Despite the gazillion different military related sites I follow on facebook and Pinterest, despite the fact that I write military related blogs for multiple sources, and despite the fact that I’m always reading this article or that article about military life simply because I find different peoples’ takes on it fascinating, I had no idea until today, June 21st, that June is PTSD Awareness Month. None.
Now, I don’t need a special month to make me “aware” of PTSD, it’s something I worried about before and during The Hubs’ deployment, and it’s something we’ve dealt with as a family since he returned from overseas. But the fact that I have seen next to nothing posted or published about June being PTSD Awareness Month simply confirms something I already knew all too well. People don’t like to talk about, or even acknowledge, PTSD. Not even in communities where a high percentage of the population is affected. And that’s a scary thing. Because it’s not enough to just be “aware”. We have to be proactive.
I had no idea what to expect when The Hubs deployed for the first time, just two months after our wedding. I knew little about the Army, nothing about the war he was going to fight in, and nobody who’d been through a deployment recently enough to give me any advice relevant to being a soldier’s wife in the 21st century. What I did know was that there was a very real chance that he could be injured or killed, and that terrified me. Equally troublesome was the knowledge that even if he came home in good physical health, it was likely that he would be damaged emotionally.
Along with WIA, MIA, and KIA, PTSD is one of the ugliest acronyms in the military. And no one’s immune to it. Even those who are lucky enough to escape the bullets and bombs and hand-to-hand combat can’t hide from the emotional toll war takes on one’s spirit. So when I kissed my husband goodbye on that ridiculously hot Texas afternoon last May and sent him off to Iraq with the rest of his battalion, I fully anticipated that he would return home “damaged goods”, provided I was fortunate enough to have him return to me at all.
As deployments go, The Hubs’ was a quiet one. He was deployed to a relatively peaceful area in Northern Iraq, and was there primarily to help close down a Contingency Operating Base that had been captured from the Iraqi Army in 2003 and controlled by U.S. forces ever since. As a driver, he went out on patrols almost daily. I hated that. But thanks to modern technology, he was always able to call or email me when he returned from a mission to let me know that nothing had gone wrong, and that he was okay. With only a handful of exceptions, his patrols of the Iraqi countryside were uneventful.
I found myself thanking God, Buddha, four leaf clovers, lucky stars, lucky charms and just about everything else I could think to thank when The Hubs left Iraq unscathed. He hadn’t been injured (aside from a bruised arm and a sprained ankle, both acquired during training exercises), none of his battle buddies had been injured or killed, none of them had been forced to kill or injure anyone else, and none of them engaged in, or even saw, active combat. For the most part, they were bored out of their skulls during their deployment.
So even though my worst fears had wreaked havoc on my emotional state during The Hubs’ deployment, I arrived at the homecoming ceremony fully expecting the man that greeted me to be the same man I’d said the most painful goodbye of my life to six months earlier. The fierceness with which he held me during our first post-deployment embrace convinced me that he was indeed that same person. I was beyond ecstatic. I was also dead wrong.
The first sign that his time overseas had affected him more than I realized came the day after The Hubs returned home. I was making dinner for him and his “Little Brother” (a battle buddy that’s closer to our oldest son’s age than he is to my husband’s) when I opened the front door to toss something outside. I watched both of them jump about ten feet in the air when the screen door slammed behind me with a loud “BANG!” I started to laugh until I saw the panic in their eyes. “Sorry,” I said quietly as the two newbie veterans slowly regained their composure. “God da** PTSD,” Little Brother joked as he got up from the couch and pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. We all laughed, but I watched them from the window as they went and stood outside in silence, smoking and staring into the distance. I wondered what they were thinking about. I could only imagine.
One night, about a week after The Hubs’ homecoming, I awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of his voice. No stranger to talking in his sleep, he usually just needs a light nudge and he stops. But after a few gentle taps and a few not-so-gentle ones, he was still ordering someone named Wilson to load this onto that truck and that onto this truck and kept talking about “rolling out”. I sat up and watched him, realizing that while his body was sleeping, his mind was hard at work in “soldier mode”, thousands of miles away. It was the middle of the day in Iraq, after all. So it was right about the time that he’d be gearing up to go out on a mission if he were still there.
I cuddled up next to him and tried to go back to sleep, but I couldn’t. Truth be told, I was a little worried. If The Hubs was sleep-working, who’s to say that he wouldn’t mistake me for an insurgent and try to hurt me? So I stayed up the rest of the night, watching him sleep, watching for any signs of unrest. It was the first time in the seventeen years I’ve known him that I’ve ever been afraid of my husband. And the first time I truly felt like the wife of a “war veteran”.
In the weeks following The Hubs’ return, our day-to-day routine went pretty smoothly. It was the nights that were brutal. If he wasn’t tossing and turning and talking in his sleep, he was wide awake, staring at the ceiling. I kept our daytime schedule pretty open, thinking he’d be exhausted, expecting him to want to at least nap here and there, but he was always too on edge to sleep. He was constantly busy, constantly pacing, constantly looking for something to do. I can’t even count how many times in a day I had to remind him to relax or calm down.
He wasn’t angry, or mean, or overly emotional. He just seemed…..nervous. And I guess that makes sense. He had just spent the past six months waiting to be ambushed or attacked, wondering if each day was “the day” something would happened. I talked to some of the other wives of soldiers in my husband’s company. Their husbands weren’t sleeping either. Truth be told, us wives weren’t getting a whole lot of beauty rest ourselves.
I would joke with The Hubs, telling him that I couldn’t sleep because I wasn’t used to having him in bed next to me. I’m sure that’s partially true. But mostly, it was because I hadn’t slept much at all during his deployment, and I had gotten used to being awake at night. I had stayed up countless nights worrying, crying, missing him so much I couldn’t breathe. That constant anxiety took its toll. And even with him home safe and right there next to me, I still couldn’t make myself stop feeling that way.
Even now, six months later, I still find myself worrying about him at night and having nightmares about him being killed or wounded in action. I still feel my stomach lurch every time I hear or say the word “deployment”. I still get choked up when I talk about those very dark days at the beginning of the deployment. My kids still get scared when they see or hear a news story about a soldier dying. I remind them that their step-dad is safe, that it wasn’t him, and they tell me they know, but that “it could have been.”
The Hubs is still struggling as well. He goes to counseling and is working on controlling his almost constant anxiety. He still doesn’t sleep well. And his battle buddies aren’t faring much better. Many of the guys are on anti-depressants, many are on anti-anxiety medications, most of them take sleep-aids, and a handful of the guys immersed themselves in an atmosphere of partying, drugs and alcohol after the deployment and are now in the process of being chaptered out of the Army. There are some that have had issues with sleep walking, some that have become quick to flying into rages, resulting in domestic altercations, and some that have shut down completely emotionally on everyone around them. At least a dozen or so are now going through divorces. And still…..every single one of them passed their post-deployment evaluation and was declared “fit for duty”. It has to make one wonder.
But as much as I would like to, I can’t worry about everyone else. I have to focus on my husband and our family. And we’re still working on “getting back to normal” one day at a time. It’s not easy, with him stationed in Texas and me and our boys living in Michigan, but we’re trying. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that a deployment doesn’t have to be wrought with death and destruction to wreak havoc on a soldier, or on his family. War is war, after all. It leaves its scars, some deeper than others, and some not visible to the naked eye. And that’s something everyone needs to be aware of.
Visit www.onearmywifestale.com to read more about me and the rest of the “C Family”.