Childhood demons and combat wounds cause one Navy nurse to examine her life in Standby for Broadcast, a moving and turbulent memoir by Kari Rhyan.
Rhyan served nearly twenty years in the US Navy as a nurse, her final deployment taking place in Afghanistan to a medical unit run by the British where Rhyan upheld her duties to aid others, while inwardly feeling unprotected and helpless. After witnessing the many tragedies of war, primary among them multiple amputations, she comes home scarred in mind. Her trauma becomes so obvious that she is sent to a special private unit.
It is at this private unit, The Willows, where Rhyan is overseen by a compassionate counselor, Riza, who enjoins her to attend AA meetings. Rhyan refuses, feeling that “acceptance” is not the answer for her rational hatred of warfare. But she cannot dodge the assignment of writing a chronicle of her war experience to be read aloud to fellow patients at sessions in “The War Room.”
Her memories of Afghanistan soon become jumbled with her childhood recollections of abuse by her addicted mother and sexual aggression by another family member, and with her current, difficult life as a gay mother. Because fellow patients were deployed as soldiers, Rhyan feels her suffering is not as authentic as theirs, but Riza continues to push her to write, to remember and describe, at the least, a single day. Finally, she is able to bleed out her agonized story of observing and treating pitifully wounded war victims, including a child, burned nearly to the bone. Ultimately, her treatment at The Willows leads her to separate from her alcoholic mother and find a new life outside the military.
Rhyan writes with vivid emotion, leaving nothing out in her determination to make her story known and understood. Not a soldier, still she and her fellow medical personnel must find inner stores of courage and battlefield humor in order to take on the daily task of assisting young soldiers so badly torn apart that it would seem death more likely and perhaps the most desirable outcome.
Throughout her recollections, which are liberally peppered with appropriate profanity and shocking imagery and at times exhibit a frantic desperation, Rhyan quotes great writers and philosophers on the subject of war. Through Riza’s voice, in a dramatic scene, she reminds us that warriors in ancient times were never allowed to return home because of the madness that war caused…so wars had to be continuous, to keep those who waged it occupied and out of sight. Rhyan shows us their madness close-up, with its many results, as she has seen and lived it: the nightmares, paranoia, violence, self-medication, self-hatred.
The conclusion to Rhyan’s hard work on herself at The Willows is what seems for now like a restful, if not entirely peaceful existence, in closeness with her child and the spouse who remained faithful and understanding throughout her long ordeal.
Rhyan’s memoir is frank, insightful, and a powerful reminder of the toil taken by those who wrestle with the fallout of the carnage of war. She also reminds us of the resiliency of the human spirit and the power of hope.