Michigan natives Herbert and Selina Simpson have known each other since childhood.
Selina Simpson: When I was 12, I went to a sleepover at a friend's cousin's [house] and he was their stepbrother -- the friend's cousin's stepbrother. [Laughs] If you can keep that straight.
I beat him at Scrabble. And I still do. He claims he did not lose, but I remember clearly I had the seven-letter word “brother” on a triple-word score and I have witnesses. So he can deny it all he likes.
In 1993, after struggling to put himself through college, Herbert joined the Air Force.
Herbert Simpson: Me and my girlfriend, who is currently my wife, were living together and just couldn't make ends meet. And my brother enlisted in the Navy, and then he had coaxed my two sisters to go out there and find jobs, and they ended up marrying two Navy personnel as well. So I had a brother and two brothers-in-law in the Navy.
I did join the Air Force, because the other services didn't sound good to me to at all. It's just not my personality being Marines or Army, and Navy -- I'll be honest with you, I'm scared to death of drowning, so Navy was never an idea for me.
SS: My father was a conscientious objector. The extreme opposite side of political view. So when Herb decided to join, it came as a really big surprise to all of us.
It was a surprise that he was joining the military, but I understand why. You know, we lived in a dead-end town, and it's very difficult to find a job, and he didn't have school or support, so he didn't have a lot of options.
Herbert and Selina have three children. He has left them three times to deploy to Iraq.
HS: It's -- it's a crusher, I'll be honest with you. I'm just -- I don't know if it's I desensitize it more because I have to go, I don't have a choice, type of thing, you know. It's a crusher when I leave my wife and my kids, because I know I can take care of me, whatever happens, I'm an adult; or if I have troops, I take care of adults. But the issue is my wife has to take care of the bills, the house, the yard, the kids, the cars, anything, she's got to take it.
The very first time when I came back, I was really nervous that my son Cedar wouldn't take to me, because he was only a year and a half when I left. So when I came back, I was actually nervous how he would take to me, 'cause -- new experience, type of thing. But when I came back home and I was at the airport, he came up to me and he actually looked at me with open arms and just crushed my neck. And so -- that was quite an awesome moment for me. My daughter was hanging on my leg, like that one, and my son was around my neck. So of course I picked them both up and just crushed on them.
Simpson's second tour came at the height of the violence in Iraq. He saw things that still haunt him.
HS: One is responding to a dead body, um, and it was a -- it was a dad and a daughter -- at the -- they were both obviously bound up. The dad had his eyelids cut off, the daughter was tortured. I don't think she was sexually assaulted at all, but her breasts were cut, um, her ears slashed -- just carvings over her body. Dad had some -- some drill wounds in his knees, just like a power drill. And that, I think, really affected me because the girl was probably around 9 to 11, so older than my daughter would have been, but still a daughter nonetheless, and a dad couldn’t do anything to stop it. That -- that's one of them.
When he came back to the U.S., Simpson went through the post-deployment process at Andrews Air Force base.
HS: When we come back, they kind of send us through, and they kind of herd us through different people -- hit finance and different things as we come through. And it's kind of set up really nice. And we usually have, like, a chaplain or someone from that office kind of talk about family reintegration, what to expect, do's and don'ts, stuff like that, which is really good.
When I came back to Andrews from that year, I actually went to mental health and said, ”Look, I've got a severe anger issue and I want to make myself better before I reintegrate with my family.”
But there is no quick cure.
HS: Me and my wife were, I don't want to say we were on our way out, but we had a lot of anger, we had a lot of arguments and everything. And I wanted to say a lot of it perpetuated from me. I didn't like things, I was rigid, I demanded things to be my way; and there was actually times where I would get so mad -- I remember one -- I didn't want to take my anger out on my kids or my wife, and I did my damnedest not to. And there was one I just got so mad I just went to the garage and closed the garage and just started to cry, just because I just couldn't control my anger any more.
Because I wanted to -- I didn't want to inflict pain on them, but I wanted some kind of destruction. Does that make sense? I wanted to break something, I wanted to do something, but if I did that, it would be in front of them, and that could be detrimental.
SS: Oh yeah. He was angry; he was angry at the world. And that's the key words -- he was angry at the world. He wasn't angry at the children. So he did have issues, and he was angry and depressed; but he didn't let the kids see that. Now, it helped that he worked nights and he was only around during -- for a couple hours during the day anyway. [Laughs]
So yes, he was very angry, and he was depressed, and he had a lot of issues, but because of the schedule and the hours he was working, the kids never saw any of that; they really didn't. They just saw their fun-loving dad who likes to give horsey rides because Mom can't.
And, now, I saw it. And it was -- you know -- it wasn't easy. It was frustrating. But it wasn't the end of the world. He put himself in counseling. He didn't resist -- you know, my demands were either you fix it -- because it's got to change -- or we'll have to discover -- discuss living arrangements. And he took me seriously.
So that's another reason I've always considered myself fortunate, because when push comes to shove, he listens; and other women haven't been so lucky.
And I, you know, I kind of made it clear that “you need to go to counseling, and this needs to get fixed.” And he has been. He's actually been really good.
He did try the drug thing; that didn't work. Sleeping was an issue. He was always tired and fatigued, and when you are physically exhausted and mentally exhausted, it's a lot easier to be depressed and angry. But he couldn't sleep because he was having nightmares. And they tried different drugs, and that didn't work; all it would do was trap him in a nightmare.
And -- I knew it would pass. I knew it would. And it did. He does have occasional nightmares now; but they're not nightly; they're maybe weekly; maybe three times a month.
HS: I still get lack of sleep, I still get my dreams. I was never hit with an IED, whatever. And so -- one of the anger issues too is -- I can't -- the dreams wake me up, the dead bodies; and it's not like a dream per se, like I'm seeing this happening or I'm running through a field and I trip over dead -- it's not like that. It's, my dreams are slideshows, pictures and pictures of the dead bodies are coming through, the tortured bodies. I can tell you some stories about tortured people that you just say, 'Wow, they can actually do that to people?'
But I would see that. So I would wake up, and I still, to this day -- I smell burnt flesh. Smell it. And I just -- it's so real to me. And so the only way for me to get [rid of] it is I actually get out and I get in the shower, I take a shower, and I know it's in my mind, but to me that is the only way for me to get rid of the burnt smell, is for me to shower. And so at 2 in the morning I'm getting up, showering.
That hasn't happened, I would say, in about a week, but I usually have those dreams about once or twice a week.
SS: He does thrash around in bed, he does wake up, and he usually gets up and leaves the bed. There's not much I can do for him.
I -- I know it's probably an easy way out for me or callous or whatever, but I can't fix him. I can't. I support him. But I can't fix it. And I have chosen not to be burdened with his knowledge -- it -- just for my own mental health. I don't need to know those things. And I know that sounds like a horrible thing to say aloud and to try and explain to someone, but I deal with the day-to-day and making sure the kids are happy.