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Veterans back home forge bonds that endure

The shared experience of service helps them work through difficult emotions, even years after trading military life for the civilian world.

Sharran Chambers-Murphy, a former Army reservist, talks about her friendship with retired Army Col. Annette Tucker-Osborne. (Credit: Newsday / Martin Evans)

The phone call with his youngest son back home on Long Island shook Michael Wern.

The boy had cried almost every day of Wern’s deployment — his third in less than a year with New York Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing.

Wern’s roommate, Charles Ramirez, knew just by the look on Wern’s face that something was up.

“Hey, you OK?” Ramirez asked.

“He knew right away I wasn’t OK,” Wern recalled of that time in the Gulf, just before the Iraq War started in 2003.

Today, the Long Islanders — Wern lives in Wading River, Ramirez in Shirley — still have a strong bond.

Friendships made during active duty can ease the sense of isolation that many veterans feel even years after trading military life for the civilian world, veterans advocates said. Loneliness, particularly among veterans, has been linked to higher rates of harmful behaviors, including heavy drinking and suicide, studies have shown.

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The shared experience of service, especially in war, helps veterans work through emotions that many struggle with for much of their lives, said Tom Ronayne, who heads the Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency.

“Veterans share with each other things they would feel less comfortable talking about with a nonveteran, because they trust that they are understood,” Ronayne said. “It becomes a trust thing.”

Joseph Casoria and Anselm “Jerry” Cramer both served in the 1950s. Casoria was Army, Cramer a Marine. But they didn’t meet until some six decades later — at the American Legion post in Northport.

Annette Tucker-Osborne and Sharran Chambers-Murphy met each other at a female veterans support group — and connected. Tucker-Osborne retired as a colonel after 29 years in the Army; Chambers-Murphy served 11 years in the Reserves, beginning in 1986.

Veterans themselves talk about a comfort level with each other that they just don’t have with someone who never served. A fellow veteran, they said, understands the values stressed in the military — honor, respect, teamwork and a willingness to make do with less-than-ideal conditions.

“When you’re with someone 24/7, sometimes for months at a time, there is no BS,” said Wern, 57. “They know your deepest fears. I’ve cried to Charlie about things, and he’s cried to me.”

An example that Tucker-Osborne gives is the bathroom accommodations during training missions and in combat zones.

“Port-a-potties? No problem,” she said as Chambers-Murphy rolled her eyes knowingly. “No port-a-potty around? Hang your toilet paper from a tree branch in the woods.”

The women get together fairly often and check in with each other through calls and texts.

For Tucker-Osborne, the calls and texts from Chambers-Murphy are helping her make it through the next chapter of her doctorate thesis in medical administration.

“I’ll be so stressed out,” said Tucker-Osborne, of West Hempstead, whose career included overseeing nursing corps operations in both Kuwait and Kazakhstan. “Sometimes, military people can be more your family than your own family.”

The encouragement can be as simple as “You’ll be fine, just breathe,” said Chambers-Murphy, of Hempstead, who now facilitates peer-to-peer counseling through the Joseph P. Dwyer Veterans Peer Support Project in Suffolk. “There is a sisterhood between the two of us that lets us know we have each other’s back.”

The basic dynamic of military friendships tends to shift with age, mental health experts said. Younger veterans support each other as they reintegrate into society, while older veterans turn to each other to fill the void when their spouses die or their children move away.

Cramer and Casoria are both in their 80s and live not far from each other in East Northport.

The men met only three years ago at American Legion Post 694, in Northport. They started to grow close after Cramer started sharing his memories of the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, what historians describe as the Korean War’s greatest battle.

In November 1950, only months after the start of the war, Cramer and thousands of other Marines found themselves encircled by 120,000 Chinese troops and had to fight their way out in subzero temperatures.

Casualties were heavy, with several hundred Americans killed and thousands more injured. Cramer spent days recovering the bodies of his fellow Marines. He still shudders at the memory of having to break their frozen limbs to move them.

Cramer himself suffered frostbite that put him in the hospital for more than a month. A technicality, though, kept him from receiving a Purple Heart, the decoration awarded to anyone wounded while serving.

The credo “never leave a soldier behind” resonates powerfully with soldiers, even those who served long ago.

Casoria became incensed when he learned that Cramer, who is 89, had been denied a medal and has organized an appeal to the Defense Department to have the decision reversed.

“I guess being a veteran who never saw action, I just felt these guys went through hell and are not appreciated,” said Casoria, 83, who served in the Army after the Korean War fighting had ended. “I want to see him get the medal while he’s alive. He earned it. It was very upsetting to me.”

The men most definitely have lighter moments, too. They often meet for lunch at Miller’s Ale House in Commack and are regulars at the “80-or-above” table at their post. They share insights gleaned from seminars on trusts and wills, and attended a screening of the World War II film “Dunkirk” at the East Northport library.

They even cover for each other’s shortcomings. Casoria cranks the heat in his car during the winter to accommodate his friend, whose hands and toes still react to the cold.

In turn, Cramer takes the wheel whenever there is a need to back into a tight spot.

“He can parallel park, I can’t,” said Casoria as Cramer chuckled. “I haven’t parallel parked since I took my driving test.”

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