanueva’s philosophy about little hands and little minds: “Keep them busy and they won’t get into stuff.”

Along with keeping busy through creating arts and crafts, Villanueva keeps the family busy through day trips and local activities, packing up at whim and wandering around from tulip festivals to garage sales.

“Fort Lewis is the best as far as having programs,” Villanueva said. “It’s a great family friendly environment,” she added, referring to the various museums from Olympia to Seattle.

Even at home, spur of the moment fun keeps the family functional. Mostly, Villanueva laughingly says, she’s always working to prevent “that (Ted Bundy) moment.”

“I see the responsibility of being a parent, but I try to maintain that fun.” Fun like family sleepovers in the living room, fun like the family “Jeopardy” ritual the family enjoys nightly, and fun like daughter dates “wandering all over Washington in our PJs,” Villanueva laughs.

“You have to be spontaneous,” Villanueva advised. “Especially when they’ve gone through some tough things.”

But Villanueva’s main advice to others experiencing difficulties similar to those of her family: “You have to be able to keep your sense of humor, even through the stress and hard times — that’s the sanity saver.”

Bonvouloir adds another element parents shouldn’t overlook. “The self-care piece is huge for parents,” she said. “Moms come in and they’re so caught off guard.”

Villanueva sheds light on this, through her own experience: “I felt really guilty when Javi came home, because the others weren’t. I was determined to be the perfect wife, nurse, mom.” She thinks back to those stressful times and offers one last tidbit to help others: “By accepting help, things can be better.”

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