Henderson Beach Inn becomes a place of healing during Warrior Beach Retreat

Mladen Rudman
Tony Stevens and his wife Sarah sat down with The Log to discuss the long road to recovery during the recent Warrior Beach Retreat in Destin. The couple and their three children call Fort Walton Beach home.

He survived three combat tours in Iraq without bullet or shrapnel wounds, but former Camp Lejeune Marine Tony Stevens’s wife sensed a severe problem when he returned from the Middle East after his second deployment.

“Immediately, when I saw his eyes, I knew something was wrong,” said Sarah. “I saw almost like a deadness in his eyes.”

Tony’s “numbness toward life,” and Sarah’s frustrating efforts to help her husband overcome it tore at the young Fort Walton Beach couple’s marriage.

“I just yelled at him,” she said. “I would just yell at him … and I did a lot of leaving.”

Tony, a rifleman with the 2nd Marine Division, also was confused. The former shortstop with the Minnesota Twins organization recognized something was wrong, but sought no treatment.

His second tour in Iraq saw the now-34-year-old set what was then, and still might be, a record. While on mounted patrol, Tony’s HUMVEES or other vehicles in his convoy were hit by improvised explosives devices 11 times. He suffered minor injuries, but nothing to take him out of combat.

Also during service in Iraq, Tony endured the deaths of three squad mates, which shook him deeply.

He separated from the Marine Corps in early 2006, but not until recently decided to see a Veterans Administration doctor for help.

As the Stevens struggled with their marriage, almost divorcing, some hope and realizations began to filter through.

The vacant stare, the tendency to linger on the periphery of a group of people  — even family — and one other type of peculiarity started being placed in context.

“There would be strange eruptions,” Sarah said. “They would only be verbal and, as soon as he turned them on, they would be turned off again.”

Perseverance and their Christian faith helped the Stevens cope.

Sarah added there was another reason Tony carried on after returning to civilian life — their three children.

“The kids were his saving grace,” she said. “The kids always had his love. He was always able to connect with the kids.”

As life swirled around the Stevens family and they moved from one challenge to the next, Tony and Sarah figured that he may be suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder.

The former Marine corporal may not have been seriously wounded during IED attacks, but he was rattled. Noise and blast waves might have caused damage to his brain that was not evident.

“Physically, was I hurt or injured?” asked Tony. “In a way, yes, and in a way, no.”

He finally accepted that he may be the victim of PTSD, something that might have been generated by IED explosions and what he saw regularly in Iraq — death.

Tony stressed the importance of military couples seeking help when there are problems.

He also hoped communities would become more involved by reaching out to families with war veterans in the household. Sarah and Tony praised the Warrior Beach Retreat program, which brought them to a peaceful weekend of fewer worries at the Henderson Park Inn recently, as an example of what others can do to help.

Above all, though, the former infantryman wants veterans like him to shed the stigma of seeking counseling. It is not a sign of weakness and could help make the difference between a happy life and one lacking hope.

Tony uses social media to follow the lives of Marines with whom he served.

“I can read their Facebook quotes and tell these guys are struggling,” he said. “What I’ve learned? The war starts when we get home. That’s when the battles start.”

Sarah agreed, noting that repairing the damage to their marriage from some six years of tough going will not happen overnight.

“Over the hump, yes,” she said about their mending relationship. But “with the stuff that we’ve been through, there’s still a healing process.”