‘I Married the War’ examines impact of war on veterans’ families

Wives of soldiers, including one from Santa Rosa, talk about life with husbands who came home alive, but changed.|

War has been part of our history since before the United States came into being. Generations of families have worried for the safety and hoped for the homecoming of their sons, daughters and spouses sent into battle.

Yet even when soldiers return home physically safe, they may carry emotional scars that can impact their families as much as themselves, for decades.

There are more than 5.5 million military caregivers in the U.S., wives of veterans from World War II to the present-day Middle East wars, according to Ken and Betty Rodgers, film producers and directors of a new documentary, “I Married the War.”

The emotional fallout of war isn’t an easy subject to talk about, which is why the Rodgerses made their 93-minute documentary, interviewing 11 wives of veterans, among them 97-year-old Anne Ohki of Santa Rosa.

Ohki, a widow whose husband, Ed, served in World War II, neatly summed up the movie’s message in a recent Press Democrat interview at her home.

“You can’t walk away after war,” Ohki said. “You can’t throw it away.”

Six years in the making, and featuring a score by longtime Sonoma County singer-songwriter Sarah Baker, “I Married the War” is now streaming on Vimeo and is available at bit.ly/3r08ivC.

A Sonoma County theatrical presentation has been delayed twice because of the pandemic, but the filmmakers expect to schedule a new date soon and hope for a public television airing at some point.

Hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the film’s in-person presentations are intermittent. It was shown in West Jefferson, North Carolina. A screening is planned in late February in Casa Grande, Arizona, Ken Rodgers’ hometown, with another showing tentatively set for May in Boise, Idaho.

The filmmakers found Okhi through Sonoma County contacts they made while living in Sebastopol from 1990 to 2005, before the Rodgerses moved to Boise.

They intentionally sought diversity in their interviewees, finding women from all over the country who differed in age, race, attitudes and experiences. But the women had one thing in common: their husbands came home changed by war, and the mental and emotional wounds were even worse than the physical ones.

One U.S. Navy corpsman returned home apparently intact but later went missing and eventually committed suicide. Another one of the marriages ended in divorce. Sometimes counseling helped.

“He was killed in Vietnam, but it took him 40 years to die,” one woman says of her husband in the film.

“He never found peace,” says another wife.

Another says sadly, “This is not what this (marriage) looked like when I said, ‘I do.’”

Not all the veterans were wounded physically or visibly. Their suffering became evident in nightmares, temper tantrums and mood swings. Most of the women said there was no physical abuse, but both mothers and children learned to tread carefully around their husbands and fathers. Substance abuse is a recurring theme in “I Married the War.”

Viewers get glimpses of what daily life is like with someone who’s trying to deal with traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder. Overall, the tone of the film is relentlessly honest, but hopeful. There are times when love does prevail, but it isn’t easy.

Anne Ohki remembers a happy marriage. In her small, cozy house in west Santa Rosa, where she is aided by a caregiver, she recalled meeting her late husband, Ed, in a internment camp for Japanese Americans in Colorado. Anne had grown up in Sebastopol.

Ed later served with the 442nd Infantry Regiment, the most decorated U.S. Army unit in World War II. He endured 18 months of rehabilitation after being wounded in 1944 in Italy, and he returned to the U.S. with a shattered arm. (His brother also served in Italy and was killed there.)

“He was hurt, so he was in the hospital. He couldn’t work for months,” Anne remembered.

The couple married after Ed’s return from the war and ultimately settled in Santa Rosa. After Ed’s initial adjustment, Anne remembered, he was upbeat and positive in the long run, for the rest of his life.

“He was fine,” she said.

After a long local career as a landscaper, Ed died of a heart attack in 1996 at age 73. Anne is a retired Memorial Hospital nurse.

The impetus to make this film dates back to Ken Rodgers’ own service in the U.S. Marines in Vietnam during 1967 and 1968. He survived the battle of Khe Sanh but suffered a shrapnel wound to the head.

“There was no such thing as PTSD then, and if you said anything you would have been out. What happened didn’t have a name then, but 54 years later it’s still present in our everyday lives,” Ken Rodgers said.

The Rodgerses’ first documentary film, “Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor,” released in 2011, was prompted by a reunion of Bravo Company and Khe Sanh veterans that the couple attended. And that gathering also sowed the seed for their current documentary.

“One of the men at the reunion said, ‘You wives are veterans, too,’ and I realized there was another film there,” Betty Rodgers said.

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5243. On Twitter @danarts.

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