The war in Iraq, on terrorism, on fear, has affected us all. For some of us, it is only seeing bad things in the news, or being aware that, somewhere, folks are dying. For others, like me, who were touched by the fighting personally -- those who lost loved ones in 9/11, our soldiers and veterans and their friends and family -- the war takes on a deeper and more personal meaning. It comes home, literally, and every day is more combat. Only, there's nothing to fight.
This is our story.
My husband parted ways with the Army in 2006 after eight years enlisted, a year-and-a-half of which was spent in Iraq. He was there during the early part of OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom). Shortly after his discharge, we began dating. When we moved in together, I thought his habit of checking the windows and doors at night was a little strange, but I treated it as a personality quirk. It was over a year into our relationship that I began to suspect something was wrong.
He was distant, moody, and suffered frequent migraines. He drank a lot, and he was an insomniac. He would sometimes fly into a rage (always at a video game, never at me) and he didn't relate very well to others, especially at work. As the recession hit, I became chronically unemployed and our financial troubles mounted. Over the next five years, he bounced from job to job, we traveled cross-country four times and ended up spending several years living with family under crippling debt.
By 2012 he had spiraled into a deep, dark depression. He ignored me and our then-2-year-old son. There would be days where the only time he spoke to me was to ask me to make food when he remembered to eat. He had frequent panic attacks, some severe enough to send him to the hospital. He lost chunks of time, hated and feared going outside, couldn't sleep. Finally I'd had enough.
I knew something was wrong, but he wouldn't admit it. That is a soldier's mentality. He'd been taught to suck it up and march on. He'd been given bad advice that the VA would screw him, and that PTSD didn't exist. He thought if he pushed hard enough, he could power through any problem.
I made an appointment with a counseling service. He begged me not to make him go, not to make him face it. I drove my panicked, shaking husband to meet with the therapist, ignoring his pleas, while holding back tears. Luckily, that proved to be the turning point.
The diagnosis was of PTSD, complicated by bipolar disorder. This led to panic anxiety, agoraphobia, hypervigilance, and major depression with suicidal tendencies. He began therapy, but life intervened again and again. We were two months behind on rent and had literally nothing. I called and appealed to the utilities and cable company not to shut off our service, and frequently asked friends and family for enough money to buy diapers for our son or gas for the car. We were on Food Stamps and it was barely enough, as long as ramen played a big part in mealtime.
Leaving that apartment to avoid (another) eviction, we went to live with family again while we waited for word on my husband's Social Security Disability. We moved into a house with drugs and domestic abuse, the landlord we owed money to appropriated half of our belongings, and we had to rely on family yet again to get out of a potentially dangerous situation.
Unfortunately, this has been our lives for much of the seven years we've been together. At one point my husband could not even speak to people on the phone, and my being gone for so much as an hour was often enough to trigger a panic attack. I was his only comfort, so with neither of us really able to work, the financial stress we were under was significant.
At six months pregnant with our second child, I held him and talked to him for hours after he tried to commit suicide by alcohol. The VA refused to pay for the ambulance ride and brief hospital stay.
It has only been a year since that incident, but it is still fresh. For four months we've been living in our first new apartment with modern amenities, in a nice neighborhood. Due to our financial situation, we were always relegated to living in unsafe and unsanitary and frankly illegal conditions. For someone who sees an enemy in even well-meaning people, the drug-addled peeping toms trying to see through our layers of blinds at two in the morning was not helpful.
And this is the reality for some of our veterans returning from war. My husband says, matter-of-factly and devoid of emotion, that were it not for myself and our children, he would have killed himself long ago. Transition from enlisted to civilian life is hard enough; finding a job, fitting in. Soldiers and civilians may as well be from two different countries. Most veterans endure debilitating isolation during this time, and financial problems to boot.
The Army does everything for them, up to making sure their bills are paid -– and then, suddenly, they are the masters of their own destiny. Much like young men and women going from a parent's house to their first apartment, there is a certain amount of confusion. Tack on PTSD to a lack of support system, financial stress, the fear of the unknown, addiction (drinking and smoking are very, very common pastimes with soldiers), and you have the recipe for a broken human being.
PTSD is a very real, very dangerous mental condition. With my husband, it happened because of the lack of a safety net. His camp took mortar fire on several occasions. IEDs (improvised explosive devices) lay in garbage bags on the side of the road. In a crowd, men would sneak behind the soldiers, stick pistols under their helmets, and shoot, then run away in the resulting disarray. They would attempt to drive explosive-rigged garbage trucks into the camp.
Bullets have missed him by literal inches. He has killed and seen men killed in horrible ways. He has nightmares. When you have to be constantly alert for life-threatening danger for so long, you can't just turn it off. Your brain doesn't listen when you tell it, “Hey, I'm safe now.” You are never safe. It takes much more time to unravel that kind of damage than it took to make it.
I will end this on a positive, hopeful note: While we are in a substantial amount of debt, we can at least buy diapers and make the bills on time now that my husband has been deemed disabled. After much trial and error, he is on a medication that seems to be helping. He is calmer, he has stopped drinking, and his mind is clearer. He is attending therapy regularly.
This does not mean he is “cured” –- and he never will be. But we, both of us, are on our way to learning how to cope, and with mental illness, that's all we can hope for. He is a wonderful, fiercely intelligent man who adores his kids and, even amidst his own despair, takes time to make sure I'm okay. We lean on each other, and during this troubled time my love for him has only grown.
If you know a veteran or a soldier, take a moment to tell them you appreciate them, please. Not, “Thank you for your service,” as that tends to embarrass them -– but tell them what you appreciate about them as people. Even if you get a sarcastic response. You can't tell who is suffering, and you never know when something that small could convince them that life is still worth living.