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Post-Deployment PTSD Creates Relationship Challenges

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

By Eric Brandner 

 “One of my friends said, as she put it, that her husband, he didn’t die, but he didn’t come home. He’s a completely different guy. It’s a grieving process in accepting that it’s not him. … You have to go through that and accept that it’s not going to be him, so you can move on toward accepting who he is now and working forward and making progress on it.” 

– Nicole James, caregiver 

Post-traumatic stress disorder doesn’t have a distinct face.

It’s neighbors. Acquaintances. Friends.

It’s brothers. Children. Husbands.

And as Laura Bender described it at February’s USO Caregivers Conference, it’s never easy to talk about.

Bender, a commander who joined the Navy’s chaplain corps in 1999, is the chaplain for the Wounded Warrior Regiment at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. She served in Iraq and knows what stresses troops under her care have endured.

That’s because she’s felt them, too.

“Oftentimes I have counselees come in my office and, because they know that I’ve had a like experience, the men will tell me what happened,” she said. “And I said ‘Have you shared that with your spouse?’

“[They say] ‘I couldn’t let her know. She would not maybe think of me in the same way again.’”

June is PTSD Awareness Month. One of the hallmark wounds of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, PTSD can occur in anyone who experienced a traumatic event like combat, an assault, child or sexual abuse, a disaster or even a serious accident. Warning signs include flashbacks, avoiding situations that remind you of the event, negative shifts in emotions and behavior and states of hyperarousal (including feeling on edge and being unable to concentrate or sleep).

There isn’t a catch-all treatment for PTSD, and doctors can’t explain why some people get it while others don’t after having the same experience.

And unfortunately, according to Bender’s anecdotes, many returning troops bury their pain inside instead of sharing it with those closest to them.

Even Bender – who worked as a mortuary affairs chaplain downrange – had trouble adjusting after her deployment.

“I was at a scrapbooking group, not something that most people with PTSD go to, and I was scrapbooking photographs of all the people that I’d slipped in body bags and I had to get it out,” she said. “I had to put it someplace. And I was amazed, the women who sat with me said, ‘I was a nurse. I was in the military. We can see what you’re doing. Tell us about these people.’

“And the support I got from these women who were not afraid to hear something that hurt was really powerful and healing. And the more that we can do that for one another, to tell stories even if they’re hard to hear, and give people a place to be heard, [the better off people dealing with PTSD will be].”

The healing power of sharing – or any improvement in communication at all – was a recurring theme during the Feb. 25 USO Caregivers Conference, the fourth event of its kind held by the organization since 2010, bringing together caregivers from across the United States to discuss issues like compassion fatigue and resiliency.

While Bender counsels multiple troops, Nicole James spends her days helping one man.

Her husband, Marine Sgt. Jesse James, was injured by a pair of improvised explosive devices in 2006. When he returned home, he began acting dramatically different, straining their relationship.

“He had it drilled into his head that it was fine, it was normal. That’s how Marines are,” the mother of two said. “At first I just thought, ‘Maybe I’m just seeing stuff.’

“Years down the road, he talked to one of his friends and told him things that had been going on and his friend said, ‘No, that’s not normal. That’s not how I feel.’ And that’s when it clicked with him that something was going on.”

Nicole says Jesse struggles with memory loss and PTSD as a result of his traumatic brain injury. While he went to counseling at Nicole’s request, the couple is still evolving in the way they communicate with each other after his war injury.

“If you can’t communicate effectively, you’re just fighting, just angry, you’re stressed out and you don’t know what to do,” she said. “It gets very overwhelming and hard.”

Over time, Nicole learned the best ways to communicate with her husband, waiting for times where he’s calm to discuss expectations of how to handle his PTSD-induced mood changes.

“One of the things we’ve found when it comes to PTSD and TBI [Traumatic Brain Injury], slowing down the process is really, really helpful,” said Noel Meador, executive director of Stronger Families and a panelist at the February conference. “Where it was normal to have that interaction and go back and forth and talk through an issue, everything has to be slowed down for that cognitive part to catch up.”

There are several resources available for both troops fighting PTSD and their families, including offerings from USO Warrior and Family Care. But the conference speakers said the most direct route to is simply talking about the issue, even if you’re the caregiver.

“I still regret it to this day that I didn’t go in and talk to someone right away,” Nicole James said. “It took years for me to go see my own therapist all by myself and that has helped so much. Just having somebody for me to talk to [where] it’s all about me, because so much of it is about my husband, about my kids, and there’s no me. Just having somebody ask how I’m doing once a week has been amazing.”

* * *

Photo caption: Nicole James is a caregiver whose husband, Marine Sgt. Jesse James, suffers with PTSD and TBI. (USO photo by Michael Clifton) 

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