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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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But here we've got lasagna, and salad with an array of dressing choices, and a store-bought frosted Bundt cake with chocolate chips in it! There is no dining-room table—when they bought the house years ago, they thought they'd finish it up real nice like they did with another house, before the war, but nobody's up for that now, so we all huddle around the coffee table in the living room.

And it's lovely. Dinner lasts for hours. Brannan tries to calm Katie down despite the excitement of the visitor at dinner, while Katie shows me games and drawings as we eat. Brannan and I make fun of Caleb for being three years older than us, so old, and Caleb makes jokes that it does indeed feel like he and Brannan have been married for-ever. The plates have been cleared by then, everyone reclining, he laughs when he says this, and she laughs, and swats at him from where she's curled herself into his armpit with his arm around her.

At the front door, we all beam at each other in the warm way people do when they're separating after a nice meal. Caleb is in such a good mood that Brannan asks if he's up for putting Katie to bed so she can go lie down. Forty-five minutes later, he wakes her up screaming. Not two days after that, he tells her he's leaving her. "I'm going to get it over with and do it so you don't have to," he says, because that's just the way the scale goes that day, when he weighs the pain of being alone versus the pain of being a burden.

WAY UP NORTH, AND NEARLY AS west as you can go, in Ferry County, Washington, there's a little town with no stoplights by the name of Republic. There's an abundance of parks and lakes and campgrounds—though I lose track of how many people warn me not to walk any unknown path for fear of trip wire and booby traps.

"Yeah," a county commissioner says, squinting against the afternoon sun, speaking of the high proportion of Vietnam veterans who live here, "they wanted to get away from society. And for the most part, they've blended in really well."

We're standing together on the grounds of  Vietnam Veteran Wives, where Danna Hughes, founder of VVW, inspirer and savior of Brannan Vines, is holding a fundraiser and tribute for our troops. Back in the '90s, Danna served three counties and some 5,000 former soldiers via the center she founded, established nonprofit status for, and got the VA to recognize and reimburse. A 2000 VA budget crunch led to her clinic's contract being terminated—and her husband's disability pay ended when he killed himself in 2001. VVW now has more modest but no less determined facilities: a camouflage-painted mobile home planted among tree-dotted hills. Today, VVW is dedicating a new, second building, a log safe house open 24 hours a day so vets who feel themselves becoming episodic have someplace to go—it's better than just driving to VVW's parking lot and sleeping in their trucks. The closest VA hospital is 130 miles from here.

Between 200 and 300 people show up, a big turnout in a county of 7,500 spread over 2,000 square miles. Dressed in a patriotic red shirt and blue jeans, Danna smiles easy but moves pretty slow because she threw her back out again. She tells me that VVW's No. 1 priority has always been helping vets figure out how to get their benefits. "Money has to be first. You can't breathe without it." But it takes more than that. "She," Danna says, meaning the wife—nearly all the vets around here are men—"NEEDS therapy." Danna used to be in beauty pageants and it shows, in the subtly flirty but no-nonsense way she addresses everyone. But she knows how it feels to have your nervous system turn against you, and that it's harder for veterans to get better if their spouses don't get treated. Danna's husband was checking into inpatient psych treatments for almost three weeks at a time, she says, only to come back to his now-crazy wife and "within three seconds" be re-exposed to someone in the emotional state that he was in when he left.

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