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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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"Somebody at the VA told me, 'Kids in Congo and Uganda don't have PTSD,'" Caleb tells me angrily one day.

You can't see Caleb's other wound, either. It's called  traumatic brain injury, or TBI, from multiple concussions. In two tours, he was in at least 20 explosions—IEDs, vehicle-borne IEDs, RPGs. In one of them, when a mortar or grenade hit just behind him, he was thrown headfirst through a metal gate and into a courtyard. His buddies dragged him into a corner, where he was in and out of consciousness while the firefight continued, for hours. When it was over, they gave him an IV and some Motrin, and within hours, he was back on patrol. The Army has rules about that sort of thing now. Now if you're knocked unconscious, or have double vision, or exhibit other signs of a brain injury, you have to rest for a certain period of time, but that rule didn't go into effect in theater until 2010, after Caleb was already out of the service. He wasn't diagnosed for years after he got back, despite Brannan's frantic phone calls to the VA begging for tests, since her husband, formerly a high-scoring civil-engineering major at Auburn University, was asking her to help him do simple division. When Caleb was finally screened for the severity of his TBI, Brannan says he got the second-worst score in the whole 18-county Gulf Coast VA system, which serves more than 50,000 veterans. But there's still a lot about brain damage that doctors, much less civilians, don't understand.

"I guess we're just used to dealing with people with more severe injuries," a VA nurse once told Brannan upon seeing Caleb.

Medical journals note some family members of vets exhibit symptoms "almost identical to PTSD." Except the "T" is their loved one's behavior.

Unlike PTSD, secondary traumatic stress doesn't have  its own entry in the DSM, though the manual does take note of it, as do many  peer-reviewed studies and the  Department of Veterans Affairs. Symptoms start at depression and alienation, including the  "compassion fatigue" suffered by social workers and trauma counselors. But some spouses and loved ones suffer symptoms that are, as  one medical journal puts it, "almost identical to PTSD except that indirect exposure to the traumatic event through close contact with the primary victim of trauma" is the catalyst. Basically your spouse's behavior becomes the "T" in your own PTSD. If sympathy for Caleb is a little lacking, you can imagine what little understanding exists for Brannan.

Secondary traumatic stress has been documented in the spouses of veterans with PTSD  from Vietnam. And the spouses of  Israeli veterans with PTSD, and  Dutch veterans with PTSD. In one study, the incidence of secondary trauma in wives of Croatian war vets with PTSD was 30 percent. In another study there, it was  39 percent. "Trauma is really not something that happens to an individual," says Robert Motta, a clinical psychologist and psychology professor at Hofstra University who wrote a few of the many medical-journal articles about secondary trauma in Vietnam vets' families. "Trauma is a contagious disease; it affects everyone that has close contact with a traumatized person" in some form or another, to varying degrees and for different lengths of time. "Everyone" includes children. Which is something Brannan and Caleb lose not a little sleep over, since they've got a six-year-old in the house.

KATIE* VINES, THE FIRST TIME I meet her, is in trouble. Not that you'd know it to look at her, bounding up to the car, blondish bob flying as she sprints from her kindergarten class, nice round face like her daddy's. No one's the wiser until she cheerfully hands her mother a folder from the backseat she's hopped into. It contains notes about the day from her teacher.

 
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