Lynn Jeffries is a single mother from Lubbock, Texas whose 23-year-old son Nathan was deployed to Iraq in late 2003. A registered nurse who worked for years in an emergency room at a hospital in Lubbock, Jeffries soon found herself unable to take care of trauma patients and left the emergency room for work as a hospice nurse.
I just started crying at everything, she says. I was so angry about this war, but at the same time I felt like I couldnt fight against it without betraying my son. It just ate at me every day, more and more.
Jeffries depression grew until, she says at one point I thought of taking my own life in order to get my son home. Its just made me a little crazy. Ive never felt so helpless in my lifethere are days I could not even leave the house.
Jeffries son was home on leave when she spoke with AlterNet, and she said she was feeling a little better, but was already dreading her son's redeployment to Iraq (scheduled for early in 2005). What will happen the day I have to put him back on the plane to go back?" she asks in despair. "I would do anything to have him go to Canada, but he says his friends need him and he cant leave them.
Teri Wills Allison, who lives in Austin and is the mother of two boysone of whom is deployed in Iraqsays that the depression she sank into after her son left for Iraq got so bad that though Id never taken pills before, Ive needed Xanax just to get through the day.
Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder
Jeffries and Wills Allison are not unique. They are part of a growing number of military families who find themselves dealing with what psychologists are beginning to recognize as Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder. Not unlike PTSD, Secondary TSD can clearly be debilitating.
Says Wills Allison: We, the mothers and fathers of the boys in Iraq, were getting by, but barely. Some of them tell me they need a six-pack before bed to fall asleep. Others cant leave the house for fear theyll come home to have that call from the military waiting on the machine. Some families are just torn apart by this.
Some more than others.
During late November, 2004, Marine Lance Cpl. Charles Hanson Jr., was killed in a roadside bombing of his convoy in Iraq. One week later, on Nov. 30, his stepdad, 39-year-old Mike Barwick, entertained guests at his Crawfordville, Fla. home with stories of the stepson he loved so much. Three days later, just hours before guests were scheduled to arrive for a viewing at the home Barwick shared with Hansons mother, Dana Hanson, Barwick shot and killed himself. Family members quoted in the local newspapers said it was clear that he simply couldnt live with the pain.
Misha ben-David, a trained trauma counselor, says he remembers his family growing up being torn apart when his father went to Vietnam. He is reliving the tragedy now that his son is being deployed to Iraq. The stress on the family is unbearable, he says. I can already hear my ex-wife starting to freak out, retreating into a rah-rah, do you love your son or not? frame of mind."
The internal rifts are intensified by the media coverage of the war. "Weve got so much pressure on us from people like the Fox network to see this as a black and white issueeither youre for the war and a patriot or youre a no good, liberal, anti-American," he says. "Add to that stress that its your child that might be killed, or wounded, or permanently maimed and youve got a lot of family members going crazy out there.
The Pentagon's treatment of its own soldiers – the involuntary tour extensions, multiple deployments, shortages of both body and vehicle armor don't help either. And thanks to e-mail, parents are no longer protected from the daily struggles of their children. Its not a letter every couple of weeks, where parents can try to imagine that everything is okay," Lessin says. "With the internet were learning that our loved ones dont have enough food or water or weapon replacements or armored vests, things that leave us feeling helpless.
Dont even get me started on that, says Sharon Allen, a single mother from Fort Worth, Texas, whose son is in Germany preparing for a second deployment. While he was in Iraq the first time, my son wrote me that the Halliburton people – who were hired to bring things like mail and water and parts for the troops – said it was too dangerous to go where my son was," says Allen. "My son said the only way he kept his tank going was to steal parts from another tank. Can you imagine giving that choice to a 22-year-old?"
Wills Allison is just as angry at the Pentagon. "One of my friends has a son who returned home with such PTSD that he had flashbacks of the smell of burning flesh, of the sight of dead people torn to bits on the side of the road, she says. While home on leave, he crawled to his mothers bed every night to cry and fall asleep. And then he was redeployed. His mother is barely holding on. Theres no one in the military there for her, she says.
Fighting an Unjust War
Every member of every family who has ever sent a loved one to war has suffered, says Nancy Lessin from Massachusetts, whose stepson, Joe Richardson, served in Iraq during the invasion and is expected to be called back for a second deployment there any day.
Lessin is a co-founder, with her husband, Charlie Richardson and a friend, Jeffrey McKenzie, of an organization called Military Families Speak Out (MFSO). They started MFSO in November, 2002, after Joe Richardson and Jeffrey McKenzies sonwho is also scheduled for a second tour in Iraq in 2005were initially deployed to Iraq. Since its inception, MFSO has grown to include over 2,000 member familiesnearly 100 of whom are from Texas.
We realized we had no place to turn, no one to talk to about our anger at this war, about the feeling of helplessness we had, about our outrage over our sons being used in this unjust war," Lessin says. "So we started our own organization.
Lesson, however, thinks the suffering of families is different in this war than in other wars. The stresses are different, she says, because this is a war that didnt have to happen. This is a war built on lies." It's that much harder to accept the price of war when each of the reasons given by the Bush administration weapons of mass destruction, ties to al Qaeda have proved to be false.
"They know their sons and daughters, husbands and wives are in harms way for nothing, for a war that should never have happened. But they feel terrible guilt about feeling that way. And they know that their sons and daughters, husbands and wives are killing people who didnt have to die either," Lessin says. "This is a level of stress that is on top of the normal stress of a loved one being in a war that is justified. And it is beyond almost what a family can take.
In an essay titled "A Mother's View," Wills Allison describes the wedge the war has driven between her and much of her family:
They don't see this war as one based on lies. They've become evangelical believers in a false faith, swallowing Bush's fear mongering, his chicken-hawk posturing and strutting, and cheering his bring 'em on attitude as a sign of strength and resoluteness ... These are the same people who have known my son since he was a baby, who have held him and loved him and played with him, who have bought him birthday presents and taken him fishing. I don't know them anymore.Yet speaking out against the war can feel just as difficult: How can I hate this war so much, how can I fight against it and not betray my son. I feel like Im betraying him just talking with you," Lynn Jeffries says.
No Help for the Grieving
The military offers social services and family counseling for husbands, wives and children of servicemen and women deployed overseas. But the services are only available to those who live on base not many parents do. As a result, they have almost nowhere to turn for support.
There are, however, a couple of exceptions. In August, 2003, under the watch of Lt. Col. Anthony Baker, Sr., who heads the Family Programs of the National Guard, began working with families in crisis situations, sometimes in a one-to-one setting. The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS)a non-profit with strong ties to the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairsprimarily provides services to those who have lost a loved one while serving in the armed forces. But director Bonnie Carroll says the people who man the 24-hour hotline (1-800-959-8277) will try to help anyone in a crisis situation resulting from the stress of a loved one deployed in Iraq.
But for most families, MFSO and a few other internet forums are the only places that help fill the void. Its the only place I can go at 4 a.m. when I cant sleep, even with the Xanax, to talk with people who feel like I do, says Allison.
The military is aware of the stress the Iraq war is having on family members but is unable to do anything for them. Cathy Wiblemo, deputy director for health care at the American Legion, a Veterans Administration watchdog group, says that while the VA and the American Legion are very concerned about the issues facing the families of deployed or returning vets, there is simply no funding to provide them services. We do have a hotline (1-800-504-4098) referral service for family members where we try to find them the services they need in their local community, but in terms of paying for those, theyre on their own," Wiblemo says.
As Wiblemo points out, the VA is already struggling to do right by the soldiers themselves. The truth is that the VA is not ready to supply the services that are going to be needed for the returning vets," she says. "And if we cant even provide those services for soldiers, how could they possibly be available to family members?