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The Ravages of War Related PTSD Spread to Partners and Children of US Soldiers

The heartbreaking story of a family's secondary trauma.
 
 
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The following article first appeared in Mother Jones Magazine. Click here to subscribe.

BRANNAN VINES HAS NEVER BEEN to war. But she's got a warrior's skills: hyperawareness, hypervigilance, adrenaline-sharp quick-scanning for danger, for triggers. Super stimuli-sensitive. Skills on the battlefield, crazy-person behavior in a drug store, where she was recently standing behind a sweet old lady counting out change when she suddenly became so furious her ears literally started ringing. Being too cognizant of every sound—every coin dropping an echo—she explodes inwardly, fury flash-incinerating any normal tolerance for a fellow patron with a couple of dollars in quarters and dimes. Her nosestarts running she's so pissed, and there she is standing in a CVS, snotty and deaf with rage, like some kind of maniac, because a tiny elderly woman needs an extra minute to pay for her dish soap or whatever.

Brannan Vines has never been to war, but her husband, Caleb, was sent to Iraq twice, where he served in the infantry as a designated marksman. He's one of  103,200, or  228,875, or 336,000 Americans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan and came back with PTSD, depending on whom you ask, and one of  115,000 to 456,000 with traumatic brain injury. It's hard to say, with the lack of definitive tests for the former, undertesting for the latter, underreporting,  under or over-misdiagnosing of both. And as slippery as all that is, even less understood is the collateral damage, to families, to schools, to society—emotional and fiscal costs borne long after the war is over.

Like Brannan's symptoms. Hypervigilance sounds innocuous, but it is in fact exhaustingly distressing, a conditioned response to life-threatening situations. Imagine there's a murderer in your house. And it is dark outside, and the electricity is out. Imagine your nervous system spiking, readying you as you feel your way along the walls, the sensitivity of your hearing, the tautness in your muscles, the alertness shooting around inside your skull. And then imagine feeling like that all the time.

Caleb has been home since 2006, way more than enough time for Brannan to catch his symptoms. The house, in a subdivision a little removed from one of many shopping centers in a small town in the southwest corner of Alabama, is often quiet as a morgue. You can hear the cat padding around. The air conditioner whooshes, a clock ticks. When a sound erupts—Caleb screaming at Brannan because she's just woken him up from a nightmare, after making sure she's at least an arm's length away in case he wakes up swinging—the ensuing silence seems even denser. Even when everyone's in the family room watching TV, it's only connected to Netflix and not to cable, since news is often a trigger. Brannan and Caleb can be tense with their own agitation, and tense about each other's. Their German shepherd, a service dog trained to help veterans with PTSD, is ready to alert Caleb to triggers by barking, or to calm him by jumping onto his chest. This PTSD picture is worse than some, but much better, Brannan knows, than those that have devolved into drug addiction and rehab stints and relapses. She has not, unlike military wives she advises, ever been beat up. Nor jumped out of her own bed when she got touched in the middle of the night for fear of being raped, again. Still.

"Sometimes I can't do the laundry," Brannan explains, reclining on her couch. "And it's not like, 'Oh, I'm too tired to do the laundry,' it's like, 'Um, I don't understand how to turn the washing machine on.' I am looking at a washing machine and a pile of laundry and my brain is literally overwhelmed by trying to figure out how to reconcile them." She sounds like she might start crying, not because she is, but because that's how she always sounds, like she's talking from the top of a clenched throat, tonally shaky and thin. She looks relaxed for the moment, though, the sun shining through the windows onto her face in this lovely leafy suburb. We raise the blinds in the afternoons, but only if we are alone. When we hear Caleb pulling back in the driveway, we jump up and grab their strings, plunging the living room back into its usual necessary darkness.

 
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