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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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"Breathe," Brannan says to nearly every woman who calls, though when I ask her if she follows her own advice, she says no. "If I stopped, and started breathing," she says, "I would be too sad."

Kateri's eight-year-old son now counts the exits in new spaces he enters, and points them out to his loved ones until war or fire fails to break out, and everyone is safely back home.

So she doesn't. If she's not saving lives on the phone or blogging, she's offering support  via Facebook, where thousands of Family of a Vet users and nearly 500 FOV volunteers congregate and commiserate. "I am now more hypervigilant than my husband," volunteer Kateri Peterson posts to her Facebook page, and people comment things like "I know that even if my husband is having a decent day I am still in that alert mode and he is asking me to please relax and for the life of me, as hard as I try, I just can't, I am still on the lookout. I know people probably think I am nuts." On a private Facebook group, Kateri tells the story of how her family was at Olive Garden when she started sobbing into her Zuppa Toscana. There was no visible reason for it. Just the general overwhelmingness of her distress, of that awful overstimulating hypervigilance, the sort of thing you develop sometimes when you live with someone who looks out the living room window for danger literally hundreds of times a day, or who goes from room to room, room to room, over and over to make sure everyone in each one is still alive. Kateri's eight-year-old son now also counts the exits in new spaces he enters, points them out to his loved ones, keeps a mental map of them at the ready, until war or fire fails to break out, and everyone is safely back home.

It's to help kids like that that Brannan and her volunteers put together an informational packet on secondary trauma for parents to give to teachers, explaining their battle-worthy idiosyncrasies and sensory-processing sensitivities. They're common enough problems that the Department of Health and Human Services got in touch with Brannan about distributing the packet more widely.

Brannan gave the packet to Katie's kindergarten teacher, but thinks the teacher just saw it as an excuse for bad behavior. Last fall, she switched Katie to a different school, where she hopes more understanding will lead to less anxiety. Though Brannan hopes Katie will come out of childhood healthy, she still says, "She's not a normal kid. She does things, and says things. She's a grown-up in a six-year-old's body in a lot of ways."

She certainly looks like a normal kid when she comes down from her room dressed for tap class. In a black leotard, pink tights, and shiny black tap shoes, she looks sweet as pie.

"One time, a bad guy in Iraq had a knife and my dad killed him," she says, apropos of nothing.

"Katie Vines." Brannan is stern but impeccably patient. She doesn't know why Katie adapted this story about confiscating a weapon from an insurgent into a story about bloodshed, but she isn't too happy about it. That kind of small talk recently ruined a birthday party one of her classmates was having at Chick-fil-A. Brannan and Katie have a talk, again, about inappropriate conversation. Katie is sorry—God, is she sorry, you can see it in her face and guilty shoulders, but she seems to feel like she can't help it. Sometimes, at bedtime, she asks her mom to pray with her that her teacher will like her. Once, she asked Brannan to take her to a hypnotist, so he could use his powers to turn her into a good girl.

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