I thought that our problem was the alcohol. I thought it was the fifth of whiskey and the six-pack of beer he could put away in a night. Instead our problem was combat PTSD. And I couldn’t let myself see it coming.
Looking back I can.
It is really hard to type that. On our tenth anniversary, my husband will most likely be a “voluntarily-involuntary in-patient” at a psych ward. There will be no party. There will be no cruise or vacation. There will only be, God willing, hope for a future together.
This is our PTSD story.
When my husband signed the dotted line and became a soldier ten years ago, I remember thinking how totally bossin’ it was to wear his dog tags and PT shirts.
My husband was a hero. He was a soldier now. It was so cool. I was full of it. It was coming out of my pores. I was infatuated with this new person standing in front of me. A trained, bad-ass hero. He was mine.
I was wrong. He was property of the United States military. And, boy, was I in for a rude awakening.
I thought it was poor communications equipment.
My husband’s first tour in Iraq started in August 2006. It was a year long deployment to a war that I knew nothing about. I was 23 years old and a moron. I knew nothing and everything.
I got pregnant on his R&R from Iraq. He would be home for the birth because his orders said twelve months. He will be back to see his child be born. I rested easy.
That was until, he stopped calling. I wrote him a letter every single day. There was no Skyping. There was a phone call once a month if that. There were no letters from him.
He was starting to isolate from me during that first tour and I thought it was all due to circumstances beyond his control. I thought their communication systems were bad. I thought there were too many missions to call. I just figured he was busting his ass and couldn’t call.
In May he called. He was somber from the very first hello. He was calling me to tell me that his tour had been extended to 15 months.
He would be missing our first child’s birth. And he was moving to a more dangerous position. And more people were dead. And he was terrified.
I never stopped writing. Had it not been for my parents and his parents, I would not have made it. Here I was, emotionally distraught and pregnant. I was scared every second of the blue coats coming to my door.
I thought it was the drinking.
Our son was born in August. My husband came home in November. It was perfect bliss for the first week of his arrival home. Then the drinking started.
Again. The very thing that had driven a nail through the second year of our marriage was back. After Basic, AIT, and Airborne school, alcohol came into play.
It was all he was. It consumed him. I had no idea at the time that he was self-medicating. I knew nothing, but everything. I tolerated it.
Why? I have not a clue. Hope maybe? I hate to lose. I am stubborn as hell and go out with a fight. I knew I would win. Somewhere deep down, it was unexplainable. I just knew.
I thought it was my letters.
I opened his first “tuff box” from his Iraq tour full of his goodies, carepackage stuff, and trinkets. I was rummaging through it all and came across a bag of letters. It was a bag full of all the letters I sent him in Iraq.
There had to be hundreds. Almost all of them I wrote while I was pregnant, alone, scared, reaching out to him, praying and encouraging him with my pen. And he never opened the letters.
I was furious and heartbroken. How could he not open them? How dare he? I was pissed. I never asked the real monkey in the room, WHY? That monkey was PTSD. I wasn’t awake. Not just yet.
I thought it was the anger.
Time passed quickly after that. Filled with his drunken rages and stupors, I was doing everything that I could to save him from himself.
All of the sudden, my soft and caring husband was very angry. He wasn’t afraid to show it. It was his go-to emotion. It became him.
This continued through the years with more gearing-up, lots of training, preparing for another battle, same war. The battle raging under the surface was a whole new ballgame I knew nothing about.
I thought he was too busy to care.
Fast forward to August 2008. We are at a new duty station. A new journey. A fresh start? I prayed so. I got pregnant with our second and last child in November of 2008.
The drinking, “self-medicating” continued up to this point, minus a six month interval of time when he quit. Yes, folks, he mustered up the will to stop. All on his own doing.
There was still personal strength at this point. He found it within himself. I had left the state to come back home for a family emergency. I was taking care of my mom and being by her hospital bedside.
During the two weeks I was gone, I started to notice that there were no phone calls. He was isolating and it never occurred to me at the time that’s what was happening.
I just thought he was being a jerk and too busy to care. I knew nothing and knew everything. He also, started drinking.
I came home to chaos. I just watched my mother fight for her life and came home to a storm within my own walls. Like I said before, I am a fighter. I wasn’t ready to give-up. I never am.
I thought he was a warrior.
Our daughter was born in August of 2009. My husband got to be with her for four weeks of her infant life. Then he deployed to Iraq for his second deployment. This one was just shy of a year. And to this point, it had been the worse one as far as unit injuries, brigade KIA’s, combat action, you name it.
He was in a much more dangerous position, this go around. He was a .50 cal gunner during this tour. He would come home from this deployment with a completely different texture to his face, darker green eyes, bright red and burned Irish skin. He had a different tone in his voice a different scent to his skin.
It was all different, all foreign. It invaded his soul. His steps were of a stranger towards me every day. Who was this person? Then, the drinking, it started. Again.
This man in front of me was a warrior. The things he had seen and done were nothing I could wrap my head around. The places he had been were something you might see in your nightmares.
And this is when the nightmares begin for him and for me too. I was having dreams about combat situations, never have dawned a uniform myself. Here I was fighting for my life every night I closed my eyes. Where was all that coming from?
I thought I was in control.
Soon after our daughter was born, we moved onto the military post, opposing to living off post. It just made more sense financially and it was easy for him to spend more time at home. Which was beginning to be the only place he felt safe.
And having him home was the only place where I felt he was safe. Whether it was because I could physically see him and knew he wasn’t having road rage or I knew what kind of day he was having at work, I felt a sense of control over whatever was happening to us, when he was in my presence.
All other times, I would sit and bite my nails in linger mode. I was fearful each time my phone rang. What new drama was unfolding behind the unorganized chaos within his unit? Would this set us up for a night or weekend of him binge drinking?
It was a life of uncertainty, constantly, for years. All I knew at this point was to never be surprised and expect the worse.
I thought I should hide his problem.
When the drinking was at its worse, he would drink a whole fifth of whiskey and a six pack of beer in one night. If not every night, it would be at least three to four times a week. I would clean up his vomit, carry him around the house, try to contain him within our house, trying to shelter my kids from seeing it.
I would check on his breathing throughout the night, driving him to PT in the morning because he was still intoxicated.
He could run and run and run miles upon miles, legally drunk. And no one knew.
I knew. He knew. He knew that he still had the willpower to stop. It was physically taking a toll on his body. He had agonizing hangovers every night or weekend.
The pain of the next morning was becoming unbearable and shadowed the “good times” of the act of drinking.
It wasn’t fun anymore. It was ugly. And he was starting to become more vigilant to the effects. We both knew that the kids were growing up. They were both walking and talking. They were becoming aware of things being wrong and questioned, “Why is Daddy being silly”?
I thought making NCO made a difference.
The storm had been raging for years now. In this time, I was still oblivious to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I vaguely remember a FRG event where PTSD was talked about for maybe a minute, very briefly and then the topic changed.
My husband became a NCO, non-commissioned officer. He had new found pride in the uniform again. Even if it was brief, it was relief from the fear he had of putting it on every morning.
Now it didn’t take ten “sighs” to get dressed every morning. He wasn’t nauseated at the feel of his uniform on his skin. He was proud to be a NCO.
He had worked very, very hard to be where he was and started setting goals for himself again, especially with his career and how he was going to treat his troops.
He had a renewed faith in the Army. He had a purpose within its being again. He wasn’t going to be the typical NCO. He was going to go above and beyond for his squad.
He wouldn’t be defined as the go-to NCO for drunken parties and bonfires. He was business oriented. A professional. He took things seriously at all times.
He had very few “friends.” To be honest, he knew he wasn’t fitting the mold. He knew that there was something that set him apart from most of, if not all of his fellow soldiers–especially the newbies who had no deployments.
He couldn’t relate to them anymore. War and death was the reality of today’s military and the newbies didn’t get it yet.
I thought he was normal…for a soldier.
Fellow NCO’s within his unit were alcoholics themselves. I’ve seen how alcohol is a major factor in the military. It is the first thing troops do to release the tension of preparing for war.
And it is the first thing they turn to self-medicate after war. It is legal, not an illegal substance that would make them fail a piss test. So, it runs rampant and usually untreated.
My husband knew he had to get his drinking to stop or his career would ultimately pay the price. The chatter of bad news was amping up around this time as well.
The bad news was Afghanistan. Just the word alone, being a seasoned soldier’s wife, sent chills down my spine. Oh boy. This place I had heard about and it terrified me. I just knew it was coming. And I was starting to wake up.
My husband was becoming more and more incapable of dealing with nonsense. He was meaner. We joked less. We laughed less. We loved less. There was something dragging us deeper under water.
The chatter became official with the printing of the orders. Afghanistan, Kanduhar province, twelve month deployment, highly volatile surroundings.
The word was coming in fast about the unit they would be relieving in Afghanistan. The unit had been “chewed-up” pretty bad. Several KIA’s and lots of injuries.
The only comfort was that he would be deploying two weeks before Christmas of 2011. It would be the middle of winter and Taliban activity is decreased during winter months.
I thought I would never see him alive again.
I never had time to be sad about another year apart. I could only think of it being the last time I would see his face alive.
No matter how much I distracted myself, positive self-talked myself away from the subject, it was always under the surface. It clouded any happiness from feeding my soul.
The only in-take my soul was accepting was fear and loneliness. I was still trying to save him from himself. From the monster I believed was destroying us. For years the enemy had been alcohol. In actuality, it was combat PTSD.
And here, in that place, I knew nothing anymore. And I was alone. Thousands and thousands of miles from home. Two kids still attached to my hip. I reached out. I made several, very tight bonds with other Army wives. They were the reason I continued on fighting. They were the reason I got out of bed in the morning. They became my sisters. The kept me strong.
He deployed to Afghanistan in December of 2011. I knew communications would be bad this go around way beforehand.
He would be outside the wire daily for anywhere between 12 to 15 hours a day. He would be getting shot at everyday. He would live in his truck, sleep on whatever he could and it was gonna be unlike anything he had seen in Iraq. I have never experienced this degree of fear before.
He came home for R&R and things became very aggressive with what I now know was PTSD. He had only been in Afghanistan for a little under three months when he offered to take R&R first. He was desperate to get out of there.
I thought it was depression.
During his R&R, there was a lot of drinking. A lot of quiet time, awkward silences followed by him isolating or raging.
Upon his arrival back in country, March 2012, he sought out mental health and spiritual counseling. They diagnosed him with depression and anxiety. He began treatment with meds and continued to go out on missions everyday.
The phone calls were on a weekly basis after this. However, he would call and say nothing. I could hear alarms being sounded and he would hang-up. Only to call a week or two later. I found myself doing all the talking and he would just sit there on the other end, lifeless.
He didn’t want to talk at all about the goings on, but I knew. I read the emails of another KIA. I read the emails about another seriously wounded. I heard the rumor mill. I knew it all.
But I wanted to know nothing in his face. I wanted to not talk about the bad stuff. I wanted to be an escape and retreat from the hell on earth that was occurring around him. He grew more distant. He spoke little besides about the kids. I knew things were getting very bad for him and I was completely helpless. All I could do was pray the “death by powerpoint” therapies were helping in some way.
I was wrong. It was a false hope. This war would suck what little sparkle was left out of us.
I thought there would be help.
I will never forget that last phone call before I knew he was being medically evacuated. He told me that he confronted his senior NCO about his mental health issues, again. This time was more confrontational.
He essentially was explaining his mental health issues as bringing on suicidal ideations. His senior NCO dared him to ruin his career and even had the nerve to tell him that he would lose his family if he lost his career in the military.
The stigma against asking for health is real even within the brotherhood itself. My husband turned around, walked to the med station and demanded to talk with a psych doc immediately. He scared the soldier on duty and his weapon was removed from his arms.
And just like that, it was done. Eight years of active duty service and three combat tours had come to this.
After arriving via chopper to Kandahar AFB, he was seen by mental health–REAL mental health folks. They were astonished that he had not been medevac’d beforehand.
He arrived back to the states on October 4, 2012. It was a somber and overly emotional re-union. There were no welcome home banners. There was no music. There were no happy participants, jumping up and down. It was dark. So dark, I couldn’t see tomorrow.
I thought life could not get any darker.
That day was the first day I would learn how to take life itself on a daily basis. And eventually, an hour-to-hour basis.
I jokingly say that most days I feel like I am 50 years old. Most days are so long and despairing that it feels that way.
My husband was officially diagnosed with severe combat PTSD and severe major depressive disorder. The first diagnoses made him unfit for duty. A medical evaluation board was initiated in December of 2012.
With the new diagnoses and impending retirement and moving home, he quit drinking. He did this with the little strength he had left. I couldn’t be more proud of his sobriety from alcohol.
He did it for us. For all of us. The love was still there. The hope was still there. It was just deep behind the mask of PTSD.
Now we deal with PTSD. Every day.
For a while, we had some of that “new normal” I read about on all my support groups in social networking. He was lying close to me again. He was more active with our kids, who are triggers for his PTSD. We were loving again. It was nice.
It was short. I knew that he needed immediate mental health care and took every initiative to begin treatment at our local VA. Then he began having extreme abdominal pains. Excruciating pain and nausea, followed with violent vomiting episodes. He lost 50 pouds.
After four hospital ER visits and hospitalizations, two being psych wards, three CT scans, a colonoscopy, a endoscope and numerous blood panels, we know that we are finally dealing with the PTSD monster.
It has tried to tear us apart. It is out for blood.
They tell us that the key to winning the battle is first knowing that its nothing you can control or fix on your own. You have to reach out. You have to get help. You will not be able to fight this battle alone. Don’t be afraid of help. Be afraid of not helping yourself and your family.
My husband called me this morning from the psych ward at the VA. He sounded hopeful. He hadn’t gotten sick since last night, nor has he wanted to make himself sick.
As long as he fights, so will I. This is just a glimpse into our battle. We all have our own unique battles in our lives. We are all in this together.
Sarah is an Army wife currently living in Indiana.