Gina Langston Brewer
26″ x 20″ • Acrylic on Canvas Board
The things we don’t see or feel are seen and felt on a level beyond our comprehension by someone, anyone, who has been to war, survived, and returned to society. A society which is blind to the potential dangers of life, lurking around every corner. Hypervigilant to every threat, real or imagined, it makes no difference. Sights, sounds trigger to muscle memories and a tattered soul sewn together by the love of family, if you are lucky. Friends, if you’re fortunate. And being always busy, to keep that mind so occupied in hopes of not feeling all of the feelings that you don’t want to feel. Intertangled, connected, infected. Seeing with every eyes’ collective memories and horrors. Trying to mend, to heal, and to keep tethered to a new purpose, while still not being able to sit with your back facing the door. Hoping that you sleep at night even when you close your eyes and still cannot unsee everything. We see you, we love you, we hold space for you. And gratitude, we are connected. Intertangled. Healing.
Facebook: Gina Langston Brewer Creations
by Kristine Hartvigsen
It is the nonstop “indirect fire” that continues to target and abruptly unravel 17-year Army veteran Kevin Brewer. The incessant barrage of little snaps and pops is not limited to the indiscriminate fire once directed at him by unseen combatants in Iraq. It is not just the din of choppers constantly flying overhead. It is not just those sounds from the past.
For Brewer, these days it is the cumulative indirect fire of the everyday sort that can set him off without warning. It could be the carefree optimism of a society that has not sacrificed, that is clueless to the dark truths of mankind. It could be the naïve tingling of the neighborhood ice cream truck — because life simply goes on as it always has no matter what Brewer and his brothers in arms have endured or witnessed. It could be the able-bodied, wholly entitled asshat who parks his Suburban in a handicapped space at Barnes & Noble.
Most of the time, Brewer maintains a steady demeanor. Most of the time.
“I don’t vent, I just swallow it all, you know, because the last thing I’m gonna do is let somebody know.”
But eventually the pressure builds, and the mountain blows. One incident is still palpable, as it happened earlier this year — a most-regretful, inflammatory brawl with his wife, Gina. Brewer says he never hurt her like that before. It is, perhaps, the freshest wound.
“I completely lost it on her. She didn’t deserve it, obviously. But it was at that point, the anger kept getting bigger and bigger, and I just kind of unloaded on her, I was suicidal. I felt like I had no purpose whatsoever.
“I mean, we had gotten into arguments before, and once I did the usual domestic punch the wall and broke my fucking hand. You know?”
Fortunately, the couple’s infrequent fights never escalated into direct physical abuse. But words — words can scald far worse than the petrol in a Molotov cocktail.
“It was I mean, what I did, just yelling. It was probably the worst I’ve ever treated anybody and, honestly, everything that came out of my mouth was just cruel. You know? Why? I don’t know. I hit a breaking point.”
The episode forced Brewer to do some serious introspection and return to therapy. He says he believes Gina has stayed and remained so committed because she always exists in an aura of pure love.
“Talk about polar opposites! Here’s a guy who is very into being a soldier and ends up with this hippie, which she absolutely is. She’s a hippie. She’s an artist. As a mother, she is the goddess in my world. … 99.9% of women would not put up with me in the state that I can be in, you know? I think the focus for me would be secondary trauma, not necessarily what I went through but specifically the effect on my current marriage of 14 years.”
Brewer had been married, briefly, twice before. His third marriage to Gina has been the most enduring for a variety of reasons.
“I was married the first time in 1994, when I was in the Army the first time,” he explained. “I’d say there’s no questioning that 50% of that relationship was disintegrating because of my behavior. You know, drunken philandering.”
A few years later, Brewer met “the right bartender, who became my second wife. We got married in 2004, right before I deployed. I was home on leave. We thought it would be a good idea. … So combat, and family separation, that sort of thing. I don’t blame her. She was younger than me by eight or nine years. She wasn’t very good at being alone, so she got a boyfriend while I was gone.”
After his second wife came clean with him about cheating, just months before he was to return from Iraq, Brewer resolved to make the marriage work when he was back stateside. In the end, as Brewer prepared to leave again for six or eight months of training and faced with the prospect of being alone once again, Wife No. 2 decided to call it quits.
“Lord knows where I’d be stationed after that,” he said. “She didn’t want to wait. She didn’t want to find out. So, we just decided okay. No hard feelings.”
It’s pretty clear that a resounding form of secondary trauma for servicemen is the ended relationships, in large part due to the unique stressors only military families experience. With the prolonged separations come many taxing emotions, including anxiety, paranoia, jealousy, insecurity, guilt, and loneliness. Spouses can feel abandoned. Children can become resentful even when they don’t understand fully why they feel what they feel. It takes tremendous strength to cope with the pressures and maintain good mental health. So for Brewer, two marriages became casualties of his service, secondary traumas on their own.
Brewer began his military career serving with his brother, Scott, in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg. It’s where he met his closest, lifelong buddies. He was a paratrooper but also a musician playing drums in the unit’s band. After five relatively uneventful years, Brewer chose to be discharged.
“I got out because I was getting tired, and I thought I wanted to go back to college, which I did,”
he explained. He moved to Indianapolis and attended the University of Indianapolis but did not find that choice satisfying, so he returned to Columbia to open a tattoo business, called Body Rites, with his brother. Eventually, after he and his brother sold the business, Brewer returned to the Army — completing basic training (again) at age 32 — in 2004. Then came his deployment to Iraq.
“I worked at a regional embassy office headed by the U.S. Department of State, I ended up, as a junior NCO, being in charge of a small communications team.”
Brewer’s team also kept manifests for helicopters that flew in and out every day, sometimes transporting wounded soldiers.
“We had teams of soldiers on convoy in the area. We were communicating back and forth with everybody, giving intel to everybody about what was happening. If something was spotted, we got all kinds of warnings, like ‘look out for a white Toyota,’ you know. That sort of thing, just relaying all of that information. So, it got really hectic. We worked 12 hours a day.
Brewer struggled with things that happened overseas and had to come to terms with it. Following the rules and operating by the book does not mean you won’t have internal conflict: “Even when you do everything right, there are still horrible consequences. And for every story you may have, others may have even worse stories.
“I went to a group therapy session at Fort Benning, and I was just like, man, I don’t belong with these guys. I mean they’d been through so much worse, and I felt like a fool for complaining, honestly. Those guys, Lord have mercy, I heard one of the worst stories I ever heard. It’s like the rules of engagement, escalation of force. It doesn’t matter if this is a child. This child is trying to kill you, you know. … So the same thing, like, what we did on convoys — running people off the road, disabling vehicles — that always ended horribly, you know, but it’s like, they’re not complying with our instructions. What the fuck are we supposed to do? You never feel good about it.”
Brewer married Gina in 2008. After stints at Fort Benning, Fort Stewart, and Fort Gordon over about nine years, Brewer retired from the Army in 2017, and the family moved back to Columbia, SC. The simple act of leaving the military left Brewer conflicted and empty. It was a shock, and it was surreal.
“For me, it was just like pumping the brakes suddenly. There was a frustration of not necessarily being needed anymore. I went from being part of a team. Then it just goes to a dead stop when you get out. I mean, talk about a sense of purpose just evaporating. It was like walking into a void.”
That reaction is not uncommon, and Brewer knows many retired soldiers who experience the same thing.
“When I got back from Iraq, I was stationed at Fort Jackson, and Frank Chapman was my first sergeant. He is still my best friend in the world. … Frank went through it too, ya know the void when he got out. He was a company first sergeant, so he was responsible for a full company. He had everybody’s problems on his plate all of the time.”
Brewer and his retired Army friends utilize Veteran’s Administration health benefits for several reasons, primary among them the psychotherapy services available there.
“I got into stuff the VA offers and all of that, so I’m taking full advantage of it, I even got free bifocals.”
Facing reality, Brewer says, has been the hardest part of all. He had to admit the cruelty inflicted on his wife, Gina, was insanely wrong. And he isn’t sure he can ever right that wrong.
“Gina has been my rock this entire time, I mean, honestly, literally, she saved my life. She had her hands full getting involved with a guy like me that had all kinds of issues, waking up screaming, you know, just fits of rage, bless her, she has been so understanding.”
The undercurrent of anger that consumed Brewer also complicated relationships with his children. When he married Gina, she already had a rebellious teenage son, Dylan. Brewer regretfully remembers going off on Dylan, actually getting physical, yet to this day he doesn’t remember what Dylan said that triggered the outburst.
Brewer’s focus as a parent is pure. It is teaching respect at the very minimum and pushing them to learn so that they can be more successful in life.
Feeling directionless without the military structure is just one challenge of civilian life. One coping mechanism Brewer relies on is to be in constant motion.
“When you’re left with your own thoughts, that’s when things start rotting. So I consistently stay busy one way or another. … I’m not all right. I’m just trying to be well.”
He finds contentment in playing music. While he and Gina both stay busy with their creative pursuits, every now and then, they find a sort of tranquility in slowing down, in simple domestic life.
“I may think, I don’t have PTSD anymore. Life is peachy. Then we’re watching CBS Sunday Morning, and I see something on that screen and become unglued. It was a report on the war in Ukraine. Video showed the aftermath of a bombing. And there is this fucking bloody stuffed animal! I burst into tears. … One minute, I am just sitting, having a cup of coffee, and the next, I just spit out my coffee, dropped my mug, ran outside, and blubbered for like 10 minutes. It’s funny how that is, like you can be entirely fine, and then something that has nothing to do with your surroundings, like you’re in the middle of a movie theater, and you’re bursting into tears. It’s crazy.”
The image of a blood-soaked teddy bear will forever haunt Brewer. It takes him immediately back to Iraq on May 5, 2006.
“There was this convoy I was supposed to be on, and my company commander was on a different outpost, so I always had to get his permission if I was going to go running gun. It was a civil affairs group, you know, winning hearts and minds, building orphanages. Anyway, this one guy had seven days left. He asked me if I could do the run. For some fucking reason, this time my commander said no. … So they go out, and everybody in that truck gets killed. They were taking soccer balls and Beanie Babies to an orphanage. … It’s just bloody Beanie Babies just blown apart. And these five men. … I feel like I’ve gotten over the whole survivor’s guilt thing, you know, like it should have been me.”
Brewer has sought psychotherapy on and off over the years and believes it helped somewhat. Any struggles he still experiences have been wholly cumulative. The recent incident with Gina was a huge wake-up call.
“Someone suggested couples therapy, and I said, okay. I’m willing to do that, because, I mean, I honestly don’t want to lose her, and I’m telling you, man, I fully admit that I’ve put this woman through hell.”
Brewer still misses the military, and many of his military friends miss it as well. The reasons are simple yet also, ironically, complex.
“I miss the sense of purpose, and I miss the camaraderie, you know?
The transition from the sometimes dysfunctional, hurry-up-and-wait. Hoooaah, America, Fuck Yeah, operation freedom culture of the Army into everyday citizenship — into the relentless milquetoast, redundant crawl of civilian life, can be, to put it mildly, a challenge.
I would coast for a while, the coping skills and the things I did to, for lack of better words, rewire my brain so that I realized, okay, this is not a life-or-death situation. You’re in the Food Lion right now, and the odds of being in any real danger are, like zero. I used to be able to do that, but I just started feeling panicky again. …
It takes work to go back and operate in a society, I’m still living with it.”
Recalling the aforementioned fatalism, Brewer understands that recovery is an unending journey and not a destination. It’s impossible to get to that perfect place, whatever that is.
“All that stuff I put on the back burner for 16 years, it bubbled to the surface. You know, I think a lot of us tend to do that. I still drink too fucking much, but ya know, I’m trying.”