The following is an excerpt from the new book Homefront 911: How Families of Veterans Are Wounded By Our Wars by Stacy Bannerman.
I got my first service-connected prescription shortly after my husband got the call for his second tour. He came home one night, and handed me the Memorandum for Soldiers of the 81st HBCT, Subject: Mobilization Update. “We have received the mobilization order.” Col. Kapral continued for a whole page, but I never read further than that fourth line. It was dated 19 March 2008, precisely five years after the invasion of Iraq. The month that used to be all about the Madness of the Gonzaga University Bulldogs going to the Big Dance had become all about the madness of my husband going to war. I should have known that second tour was on the way, because we’d seen that god—- bird again a month earlier. But I ignored it.
Just like I ignored how for the past few months, Lorin had been leaving for work at Camp Murray, where the Washington National Guard is headquartered, at zero dark hundred, and returning after twenty dark hundred. I ignored it like I ignored how he’d begun incrementally pulling away, shutting down emotionally, after he had finally started to open up. Just when I’d found his heartbeat again, I lost it. I ignored all of that. I put it out of my mind, but even after I saw his orders, even after I told him and myself that it would be fine, I could do this; it would be easier because I had already done it before, the lie refused to hold.
A few weeks after seeing the mobilization memo, I was jogging on a treadmill at the gym near our home in Kent, Washington. I’d already freaked out a few times, racing heart, panicky, and called Military and Family Life Counseling (MFLC), a program for military dependents that provides short-term, nonmedical guidance. The licensed clinical professional suggested I exercise more and practice calming breath techniques. She said it would help reduce stress and anxiety, and provide positive self-care skills. Maybe I shouldn’t have been working out and deep breathing at the same time. She hadn’t said, and I hadn’t asked. I did ask if she had ever been through a deployment herself. Nope. She had no family in the military, had no idea what it was like, “But I’m sure it must be challenging.”
Challenging? The GRE is challenging. Spending a year or more waiting outside of the emergency room that is a combat deployment, knowing your infantry soldier is in there, but not knowing how they’re doing, or when they’re coming out, or how many body parts they might be missing when they do, or if they’re even going to make it, and preparing a small part of your psyche for them to be dead already and packing that pain every single day? That’s not challenging. That’s terrifying. That’s anticipatory grief.
So I run and I breathe, increasing the speed and incline, until I am bawling on the treadmill. And I can’t stop it, any of it. I can’t stop running, or sobbing, or him from being gone again. I can’t stop another endless year of isolation from people who don’t have a loved one at war, because I no longer know how to have a conversation that doesn’t include the one fact around which my life revolves. I can’t prevent another year of triple-checking doors I am certain I locked, of being so consumed with worry that I might have left the stove on, or a candle burning—even when I know I didn’t, because I can clearly recall turning it off or blowing it out—that I have to drive back home to make sure. I check, and check, and check again (three seems to be the magic number), and then perform the same compulsive routine when I lock the door, and leave for work for the second time.
I never did that before, and never do it when he’s not at war. But he’s going again, and I can’t halt the coming 13 months, maybe longer — What if they, like the Minnesota Guard, end up spending a miserable 22 months in the suck? — of night recon for strange cars on my street, and how my heart skips a beat when I see a dark, unfamiliar vehicle cruising toward the house. I hate myself for this, all of it: the anxiety, weakness, and fear. Mostly I hate that I cannot keep it contained, that I cry at the slightest thing, at nothing, and even the tiniest note of compassion from anyone, anywhere, about anything at all, triggers tears.
“How have you been? Is there anything bothering you?” asks the nurse at my annual physical exam.
“No, I’m fine.” For a few seconds, I am, and then, I am not. Sobbing, I gasp for air, trying to pull all of the aching sadness back inside me. I clear my throat several times, and shut it down, and hope that we can pretend it never happened.
“Huh. Hrrrm. Okay. Sorry about that. Everything’s fine.”
The nurse tilts her head slightly, and raises an eyebrow.
“I just,” I’m sobbing again, “I just, I just …” panting, fighting to push this down.
“It’s okay, take your time. I’m not going anywhere.”
She’s not, but he is, and I am such a f—— baby. The anger is good, self-loathing is even better, because it’s guaranteed to stop the tears.
“Okay, again, ahem, sorry. I don’t know what happened there.”
“That’s all right. Do you want to talk about it?”
“Not really, no.”
“Are you in danger? Do you feel like you’re safe at home?”
“No, no, it’s nothing like that. “ I sigh, and say, “My husband is getting deployed again to Iraq. We just found out a few weeks ago. I’ve been through this before, so I don’t know what my problem is, but I can’t seem to stop crying. Sometimes, for no reason whatsoever, I get so scared that my heart starts beating really fast, and I think I’m going to die. I have no idea what that’s about. What is that?”
“It sounds like a panic attack. Have you ever had them before?”
“Are you talking to anybody about this?” she asks, “Have you seen a counselor?”
“No. I called the Military Family people, and they just said I should work out. And meditate, which hasn’t helped at all.”
“I’m going to write you a prescription for Klonopin, but it’s just for a month. The next time you feel an attack coming on, take one. And see if you can find a counselor.”
Stacy Bannerman, M.S., is the producer and director of Homefront 911: Military Family Monologues. She single-handedly spearheaded the passage of Oregon’s H.B. 2744, and H.B. 3391, which created the Governor’s Task Force on Military Families, and the introduction of the federal Military Family Leave Act. E-mail her at her website.