Her Army veteran husband was suffering with PTSD. Did she have it now too?
- Posted on Feb 23, 2015
I was in the passenger seat of a Humvee, on a dusty street in Iraq. The sun was so bright it almost blinded me. I felt the sand whipping through the window, stinging my arm and face. Gunfire erupted. Rounds came through the windshield.
I heard the driver shout. He’d been hit. Blood was everywhere. No! I realized it was my husband, Caleb, an infantryman. I couldn’t stop the blood. I shouted for a medic but I knew it was too late. Caleb was going to die.
I woke with a start. The bedroom was dark and silent. It was a dream, a terrible dream about a place I had never been, a war I had never fought in. Yet it was so real. I felt like screaming.
But I couldn’t. Caleb was asleep beside me and the last thing I wanted to do was wake him up. Who knew what he’d do if he awoke in the dark, disoriented and afraid?
Maybe he’d shout, or dive off the bed for cover. Or he’d be jolted into combat mode, striking out at an unseen enemy. He’d wake up our eight-year-old daughter, Katie, and then she’d be crying too.
Life had been like this ever since Caleb returned from his second tour of duty in Iraq. I was never even in the military. Caleb served on the front lines in Baghdad, Ramadi and other hot zones. He’d been shot at and escaped dozens of explosions. For two years there was always someone trying to kill him. He came back with a traumatic brain injury and PTSD, unable to work, unable to cope.
I’d been caring for him for several years now. His physical injuries were the easy part. The wounds to his soul were deeper. Our house had to be dark—too much light reminded Caleb of the desert sun. I had to monitor the TV to make sure nothing agitating came on—news, war images, any kind of violence.
My days were filled with typical mom duties: making meals, doing laundry, getting Katie to and from school and tap class. But I also squared off against Veterans Administration bureaucrats, monitored Caleb’s 12 different medications and planned each day down to the second to make sure nothing unexpected happened.
You never knew what might set him off. He hadn’t hit me yet. But when his memories overwhelmed him and I momentarily became the enemy, he’d come close. Mostly it was the screaming. Or his agonized replaying of some moment on the battlefield. He was racked with guilt for having survived when his buddies hadn’t.
We were broke. I was exhausted. And now I was having battlefield nightmares too. I’d become hyper-alert, just like Caleb. I scanned every room for exits. I flinched at loud noises. It was as if I’d contracted my husband’s PTSD.
Was that possible? I felt trapped and didn’t know what to do. Lying there next to Caleb, I let myself drift back to the early, happy days of our marriage. We were high school sweethearts, married in college. I loved Caleb for his rugged good looks and his sense of honor—and his smarts.
He was a civil-engineering major and never ceased to amaze me with the facts stored in his head. I was studying to become a court clerk. I pictured us settling down, raising kids, fixing up a house. You know, a happy, normal life. September 11 changed all of that.
“I’ve got to enlist,” Caleb said, watching the Twin Towers crumble. That was Caleb. A true southern gentleman, he took honor and duty very seriously. He volunteered for the infantry, though he could have chosen an easier job. He survived his first deployment and I prayed every day for his safe return from the second.
He came home, but it didn’t take long for me to see something was wrong. “Honey,” he asked a few days after getting back, “this is a stupid question, but...how do you divide a number by two? I can’t remember.”
I guess it was at that moment I felt as if the bottom had fallen out of our lives. Then came the nightmares. Angry outbursts in the grocery store. Moments of agony and guilt. Sometimes Caleb would disappear into the bedroom for an entire day and night. Then I’d worry he’d decide life wasn’t worth living.
I didn’t know where to turn. Caleb had been wrongly advised by the Army to withdraw from military service rather than getting a medical retirement, which would have entitled us to health benefits.
Without benefits we couldn’t afford basic health care, let alone treatment for a condition as complicated as PTSD. The VA bureaucracy was like a monolith. I didn’t know what we were eligible for or how to get it.
Caleb tried for a time to work, but he quickly learned that that was no longer possible. I tried starting a home business and went to food banks and church feeding programs to maximize our meager income.
At last, with the help of an organization called Vietnam Veteran Wives, I figured out how to start the process of getting Caleb disability benefits. Still, for a long time, the three of us lived on less than $20,000 a year. We exhausted our savings, and our once-perfect credit went down the drain. We ended up filing for bankruptcy.
I looked at my bedside clock: 3:00 a.m. A long time till morning. I didn’t want to sleep anyway. I was scared I’d have another nightmare. A few days earlier, I’d Googled “Caregiver PTSD.” Psychiatrists hadn’t officially recognized the condition, but the symptoms were being written about in medical journals.
They could be brought on by the stresses of caregiving. Especially caregiving for wounded veterans. And yes, you could start reliving another person’s trauma, especially a spouse’s. I didn’t know whether to feel vindicated or terrified.
I’d tried seeing a volunteer therapist—we couldn’t afford therapy otherwise—but she didn’t seem to understand. Then, just the other day, Katie and I had walked into a store together. “Mama,” Katie said, looking up at me matter-of-factly, “there are four exits from here. Look.” She pointed around the room, just like her daddy did. Not Katie too!
I stared into the darkness of the bedroom. Lord, is our whole family cursed with PTSD? I wondered. Isn’t there anything you can do to help us?
I closed my eyes, retreating into the deeper darkness of my thoughts. Suddenly an idea popped into my mind.
Start a website.
That made no sense. What would I want to start a website for? As if I had time!
I found myself remembering the conversation I’d had with a woman at Vietnam Veteran Wives, the one who’d told me how to sign Caleb up for disability. It had meant the world just to talk to someone who understood.
My eyes flew open. Was that what a website could do? Provide a way for people to reach out and share the burden of caregiving? Already a name was coming to mind: Family of a Vet. Because that’s what Caleb, Katie and I were. That’s what we had to offer.
The next day I looked up do-it-yourself instructions and cobbled together the most amateurish website you ever saw. I wrote about my struggles and asked if anyone out there was in a similar situation.
The following day I checked the site. There was a comment! “Thank you so much for sharing your story, Brannan. Our lives sound so similar. I had never heard of a vet center and how they offer combat counseling. Please tell me how to sign up.”
I posted a reply explaining what I’d learned. By the end of that week four more women had visited the site and shared stories and tips of their own. Soon hundreds of military families were coming to the site to trade stories and advice on caring for wounded warriors. I put up my contact information and other military families reached out.
Many of their situations were far worse than mine—husbands lost or suicidal, VA case managers AWOL. Talking together, we often figured out solutions. Sometimes talking was the solution. “I feel so much better,” a vet’s wife said to me after we commiserated about our kids casing rooms for exits and acting up in school.
I felt better too. You’d think listening to caregiving war stories would compound my anxiety. It didn’t. I felt reassured. I wasn’t alone. I was part of a community. And my struggles weren’t for nothing.
Now I could talk to women overwhelmed by caregiving and say with complete honesty, “I know what you’re going through.” I had become what I’d spent so many years looking for—a resource.
Gradually our home life improved. Caleb still had nightmares and mood swings—and so did I. But some evenings we made it through an entire dinner without talking about Iraq once. Especially if we were having lasagna, Caleb’s favorite, which Katie liked to help me make.
Caleb got a service dog, a German shepherd named Shilo, who’s trained to bark or put her paws on Caleb’s chest when she senses something about to trigger a PTSD episode. Shilo has been nothing short of a miracle. She’s Caleb’s, of course, but she often works “extra shifts” to help me too.
Caleb got involved with our local chapter of Rolling Thunder, the vets’ organization dedicated to raising awareness about POWs and MIAs. Recently we took a big family trip to the annual convention in Washington, D.C. It was exhausting, but we made it. And Caleb met a lot of other guys with stories like his.
The more stories he hears, and the more he shares his, the more self-assured he becomes. The love of my life has a long way to go. I’m not going to sugarcoat that. But things are definitely getting better. Family of a Vet is a registered nonprofit now. We raise money to help veterans and their caregivers get the services they need.
I even signed up for a VA program that pays caregivers of disabled vets for their work. It’s the first of its kind—and so far only open to caregivers of vets who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. But I hope it’s going to expand.
One evening, I was in the laundry room sorting clothes while simultaneously planning Katie’s lunch and Caleb’s meds for the next day. Suddenly Caleb came up behind me. For an instant I flinched—old reflexes. But all he did was take me in his arms and start dancing me around the cramped room.
I often think back to the night I got the idea for Family of a Vet. I know that that was no random idea. It was an answer to prayer. In meeting other families online, in helping them, my struggles have become a source of strength.
Caregiving is a battle. It can give you PTSD. But we don’t fight that battle alone. God gives us one another. And in that gift, he gives us himself.
Download your FREE ebook, A Prayer for Every Need, by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.