When My Husband Signed Up for War, Our Whole Family Was Drafted - And Wounded
The following is an excerpt from the new book Homefront 911; How Families of Veterans Are Wounded By Our Wars by Stacy Bannerman (Arcade Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., 2015):
Every morning i flip a coin: heads, I stay, tails, I go. I’m trying to decide whether or not to leave Lorin, my husband of nearly fifteen years, a two-time Iraq war veteran who just completed six weeks of treatment for a crystal meth addiction. I also go to counseling, and pray, and meditate; I get acupuncture to relieve the chronic stress and anxiety that seem to have taken up residence in the nucleus of my cells. I have chiropractic adjustments regularly, and have altered my diet in an attempt to boost my immune system, which faltered badly in 2013, landing me in the hospital with a periorbital cellulitis infection so severe I was asked for my advance directive.
I get a massage once a week; Lorin hasn’t touched me with love or lust since 2010 and I am so starved for the feel of human hands on my skin that I will pay someone to provide it. I talk to other family members of veterans and attempt to have some sort of social life, which is complicated by being married but effectively single, since he is unable, or unwilling, or some combination of both, to accompany me anywhere.
I do all of the crap that I, as the spouse and caregiver of an 80 percent service-connected disabled veteran with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI), am encouraged to do to take care of myself, to “put on your oxygen mask first.” That’s what the people at the Veterans Administration (VA) down here in White City, Oregon, (the people who don’t live with what I live with) tell me to do. None of it seems to help. So I flip a coin. This morning it was heads, buying me—or sentencing me to—another twenty-four hours, depending on how the day unfolds. I love my husband, but I just don’t know when he’s coming home, and it feels like I’ve been waiting far too long already.
I learned how to wait during two deployments that lasted twelve and thirteen months each, and then another year apart while he was at Fort Lewis, Washington, with the Warrior Training Unit. Being the one left behind, without children or family or military spouse friends nearby, requires a shoring up and pulling in of emotional energy. With no one in physical proximity to open your heart to, you endure by keeping it closed.
I got so good at waiting that when I came home from work one day to find a glass vase containing a dozen American Beauties by the front door, tucked out of sight from the street, I wondered, Who the fuck are those from?
The swearing problem started during my husband’s first deployment, when I was learning military culture, and the acronyms, and how to deal with the part of his employment contract requiring that, every day at work, there were people whose job it was to kill him and it was his job to kill them back. I wanted to kill the women who told me they understood how hard it was to have your husband gone, because their husband traveled for work, too, and once he was in Dallas for, like, three weeks!
I tried a few times to gently explain the differences between a three-week business trip to Texas and a thirteen-month combat deployment to Iraq, but was so quickly tuned out or met with such blank stares that I quit. Being unable to evoke my husband with words, to keep him alive in conversation, made it feel a little bit like he had already died.
I grieved for him; I grieved for us almost every single day. At forty-three and forty-eight, we were middle-aged and getting older fast—this war was aging us in dog years. The Army kept preaching resilience. How I came to hate that word, as if the problem and the cure were both wholly within my domain if only I were a little more flexible. If only I were Army Strong. If only I got on board with being an Army of One, a short-lived messaging campaign the Army abruptly discontinued when it determined it wasn’t necessarily the message they wanted to send. Or perhaps it was a tad too close for comfort.
If there is an Army of One, it’s not deploying to Iraq. I wasn’t prepared at all for this life, and I still cannot quite fathom how it became mine.
* * *
One week after Seal Team Six killed Osama bin Laden, the New York Times ran an article by military spouse Rebekah Sanderlin in their At War blog. Sanderlin pulled few punches as she described dealing with her husband’s three deployments, her two bouts with depression, and how she nearly lost her marriage to war. Sanderlin also laid out what a lot of military family members were saying to themselves and one another as we watched the news feeds of elated young Americans congregating at Ground Zero and the White House, chanting, “We got him.”
For America’s troops and their families, who carried 100 percent of the weight of two wars for too long, the only “we” has been us.
During World War II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam, the last three major wars of the twentieth century, taxes and the draft ensured that all Americans served or sacrificed something. In contrast, less than 1 percent of this nation has been directly affected by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The unprecedented imbalance of the burden of service and simultaneous abdication of civilian sacrifice has created an epidemic of disconnection between the civilian and military communities. According to Air Force researchers and other reports, that divide seems to be contributing to skyrocketing rates of post-combat mental health problems in returning veterans. The divide is also deeply felt by the families who are struggling with the stress and strain of the churn cycle, their loved one’s service- related injuries and post-combat changes, and homefront war wounds of their own.
I am one of those family members. I met and married Lorin Bannerman when he was a civilian, several years before the wars began. Lorin retired from the Army National Guard in 2010, after serving two tours in Iraq, earning the Bronze Star and a Combat Infantry Badge (CIB). For a long time, I thought our post-war marital struggles and my mental health issues were unique and the result of some personal failing. I thought there was something fundamentally flawed within me because, after all, I hadn’t been deployed, so what was my problem? As a military spouse, I was supposed to be resilient, cheerful, patriotic, and uncomplaining. My job was to stand behind the Blue Star flag with a smile on my face and keep my suffering to myself. The stigma surrounding mental illness in the military extends also to the family, particularly the spouse.
Ask any military spouse how she’s doing on any given day, and I promise you, the answer will be “fine.” Even if her five-year-old girl is on antianxiety medication, and her seven-year-old boy has started hitting his classmates and wetting the bed again because their father is gone on his third tour in six years, her reply will be “fine.”
She may take a prescription medication—or three—just to get out of bed, and it may take a box of wine every night to get her back into it, but still she will tell you she’s “fine.”
If her familiar stranger of a veteran with PTSD or a traumatic brain injury sustained during multiple tours is now home, vibrating with combat-infused adrenalin, recklessness, and rage that once (well, okay, twice) manifested with his hands wrapped around her neck, choking her into unconsciousness, she. Will. Still. Be. Fine.
There are, of course, many spouses who are fine, just as there are many returning veterans who are fine, albeit changed, frequently for the better. But many of us are not. We are expected, and often told, to shut up and suck it up by Family Readiness Group volunteers, veterans, and, all too often, other military spouses. We are silenced by the reminder that it was our soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine in harm’s way, not us.
This has been echoed by civilians, along with the disclaimer: “You knew what you were getting into.” Or, better still, “You signed up.”
But I didn’t, and the more I talked, the more I heard from other military spouses who were going through the same things.
They spoke of vivid nightmares when their husband or wife was overseas, of anxiety attacks so intense they could barely breathe, and crushing depression that rendered them unable to get out of bed. They told me about their kids, growing up sad, scared, and sometimes suicidal in the shadow of war, and failing to bond with their mom or dad because multiple tours meant the military parent was gone more than they were home. They talked about how it felt to be fighting the war at home, alone, and the challenges they encountered in trying to get the care, support, and services they—and their children—so desperately needed. They told me what was really going on behind closed doors, when the Welcome Home ceremony was over, and the Yellow Ribbons were back in the box.
America’s War on Terror, hallmarked by lengthy, multiple deployments and a stupendously high percentage of psychological problems among returning troops, has deeply affected millions of military family members, who have suffered an escalation in mental health problems effectively identical to those experienced by the troops themselves.
According to a comparison of data from the Veterans Administration, the Army Reserve Family Programs website, and other sources, by early 2009, 35 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans had been diagnosed with a mental health issue, as had 35 percent of children of recently returned veterans. Both populations also showed a 50 percent increase in mental health problems from 2003 to 2008. Further evidence suggesting a direct, causal relationship between parental deployment and children’s mental health is that when the United States “surged” in Iraq, sending more than twenty thousand soldiers and Marines to stabilize the country, mental health hospitalizations of military kids “surged” as well. The first and largest study of the readjustment needs of returning troops and their loved ones found that “according to both broad and strict screening criteria, spouses and service members reported similar levels of major depression and generalized anxiety disorder.”
Over the course of the wars, the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs tracked the relentless rise of service member and veteran suicides, but it was left to the military family community to keep watch over our own. After two years of receiving a growing number of eyewitness and anecdotal accounts of family members who had killed themselves, or tried to, including a seven-year-old boy, I testified about it before a House Veterans Affairs Committee in 2009. The following year, reports of suicides and suicide attempts by military family members had become so frequent that Deborah Mullen, whose husband is retired Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, became the first senior military spouse to break the code of silence surrounding self-harming behaviors in military families and began publicly pushing the Pentagon to pay attention.
After nearly five years of advocacy and lobbying alongside Kristina Kaufmann, Karen Francis, and other military spouses, as well as the National Military Family Association, in January 2013 we finally witnessed the Pentagon’s Defense Suicide Prevention Office send a report to Congress outlining the first-ever proposal to track those deaths. But the general public is largely unaware of the massive toll of multiple deployments on military families, 92 percent of whom feel Americans “do not understand or appreciate their sacrifices,” according to a survey conducted by Blue Star Families in 2010.
This epidemic of disconnection between military and civilian communities contributes to the profound isolation that exacerbates behavioral health issues for military families, particularly Guard and Reserve, who lack the formal and informal supports and services available to active-duty families residing on or near post. Coupled with the warrior culture’s stigma toward psychological problems, which extends to the families, the separation between service members and the rest of society is an effective, if unintended, barrier to receiving care.
When the service member is physically or psychologically injured, the whole family is hurt. In fact, emerging research suggests that the emotional wounds of war carry biological consequences for the veteran parent, the civilian spouse, and the military child that may well be intergenerational, possibly heritable.
There is no way to write about today’s military families without including the troops and veterans; we are inextricably intertwined. But this book spotlights the largely hidden issues, challenges, and realities that are exclusive to the spouses, kids, and family caregivers of veterans. The ratio of severely wounded service members surviving potentially fatal injuries is more than five times higher in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than in any previous war, as is the proportion—roughly 50 percent, according to the Veterans Administration—of post-9/11 veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, or both who are being treated by the VA. It has been well chronicled that these invisible injuries can profoundly alter the personality of the warrior. But they also have significant, life-altering, and potentially life-limiting effects on the veteran’s children and spouse, who is often the veteran’s caregiver, which have been largely ignored and untreated.
Shortly after President Obama took office, the White House announced a government-wide approach to strengthening services for military families. Enhancing “the well-being and psychological health of the military family” was priority one. Goals for getting there included promoting psychological fitness, improving financial readiness, providing substance abuse treatment, and making the court system more sensitive to veterans and their families.
All good things. But the refusal to acknowledge, much less address, the fact that on some days there are more military family members killed by veterans than troops killed by terrorists, is to fatally fail military families.
Rates of child neglect, domestic abuse, and veteran intimate partner violence in active-duty, reserve, and retired military households have exploded, increasing by 177–300 percent between 2004 and 2010, according to the Pentagon, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the National Domestic Violence Hotline. At the same time, the psychological, physical, and financial health of family caregivers of injured Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is imploding. Military families have always borne the burden of the war at home, but never before have we been quite so alone for so long. The post- 9/11 wars have required repeat deployments of married troops, parents, and citizen soldiers. In previous wars, these populations were far less likely to be deployed multiple times, and generally exempt from the draft, because of overwhelming concerns it would be too much of a hardship on the families.
It appears those concerns were justified.
When the soldier signs up, the family gets drafted. The wounds of war that have been inflicted on the homefront are, in some ways, no less devastating than those incurred on the war front. America has embraced its promise to care for our veterans. It is my hope that we will also recognize our responsibility to tend to the families that are wounded by our wars. And it is my prayer that we will come to understand there is no such thing as an acceptable loss.