My Father Was My Hero; He Was Also A Trauma Warrior – Part 1 – 1/16/22

Friends, Colleagues, & Community Members, this is going to be a hard one for me to get through without crying a little, and that’s okay.  No need to worry.  I’m fully accepting of the sorrow and the grief I still feel after 7 years. I want to tell my father’s story and the part of it that is my story. I need to tell it. It’s been inside me for so long, and I’ve shared pieces, but it has evolved. I come to a greater understanding of it all the time, through the people I meet in this work, through hearing their struggles and their stories of hope, by telling pieces of my dad’s story and hearing people’s reactions to it, through learning new things about trauma and about myself.  These things cause more of the tiny little lights strung across the darkness to turn on and help me to see things more clearly.

My father, William Wambaugh, lived a life of service to others. When some were dodging and protesting the Vietnam War draft, he happily answered the call.  His father had gone before him and it’s what you do when you’re an able-bodied citizen needed by the country for protection. So he spent some time in the de-militarized zone of Korea as his Vietnam War service. He didn’t mean to go to Korea, but his baggage was lost and he was sent out later than the rest of his army unit, which meant a different flight and assignment, and that’s where he found himself living at age 22-23.  I don’t have to tell you that war is awful, but I do have to tell you that although he wasn’t in the worst area of combat, he did see some things that haunted him; and that he worked as a medic without any sort of formal training prior to his military service.  And finally, I have to tell you that Agent Orange, the infamous chemical warfare that had been created to harm enemies, was being aerated throughout his environment. Eventually, my father was released of his duties to return home.  Young 23 year-old Bill was reunited with his family when my oldest sister was 1, and went back to a job he’d secured at the IRS prior to the war. He and my mom continued creating their own family, and I came along, way ahead of schedule, after one failed attempt in-between.  They went on to bring a total of six girls into the world over a 14-year span.  As a child, I didn’t fully grasp the significance of this, or even my own significance, but I did enjoy all the babies being born into the family and the joy to my parents that came with each one. We were all deeply loved, wanted, and celebrated, and continue to be.

My father worked his way up in the IRS, became a Special Agent, was sent from Cleveland to Cincinnati to work and eventually headed up the Criminal Investigation division of the IRS in Cincinnati.  He did SWAT team duty and Secret Service detail when Presidents came to town.  So here he is battling white collar, organized crime (yes, local mafia) and I swear to you, we as children did not know the level of risk he took and the danger he was in. We thought he was processing and reviewing people’s tax returns, looking out for dishonest folks, and making sure they followed the law; and we knew that that was a very important government job and were proud of our father’s work. It allowed mom to stay home with us for my and most of my sisters’ entire childhoods. Here’s what I noticed as a child: Dad left home in the morning and came home in the evening in a suit and tie, “dressed for success,” with a briefcase in his hand and a smile on his face. Sometimes he came home in different cars, but that was because they belonged to the government and they let him.  And sometimes he traveled, but never very far, and never for very long. He was home to tuck us into bed most nights and we felt very, very safe.  What went on in his job from 9 to 5 or 8 to 6 was no concern of ours.  Our father was of great stature (6′ 6″) and strength; he boxed and exercised daily, he ate well, liked to do home improvement projects, read alot, played a lot with us, was funny and silly, laughed until he cried sometimes, told the best stories, and kept his mind sharp; he was our very own super hero, built a lot like The Incredible Hulk, but looked more like Clark Kent minus the glasses.  No one was getting past him. We slept well at night and he made sure of that. This went on for quite some time, just like this.

A couple of years ago, we hosted a Trauma Storytelling workshop at TTN.  It was then that I learned the framework for storytelling around trauma, the typical trauma story progression. It follows a distinct pattern. First, you have: I was going about life and this is what my life was like, these were the day-to-day things of significance: “I was working at a middle school in Louisville in their Family Resource Center. I was going to graduate school full-time at Spalding University, working towards my Master’s degree. I had met my fiance a year and half earlier and we were planning a big wedding.”  This leads to the second part of the story, which starts with, “And then one day…” (insert major traumatic life event). So for me it was, “And then one day, my father fell off his bicycle while we were on a family vacation and it struck me as odd.”

His world and our world changed dramatically in mid-1997. The strongest man we knew personally was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. It was a blow bigger than any punch he could have taken from an opponent, and there was nothing that could be done to cure it, just some things to help with the symptoms: tremors, unsteady gait, freezing muscles, atrophied muscles, speech difficulty, lack of control over movement (the brain would know what he wanted to do, but the body couldn’t carry it out). And for whatever reason, he declined very rapidly in the first two years. Shocking both to him and us, and likely to them after 30 years of high-level work performance, he had to stop working at age 51 (he hung on for as long as he could) and he formally retired soon after from his position with the IRS. He had built up 9 months of sick leave never used. I have zero memories of my dad being ill for any noticeable perioid of time until he was ill with Parkinson’s Disease, for 17 and a half years. He lost weight, he was stuck in bed, he was distraught, he lost his sparkle, he lost who he was for a while, and that was easy to understand.  I was 24 when he was diagnosed in the late summer of 1997. I was starting my last semester of grad school for Clinical Psychology and knew some things about psychology, and maybe a small amount about life and death, joy and pain.  I was about to get married.  My parents chose not to tell us until after my wedding and after Christmas, my dad’s favorite holiday. My youngest sister was 12 at the time, the next sister was 14, and the third one, also still at home going to college, was 19.  My other sisters were 23 and 27. One was living in D.C. practicing as a physician at Andrews Air Force Base; the other was a young attorney. Mom and dad were both 50. It was devastating for all of us…


In the meantime…May Your Day Be Sprinkled With HOPE,

Melissa Adamchik, Daughter of William Wambaugh & Executive Director of the Tristate Trauma Network