At War at Home
The Veteran Affairs Department defines a service-connected disability as "an illness or injury incurred in or aggravated by military service." As author and advocate Stacy Bannerman argues, the military spouses of those injured are on their own when it comes to treatment.
I was running on a treadmill a few weeks after my husband’s brigade got their orders for a second deployment to Iraq. The military and family life consultant suggested I exercise more and practice deep breathing—it would help reduce stress and anxiety, and provide positive self-care skills for another year of having my husband at war. Maybe I shouldn’t have been doing them at the same time. She didn’t say, and I didn’t ask. I did ask if she had ever been through a deployment herself. Nope. She was a civilian, had no idea what it was like.
So I run and I breathe, increasing the speed and incline, running for my husband’s life, 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 family, friends, and community. One more year of double- and triple-checking doors I know I locked—something I never did before.
I can’t halt the coming 48 weeks 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 worry, weakness, and fear—and the anger that the service-related injuries of military spouses are still being ignored.
Suicide, anxiety, severe depression, stress disorders, adjustment disorders, sleep disorders, anger management issues, and potentially life-threatening social isolation, hopelessness, and despair aren’t just for veterans anymore. Welcome to the reality of the 21st century military spouse, nearly half of whom have reported that their mental health suffered during their spouse’s deployment. Here’s what one of them said when she testified before the Oregon State Joint Veteran’s Committees this May:
I wish I could sit here before you today, and tell you that having been in my husbands shoes as a deployed Marine, that this made my personal experience with Stephan’s first deployment easier in some way… but I can’t. Being the family member of a deployed service member is far, far, more difficult than being the one deployed.
At a town hall meeting in June, Deborah Mullen, wife of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed the acute mental health problems affecting military families. Although mental health issues have been well researched and targeted treatments developed for those returning from war, documentation and tailored treatments for military families, particularly spouses, is scarce.
Deborah Mullen said that a lot of the spouses of active-duty personnel tell her they suffer “depression, anxiety, sleeplessness and anger… [and are] literally unable to get up in the morning and get their children to school.”
According to the Preliminary Assessment of Readjustment Needs of Military Personnel, Veterans, and Their Families (National Academy of Sciences, 2010):
[S]tudies have suggested that spouses... appear to develop mental anxiety or trauma as a result of experiences prior to, during, and after the service member’s deployment. (Mansfield, et.al., 2010)… According to both broad and strict screening criteria, spouses and service members reported similar levels of major depression and generalized anxiety disorder.
The military offers on-line counseling, but I am already isolated enough. Pounding out on my keyboard how I feel to someone who, for all I know, could very well be the mental health equivalent of the Psychic Friends Network is not that appealing. But we can get drugs, and a lot of us have. So have our kids. The number of military kids who have sought outpatient mental health counseling has doubled since 2003, and parental distress in the non-deployed spouse is one of the main predictors of depression in military children.
Military spouses are the hub of the military family—we support our soldiers during deployment, take care of the kids, and are the primary advocates and unpaid caregivers of our veterans. Nearly 70 percent of us also hold down jobs. If there’s an Army of One, it’s not the soldier, with all of his tools, troops, training, and support; it’s the military spouse.
I am tired of hearing about the uncanny resilience of the military spouse, as if I, somehow, have failed by not emerging unscathed from seven years of war, and more than three years without my husband. Rubber bands are resilient, too, but with time and use, they lose their ability to hold what they once did. When they are stretched beyond their limits, they snap. And so it has been for the military spouses who have committed or attempted suicide in the past few years.
By all indicators, military spouses are suffering significant service-connected disabilities, but there are few culturally specific programs tailored to meet our needs, and the VA doesn’t have a mandate to serve spouses of veterans.
I got civilian counseling and a prescription, and they gave me a basement, but I had to build my own steps out. I couldn’t find them in any of the booklets, brochures, or PowerPoint presentations that the military provided. Those documents told me what to expect from—and how to care for—my soldier/veteran, but offered very little for dealing with my own service-related injuries. I had to research and learn through trial and error what I needed to live through— the war. Because what I didn’t need was to be running harder and faster all by myself on a treadmill that was taking me nowhere.
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