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Mother of Two Twice Faces the Casualties of Military Life Beyond the Battlefield

Sep 2, 2015

Jacksonville Beach, FL— A century ago it was simply called “shellshock,” a neologism that sounded more like a shakable scar from combat rather than a lifelong mental health affliction.

Now, as research dives deeper into the psychosomatic impact of war, families are finding that the consequences of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are far graver, and in some cases, more fatal than conflict itself. 

Military Love, Military Life

Such was the case for Wade Wilkenson, who had already joined the Navy when he met Maggie Berry, the daughter of a Marine pilot, in Orlando, Florida in February 1986. Within nine months, Maggie and Wade tied the knot, and three months later, Wade deployed to the Persian Gulf.

“He was the son my father never had,” said Wilkenson. “My dad, as a Marine, always teased him about being in the Navy. But they understood each other.”

By the time Wade returned from the Persian Gulf to the shores of San Diego, Maggie had moved across the country to welcome her husband back. The two began a life together that, though punctuated by multiple deployments, numerous moves and many major transitions, was ultimately united by a commitment to family.

In 1992, Wade and Maggie gave birth to their daughter Rachel. Four years later they welcomed Emma. Together, the Wilkensons traversed the United States as Wade moved up the ranks and pursued an accomplished naval career.

To ease the transition for their girls into college, the Wilkensons had settled down with Maggie, Rachel and Emma making Jacksonville, Florida their home base while Wade was stationed in Miami, FL and then  Norfolk, VA.

The Most Hidden Enemy

Believing that the family had reached the place of stability that military families look forward to after years of service, Wilkenson was confronted with an unexpected tragedy when she received the call that her elderly veteran father had ended his life.

“It was devastating to all of us, especially the girls. They took it really hard,” Maggie said. “But I think Wade kind of understood it in a way.”  After a couple of years, normality seemed within reach.

As a family, the Wilkensons strived to move forward from this tragedy. Rachel entered her freshman year of college as Emma began high school. Maggie continued working at the local community college, and Wade continued to excel after returning from duty in the Middle East.

“It was February 2, 2011. I remember I had wandered off from my desk to go see someone in another department at the college,” she shared. “Someone eventually found me and told me I needed to go to the president’s office immediately.”

Wilkenson imagined myriad scenarios, but none came close to what she encountered when she arrived and saw the local senior naval officer and military chaplain standing there.

Wade—a husband, father, and proud Naval officer—became the second victim of post-traumatic stress disorder in the Wilkenson’s life.

“He had just been home for Christmas, and then headed to Kansas City to see his dad and take him to a Chiefs game,” said Wilkenson. “He was always smiling. If someone needed help, or was going through something, he’d take the time to be there for them.”

Wade and 300 other fellow soldiers were the victims of a much more pervasive enemy in 2011, one that hid in the pressures and stoicism that can mask symptoms of severe depression in military men and women, especially those who served in combat.

Life After Loss

Believing there is too much silence surrounding military suicide, Maggie Wilkenson remains a strong advocate for proper care, adequate benefits and support for Gold Star families.

“We’re the faces of other victims,” said Wilkenson. “Once all the ceremony is over, people forget, and they don’t like to talk about these kinds of deaths the same way.”

Suicides are something of a “taboo” subject in military communities, with stigma contributing significantly to its persistence.

Wilkenson said she and her daughters found special support from Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping provide scholarships for children of military killed in the line of duty, including VA-ruled service-related suicides.

“They’ve just been fantastic. It’s meant the world to us to have their support for Emma as she started her freshman year,” she added.

Emma is now attending the University of Central Florida, a dream made much easier by the support of a foundation committed to remembering and serving anyone who has lost a parent in the line of duty over the past 35 years. Rachel, Emma’s sister, is currently living and working abroad in Grenoble, France.

Carrying on Wade’s legacy and striving to reach the dreams he had for his family, the Wilkensons have found a new normal. They see their husband and father as a casualty of combat, a perspective Maggie Wilkenson wishes more people shared. 

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About Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation

Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation honors the sacrifices of military heroes by ensuring the success of their children through college education. Since 2002, Children of Fallen Patriots has provided more than $9.8 million in total assistance, including college scholarships, supplemental grants and educational counseling to military children who have lost a parent in the line of duty. Nearly 20,000 children from all across America will need future assistance. Help today by visiting fallenpatriots.org.

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