By MAUREEN ROSE
Gold Standard Acting Editor
In the month of May, the nation pays tribute in the form of Military Appreciation Month, Military Spouse Appreciation Day and Mental Health Awareness Month.
One support group of spouses finds the emphases ironic; they are caregivers for their military husbands who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury, and some even deal with both.
They rarely feel appreciated and they’re very cognizant of mental health—or the absence thereof—in their husbands.
The group meets with the licensed clinical social worker who works at Ireland Army Community Hospital in the TBI clinic, Susan Clark. Her primary job calls for her to support Soldiers with varying degrees of brain injury, but her once-a-week meetings with the caregivers has given them a lifeline.
None of the wives would agree to be identified because their husbands are understandably reluctant to have their mental health issues appearing in print.
“This is our safe place to talk,” said the wife of a retired Soldier whose entire social circle has been reduced to his wife and family.
Clark described how she helped the group to handle some of their problems. She led the group in a relaxation exercise, wherein the wives were asked to put all their troubles, worries and sorrows into a box, then are given permission to lay down their boxes and leave them behind and continue their life journeys. By the end of the exercise, one of the wives was crying—something she hadn’t been able to do in years—but it was very therapeutic for her. Many caregivers put their own needs on the shelf, Clark said, in the process of devoting their time and energy to their spouses, but that’s not healthy for the wives.
Another common obstacle the wives had noted was the dual personality their Soldiers displayed.
“When my husband puts on his uniform and laces up his boots, he can do all the things he needs to do at the office,” said one spouses of an active duty Soldier. “But if I want to have an adult conversation with him about anything, I have to do it while he’s in uniform…then he hears me and processes the information. But if I wait until he comes home, changes clothes into shorts and T-shirt, he becomes a 15-year-old teenager playing video games. He doesn’t want to have any responsibility; he’s already shut down. He sits down with my 5-year-old and now I have two kids to take care of.”
That duality presents another problem for many wives; the man they see at home may not match the one commanders are seeing at work. Because the Soldier seems to be functioning fine at the office, commanders may not recognize troubling symptoms, because the behaviors are more pronounced at home.
Clark said that’s fairly common because Soldiers pour their energy into their careers but reach home exhausted from the effort. Once they feel safe to relax, Soldiers deal with their anxiety levls with activities that might present problems at home such as drinking, withdrawing into isolation or mindless video games.
Video games seem to be a common “unplugging” kind of behavior shared by many Soldiers, but Clark said the intensely graphic war video games are strongly discouraged by mental health professionals because they can stimulate adrenaline output and trigger PTSD responses like nightmares.
Many of these warriors are dealing with symptoms that were probably rooted in deployments as far back as 2007. Most of the wives began noticing PTSD symptoms like anger and nightmares six months after their deployments were complete, although the symptoms were often delayed further because of impending permanent change of station moves or other time-consuming issues that required concentration and organization.
Another wife whose husband is now retired said his symptoms began quite some time ago,
but she didn’t know enough about the symptoms to identify them as PTSD. She assumed his building anger was related to seven combat deployments and perhaps something to be expected. She said after his final deployment in 2005, everything seemed to break loose at once.
Clark explained that the multiple deployments contribute to TBI and PTSD combinations because the shock waves that assault the brain—even from nearby mild explosions—inflict damage when the brain hasn’t had a chance to heal completely before a second or third pounding. Some Sold-iers may have endured 20 or 30 concussions before the research about multiple concussions forced Soldiers to take more down time after any concussive event.
In addition to anger, women deal with other issues that erode a marriage relationship. Medications—legitimate prescriptions as well as self-medications like alcohol—have negative side effects such as decreased testosterone and disappearing libido, which contribute to dwindling self-esteem problems for Soldiers and decreased intimacy for the couple.
Although the women love their husbands, due to brain damage and memory loss, there is a fine line between treating their husbands like grown men and not children.
“These women are hidden heroes,” Clark said. “They’re dedicated to their husbands and take their marriage vows very seriously, but it’s not easy. This group gives them a release.”
The group meets in varying places, so if you’re interested in joining the support group, call the
TBI clinic at (502) 624-0825 or (502) 624-0823.