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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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Of course, the Army only helps families of active-duty personnel. It's the Department of Veterans Affairs that's charged with treating the problems that can persist long past discharge. But "if you asked the VA to treat your kids, they would think it was nonsense," says Hofstra's Motta.

When I asked the VA if the organization would treat kids for secondary trauma, its spokespeople stressed that it has made great strides in family services in recent years, rolling out its own program for couples' counseling and parenting training. "Our goal is to make the parents the strongest parents they can be," says Susan McCutcheon, national director for Family Services, Women's Mental Health, and Military Sexual Trauma at the VA; according to Shirley Glynn, a VA clinical research psychologist who was also on the call, "for the vast majority of people with the secondary traumatization model, the most important way to help the family deal with things is to ensure that the veteran gets effective treatment." In cases where children themselves need treatment, these VA officials recommended that parents find psychologists themselves, though they note "this is a good time [for the VA] to make partners with the community so we can make good referrals." Or basically: "You're on your own," says Brannan.

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

Brannan sent Katie to the school therapist, once. She hasn't seen any other therapist, or a therapist trained to deal with PTSD—Brannan knows what a difference that makes, since the volunteer therapist she tried briefly herself spent more time asking her to explain a "bad PTSD day" than how Caleb's symptoms were affecting the family. When I visited, Katie was not covered by the VA under Caleb's disability; actually, she wasn't covered by any insurance at all half the time, since the Vineses aren't poor enough for subsidized health care and the Blue Cross gap insurance maxes out at six months a year. She's never been diagnosed with anything, and Brannan prefers it that way. "I'm not for taking her somewhere and getting her labeled. I'd rather work on it in softer ways," like lots of talks about coping skills, and an art class where she can express her feelings, "until we have to. And I'm hoping we won't have to." Certainly she seems better than some other PTSD vets' kids Brannan knows, who scream and sob and rock back and forth at the sound of a single loud noise, or who try to commit suicide even before they're out of middle school. Caleb spends enough time worrying that he's messing up his kid without a doctor saying so.

Brannan is a force of keeping her family together. She sleeps a maximum of five hours a night, keeps herself going with fast food and energy drinks, gets Katie to and from school and to tap dance and art, where Katie produces some startlingly impressive canvases, bright swirling shapes bisected by and intersected with other swaths of color, bold, intricate. That's typical parent stuff, but Brannan also keeps Caleb on his regimen of 12 pills—antidepressants, anti-anxiety, sleep aids, pain meds, nerve meds, stomach meds—plus weekly therapy, and sometimes weekly physical therapy for a cartilage-lacking knee and the several disintegrating disks in his spine, products of the degenerative joint disease lots of guys are coming back with maybe from enduring all the bomb blasts, and speech therapy for the TBI, and continuing tests for a cyst in his chest and his 48-percent-functional lungs. She used the skills she learned as an assistant to a state Supreme Court justice and running a small newspaper to navigate Caleb's maze of paperwork with the VA, and the paperwork for the bankruptcy they had to declare while they were waiting years for his disability benefits to come through. She also works for the VA now, essentially, having been—after a good deal more complicated paperwork, visits, and assessments—enrolled in its new  caregiver program, which can pay spouses or other family members of disabled vets who have to take care of them full time, in Brannan's case $400 a week.

 
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