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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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In 2009, it was Hovda who delivered the Pentagon the recommendation that because multiple concussions could cause serious long-term injury, concussions need time to heal. A fight ensued. Hovda says some of the Army's best doctors implied that if soldiers were told they needed rest after concussions, it was going to usher in an epidemic of fakers, or retired guys claiming disability way after the fact. Although, the NFL was given the same memo in the 1990s, and brain damage in boxers is even older news, so it doesn't seem like it would take a neuroscientist—or the top medical brass of an Army that builds laser cannons—to figure out that if 25 mph punches to the head cause brain damage, IED blasts that hit at 330 mph probably do too.

Eventually, Hovda's cause prevailed. These days, there are MRIs in theater, assessments after blasts, mandatory rest periods after a concussion. But those reforms came seven years into the Iraq War, after Caleb and a million other soldiers were already home. When people ask Hovda if they're gonna get better, he encourages them that they're gonna get different. That they will never be the same—researchers "have tried hyperbaric oxygen, hundreds of clinical trials; we're just failing miserably in trying to make a difference"—but that they should not panic. "There's good rehabilitation strategies: learn what your deficits are, learn that you're not going crazy, that you just can't do what you used to do," he says. "The human brain has an enormous amount of plasticity. New cells are born every day. New connections can be made. The good news is, teleologically speaking, if we didn't have the ability to recover from brain injury, we'd have ended up as somebody's breakfast."

He says he cannot get it out of his head, about how if he had caught that fucking sniper, that enemy sniper he'd been trying to get, then the sniper wouldn't have gotten off the shot that killed his buddy

So tonight, six years after Caleb's service ended, Brannan is cautiously optimistic but ready for anything on Lasagna Night. Early in the morning, she talked to their dog, Shilo, about it while she browned meat for Caleb's favorite dish. "Daddy will be really happy," she told the German shepherd sitting on her kitchen floor. "Of course, he's too cranky to be happy about anything, and he'll be mad because Katie won't eat it because I spent all day makin' it and the only thing she wants to eat right now is pancakes." Later, she reminds me that Lasagna Night can come apart in an instant, if Caleb has a "bad PTSD moment." These are supposed to be her easy months, she sighs, April and May and June, before the anniversaries of his worst firefights—many of them in Ramadi; a lot of bad things happened in Ramadi—exacerbate his flashbacks and nightmares. That's usually September through January, the "really bad" months, whereas in the spring, she gets a bit of "vacation," time to clean up the house and catch up on work, rest.

It's April at the moment. But: "He's processin' somethin' right now."

She used to ask Caleb what was wrong, why he was coiled so tight and poisonous, screaming and yelling at everybody. That just agitated him more. Now, she lets it go, until eventually, after a couple of days or weeks of refusing to leave the house, or refusing to stay home and just disappearing outside, he comes to her. Haven't you noticed I'm having a bad time? he'll ask. And then she'll just sit and listen while he says he cannot get it out of his head, about how if he had caught that fucking sniper, that enemy sniper he'd been trying to get, that'd been following them around, terrorizing their unit, if he'd have managed to kill him like he was supposed to, then the sniper wouldn't have gotten off the shot that killed his buddy.

 
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