The Ravages of War Related PTSD Spread to Partners and Children of US Soldiers
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"I knew who he could be," Charlene says.
Who he is now is a handsome guy in his 60s with a white beard, big but well kept, who refers to his wife as "my bride" after nine years. Hanging around their trailer one day, I see them handle each other with immense patience, even when their computer takes forever to load and they can't find the files they're looking for because they've been crappily cataloged and it's not clear whose fault that is. Charlene has long, graying dark hair parted down the middle and super-serious eyes, which she has to lower to compose herself for a minute when I ask her, alone, if she saved Steve's life. "He loves me a lot," she answers. "I've never known love like this. He is…awesome."
These most recent years, Steve is funnier—after all, he's not just any Carson; his dad and Johnny were first cousins—but it's not all good days. Sometimes, Charlene says, "I can feel him slipping down—it's like this…vortex, this hole. And I try to grab him, like, 'No! Don't go down there!' He can still get really depressed." And hypervigilant. He doesn't like living on Five Cent Ranch Road, which runs through a decidedly vulnerable valley.
"She saved my life," Steve says of Charlene, without my asking. Of the soldiers coming home with PTSD now, he says, "You need time. You need time, and perspective." Decades after his service, the VA rated Steve at 100 percent PTSD disabled, but he's found his way to his version of a joyful life. Although, he qualifies, he saw guys get thrown around in explosions the way Caleb got thrown around in explosions, but he can't say how their lives turned out in the long run because in his war, with that less-advanced gear, those guys usually died.
Finally, Steve and Charlene find what they're looking for on their computer: pictures of the land they bought nearby. Steve's building an artist's studio for Charlene on it, and eventually, hopefully, a house for the two of them. At the very top of a largely uninhabited hill, it will be hell—and sometimes impossible—to get down in winter because of the snow, but Steve doesn't care, and wants to grow old with Charlene and die up there. At that elevation, with that vantage point, it's one of the most defensible pieces of land in town.
IN THE VINES' HOUSEHOLD IN Alabama, at any unpredictable time of night, the nightmare starts in Iraq.
The desert sun is blinding, invasive; all eyes blink roughly with under-eyelid dust. It smells like blood, even before the shot slices through the Humvee and strikes Caleb in the chest. The vehicle stops, the other four guys get out, hollering, the rest of the unit firing their weapons, that awful echo at the end of an M16 round. Someone's yelling for the medic and an indiscernible string of noises seeps out of Caleb's mouth while he's dying. He's dying. He's bleeding warm and fast, and he's not going to make it.
"Our brains can do such odd things," Brannan says after she wakes up, shaky, the next morning. "Still don't get how I can so vividly dream of somewhere I've never actually been."
People around her think she needs a break, needs to rest, to take care of herself. "I know I'm not responsible for all these people," Brannan says. "But at the same time, nobody else is, either." With a half million disability cases stuck in a VA backlog, and an estimated 25 percent of Iraq/Afghanistan troops with PTSD not seeking treatment, her logic isn't entirely off. So she takes on the case of a family from Wisconsin who paid rent today, but has literally no money left. If they make an appointment at the VA and can't get in for several weeks, how do they eat, they want to know, in the meantime? And the vet in New Jersey who didn't register for his VA benefits inside the five-year window. His life didn't fall apart until six years after his service, so when he walked into a VA emergency room asking for help to not kill himself, he was turned away until he could clear the requisite mountain of paperwork. And the vet who got fired from his job for being unstable and is now homeless, like 13,000 other vets under 30, who now lives with his wife and teenager in his car.