Yesterday, Mark and Matt did an interview for Fox 6 News (Milwaukee affiliate), along with Kelly Hetzel, who literally saved their dad’s life at the YMCA. Please see link below to view the video!
In the final installation of my PTSD Awareness Month series, I wrote about the book Wounded Warrior, Wounded Home by Marshele Carter Waddell (co-authored by Dr. Kelly Orr). I e-mailed Marshele, told her my and Mark’s story, and asked if I could interview her. I was thrilled when she said yes, and I hope that her words offer just as much help and comfort to you as they did for me. Thank you, Marshele, for sharing your heart!
When my U.S. Navy SEAL husband returned from Iraq with only a broken leg, I praised God that he was home safe and sound. In the months that followed his homecoming, I sensed that his leg was the least of our concerns. Although he was recovering physically, his soul still walked with a limp. His unseen wounds, caused by war zone experiences, went unmentioned, unnoticed and untreated. Slowly but surely, these invisible injuries infected our marriage, our children and our family life. He was home with us in body; but, in his spirit a war still raged. From irritability and irrationality to nightmares and emotional paralysis, it became very clear to me that my veteran husband was suffering from post-traumatic stress. For two years my husband denied any need for help and unintentionally led our family into a land of silent suffering.
For more than two decades, our marriage had survived everything that a special operations career could throw at us: frequent deployments, long separations for training and real world conflicts, serious injuries and surgeries as well as multiple overseas family moves. The stress of my husband’s job was nothing new for either of us. That may explain why my husband’s frustrations and underlying anxieties caused me no new concerns at first. It was “all systems normal” and “steady as she goes,” or so I thought. Hope for the Home Front: Winning the Emotional and Spiritual Battles of a Military Wife and its companion Bible study were penned before I knew anything about the beast that would raise its ugly head when Mark returned from the frontlines. Military Life 101 was cakewalk compared to the challenges that came home in Mark’s mental rucksack. Our “normal” defined our life and activity. We were living it; but, we didn’t understand it. Mysteries rarely make formal introductions, but move in uninvited and we live among them sightless for a time.
When was the turning point? Or are there several, continuous turning points?
Night and day, the invisible wounds continued to whisper. After several more combat deployments, my husband’s wounds were hemorrhaging and demanding to be seen, heard, tasted, touched and treated. Medical evaluations and government assessments diagnosed Mark with chronic and severe PTSD. A couple years later, neurologists, psychiatrists, and brain scans confirmed that Mark had incurred multiple and extensive traumatic brain injuries from his combat service. In some respects, it helped to know what we were dealing with as a couple and as a family. Finding the name for a cluster of disturbing symptoms, whether it’s a dry cough or deadly cancer, is always a relief of sorts to the one who suffers and for his closest family and friends. It gives us an initial fresh dose of hope that we can find a way to make things better. Yet, the bittersweet comfort of the diagnosis is short-lived because as an individual, as a couple and as a family, we were still faced with PTSD…the Pain of The Shattered Dream.
How does one honestly acknowledge the seriousness of the PTSD/TBI problem, yet not wallow in self-pity and despair?
Encountering self-pity and despair is going to happen. However, wallowing in it is only one option. I have had to learn to bracket these very normal emotions and to give them reasonable deadlines. We all need to feel what we are feeling. But we must make a choice how long we will stay stuck there. I have found that finding and connecting with others on similar journeys and continuing to learn as much as I can about the two conditions give me hope and strength one day at a time. Yet, when friends cannot be found and information rings hollow, my faith in God and His promises to us has been my trustworthy anchor through all of this.
What should a wife do if her husband with PTSD/TBI refuses to get help, or if he doesn’t think anything is wrong?
I encourage every woman I meet to seek professional counseling for herself whether her husband does or not. In most cases, it is the woman in the life of the veteran—wife, mother, sister, daughter—who seeks help first. Statistics have shown that nearly 80% of all veterans who seek help did so because a woman in their lives cared enough about herself and her veteran and her family to seek help and information and resources first and knew where to refer her veteran when he/she was ready for help.
At 41 years old, I walked into my first counseling session not sure what I would find, a bit embarrassed to have sunk so low that I needed mental health care, but desperate for any morsel of help.
I had dreaded the exhausting process of bringing a total stranger up to speed on my life. We were years deep into this mess. We had wandered so long inside this maze, I was convinced no one could ever find us. Yet, somehow I knew that if I didn’t allow the wounds to be reopened, irrigated, scraped and allowed to regenerate new life that the injuries would turn gangrenous and we’d be done.
What are the five stages of grief and why do spouses experience these when dealing with PTSD/TBI?
When a veteran suffers from posttraumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, every member of his/her immediate family experiences the effects and, in many cases, suffers what is known as secondary acute stress. This secondary traumatic stress resembles the universal and potentially complicated process of grief. Spouses, parents and children of warriors pass through phases of shock and confusion, hurt, anger, guilt, fatigue, fear, and finally, acceptance.
Even with faith, courage and the discernment to apply God’s promises to a very dark situation, the results of war can be emotionally scarred homes, major depression, addictive behavior, substance abuse, divorce or suicide. However, with the right guidance, professional counseling and resources, informed community and church support, these same individuals and families can find hope, healing and wholeness.
What are some simple ways a wife can encourage her husband on the road to healing?
First, be patient with him and with yourself. His road to healing and your road to healing are going to look somewhat different. Accept the fact that you are living in a very stressful situation. Just accept that. Then, realize that you cannot fix him or heal him. That’s not your role. Your priority has to be taking care of yourself in the process and learning as much as you can about PTSD and TBI and where the reliable resources are. This information not only gives you hope, but equips you to respond in challenging situations in healthier ways. Wounded Warrior, Wounded Home, the new book that I coauthored with Dr. Kelly Orr, is focused on how family members can and should take care of themselves on this journey.
What can we do, as wives of wounded warriors, to make sure we are healthy, too?
Confusion, relentless anger, false guilt, endless exhaustion, and disabling depression did not add up to the life I believed God intended for us as His children. My fears conflicted with my faith. And though smaller than the tiniest mustard seed, my faith began to speak to the mountain standing in our way. These are the five steps I took and still take to create an environment of healing for myself.
C – Connect with your Creator, your close friends, your community ministries, and your counselor.
L – Lean into the Lord as you learn all you can.
I – Intercede and get intercession.
N – Nourish your body, mind and spirit.
G – Give back; get involved.
I invite you to learn more about each step in this “recipe for resilience” in Wounded Warrior, Wounded Home, chapter 7.
If there is no “cure” for PTSD or TBI, what is our end goal? Is healing a life-long journey?
Most “experts” would tell you to accept your new normal. Allow me to share how I feel about that term. Here is an excerpt from a blog post I wrote recently:
Can we dump the term “New Normal?” Is there anyone else out there who dislikes that expression as much as I do? Can we just click and drag it to the trash bin right now?
The “new normal” is the convenient catch phrase that so many folks use to refer to the rearranged life you have to keep waking up to and wading through after something uninvited and painful decimates your dreams. It’s much more than the frustration of not being able to fit into your size 8 jeans anymore. It’s more than the the myriad of minor adjustments and recalibrations that the seasons of life demand of us. John Mellencamp nails it, “…life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone.” For some the uninvited guest who rudely rearranges your stuff is a serious illness or a divorce. For others it’s a hurricane, a flood or a fire. For others it’s a tragic accident. And for still others, it’s the aftermath of combat.
I’m here to tell you right now that there is nothing normal about life after trauma. Nothing. There is not one thread of “normal” in the tapestry you’ve worked your entire life to weave that now hangs in shredded ribbons and rags. There is not one glimmer of “normal” seen through the shattered lens you once used to view life, love, and faith.
I know, you’re right. I’ve written entire chapters in more than one book on the New Normal. I’ve stood at podiums across the country and preached the New Normal in my sincere attempt to encourage you to accept graciously what life has dealt you. But, honestly, I can’t live with the term anymore. Will you forgive me? Can we expunge this from our lingo? It doesn’t work. It doesn’t fit. It just doesn’t reflect the truth of what life is after trauma.
My question to you is this: can we reject the misnomer and continue to embrace faith, hope and love in a messy life redefined by what onlookers may call an unhappy ending to a story that started off so well? I say yes.
Here’s an idea: let’s give the New Normal a taste of its own medicine. Let’s give the New Normal a new normal. I suggest that we divorce ourselves from this wrong way of defining life after trauma and adopt a better term: Pressing On.
I can’t take credit for this better concept. The Apostle Paul coined it nearly two millennia ago when he wrote, “Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14 NASB)
Eugene Peterson nails it even better than Mellencamp in The Message: “I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.”
The next time you hear or read the term “New Normal,” I challenge you to replace it with “Pressing On,” and then to remind your heart of Paul’s words in Philippians 3:13-14. It rings true. It encourages me to keep waking up and to keep looking up. I’d much rather press on toward the good goals God has for me than to be sadly resigned to an unhappy ending.
Goodbye, New Normal. Not so nice knowin’ ya. Hello, Pressing On. Ah, isn’t that a better fit?
Earlier this year, Hope for the Home Front launched “Hope for the Heart” online community support groups. In just a few months, we’ve tripled the number of groups available! You can learn more by visiting our web site, www.hopeforthehomefront.com or our Facebook page, or by sending an email to email@example.com. These groups are private, closed communities and are a safe place for any woman connected to the life and service of a combat veteran of any U.S. conflict.
Ways to find out more about Marshele and her ministry:
Purchase Marshele’s books at http://www.hopeforthehomefront.com/store/
- Wounded Warrior, Wounded Home (co-authored with Dr. Kelly Orr)
- When War Comes Home: Christ-Centered Healing for Wives of Combat Veterans (co-authored with Chris and Rahnella Adsit)
- Hope for the Home Front
Today, Mark left for his second deployment to Afghanistan. It’s hard to believe. While the feelings are familiar, they are harder the second time – because you know EXACTLY how they are going to feel. You anticipate them, but then feel knocked down anyway. You blame yourself for feeling sad and emotional, because you did know what was coming. Couldn’t you have then prepared yourself properly? Couldn’t you have successfully guarded yourself against those “wimpy” emotions? What did I do wrong to feel this way…again?
I found myself tearing up easier this time, and I was tempted to not fight them as I’d done before. He was also more gruff than the first time. We had a smattering of lighthearted moments, but for the most part, things were serious.
After dropping off his bags on post and closing out his apartment, we went back on post to the brigade headquarters. Others were already there, and it was more fragmented than I had imagined. For the first deployment, there were only about 25 soldiers leaving, and we were all gathered in the same place. It felt more family-like. But this time, groups of families and friends just stood by their cars throughout the parking lot, and some even said goodbye right away.
I waited by my car while Mark got issued his weapon, which took about 30 minutes. I had the irrational fear that he wouldn’t be allowed back at the car, without having a goodbye, and I was so glad to see him walking back. He messed around with his weapon and we took a few pictures, but mostly we were distant. However, I was able to draw him close as I read Psalm 91 aloud, my right arm holding him to my side. It was a tender moment and important to me that we prayed “the soldier’s Psalm,” but it took ALL my strength to keep my voice steady.
He hung out at the car for about 20 minutes, and then he said he needed to go. It was still about half an hour before they were going to make all the families leave, and I felt a little upset that I was being told to go earlier. But I knew it would make things harder for both of us if I protested, so after he put on his backpack, I hugged him tightly. I said, “You be safe over there,” which he brushed off by saying, “I’ll be FINE.” We kissed, I hugged him again, we said “I love you,” and I tried to hang on for just a few more seconds…but he firmly pulled away and picked up his weapon.
“All right, gotta go,” he said sternly, and began walking away.
“Call when you can!” I said after him, my voice starting to wobble.
He looked back and raised his hand in acknowledgement as he marched on. Battling tears, I got in my car and happened to catch a couple more glimpses of him as I drove away.
And with that, he was gone. Our second deployment had begun.
How does your first deployment goodbye compare to your second, or third…or fourth? *Hugs* to all of you going through deployment right now, too. We are all in this together!
If you missed the first three installations of my PTSD Awareness series, you can find them here:
I thought up a new meaning for the PTSD acronym: when faced with this challenge, we need to ask for Patience, Trust, Strength, and Divine grace.
That was inspired by my favorite resource thus far: the book Wounded Warrior, Wounded Home by Marshele Carter Waddell. As I said last week, this is not a battle to fight alone, and I would not have a positive outlook right now if it weren’t for help I found outside myself. I read Wounded Warrior, Wounded Home during the last few weeks of Lent this year, and I began to find a spiritual meaning within the pain of PTSD. As I read, I highlighted paragraphs, made note of Biblical passages, and felt comforted when I read of other spouses who were seeing and feeling the same things as me.
If you have a loved one with PTSD, I highly recommend getting this book especially if you are coming at things from a Christian perspective. Below are some of my favorite passages:
“A warrior’s hurtful words and actions are not excused, but it helps to know that usually the soft targets are not to blame. Refusing to take your warrior’s anger personally is a key step…We can’t resolve the warrior’s issues, so that leaves one option for the here and now: identifying those things that we can affect or control and developing the inner resources to maintain a balance.” ~p. 68
“There are two types of PTSD sufferers: those who see PTSD as their new home, who have no intention of getting well or moving on, and those who are committed to passing through, who desire to get well and are teachable. The lie is that a vet and his/her family will never get out of this darkness, that his/her new, permanent address is in the valley of the shadow of PTSD. God tells us the opposite.” ~pp. 140-141
“Many Christian physicians, psychologists, social workers, and ministers believe that PTSD is not only a mental wound, but equally, or even more so, a spiritual wound as well. Trauma of any kind can cause a fissure in the soul of a man or woman.” ~p. 148
But one passage that resonated in my heart the most was this:
“Jesus knows a warrior’s heart and can make it whole again. He also recognizes the cry of the warrior’s family. Our Warrior, who was wounded for our ultimate protection and freedom, has promised to present us perfect, complete, and spot free to our heavenly Father one day.” ~p. 27
This put a whole new face on the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus for me. There were so many times that I had thought, I feel so alone with this. But I was failing to remember the One who understands it all, the One who has waged war on our behalf, and the One who can heal all wounds. What was also comforting to me was that He knows and completely understands The Warrior. I know my limitations. I know that I will never truly “get it.” I’ve read books like On Combat and On Killing, I’ve watched documentaries and movies about war, and I’ve listened to The Warrior’s stories….but those things can NEVER amount to actually experiencing the trauma.
“Passing Through Someplace Dark” is Mrs. Waddell’s new definition of the PTSD acronym; and as we do that we should pray for Patience, Trust, Strength, and Divine grace. No matter what stage of PTSD we are in, each new day is a chance to renew our strength and hope for healing.
No one enjoys talking about mental health issues. Even in the civilian world, there is a stigma – mental health is not treated the same as physical health. We don’t have a problem talking about breast cancer or diabetes; but when it comes to problems like depression or PTSD, we feel a bit more uncomfortable.
When you enter the military realm and face mental health problems, that stigma becomes even stronger. It wasn’t until recently that the movement to tear down the negative connotation (as related to PTSD) began. We still have a long way to go, but it is comforting that there are so many organizations and individuals offering hope for healing.
Hearing the stories of other military wives whose soldiers struggle with PTSD can also be extremely comforting. They remind me that this is not a battle to fight alone. They know what it’s like to be a “soft target.” They know what it’s like to schedule meals at restaurants outside the normal meal times, in order to avoid crowds. They have seen the outbursts of anger. They know the triggers. They know that even reaching out and touching their soldier’s hand could sometimes be met with rejection – and while that is difficult, they know why.
But the good news is that a diagnosis of PTSD is not a death sentence. The Warrior has said, “It’s not like I’m gonna sit around and feel all sorry for myself.” Soldiers with PTSD can live functional, healthy, productive lives, as this veteran describes at BrainLineMilitary.org. Life after combat is different, and I do NOT want to downplay the difficulties. But I believe one of the keys to effectively handling PTSD is being honest about it. It can’t be hidden or be treated as something taboo; otherwise, it will fester and become a thorn that could eventually tear down a relationship. When The Warrior told me that he was diagnosed with chronic PTSD, I felt a burden lifted from my shoulders. It’s not that I was happy about it, but it was validation that everything I had observed over the past year was not in my head or overblown. It was real, just as real as any physical war wound. The same goes for TBI.
If your soldier has returned from combat and things seem “off” for about a month or two, don’t be concerned yet. But it is right to become concerned if it’s been four to six months and the symptoms persist. PTSD could also be “delayed onset,” which means the symptoms show up six or more months after combat. Take notes on everything unusual you observe, even if the details seem minor. This could be of use later, to determine what is PTSD and what could be overlapping TBI. Finally, do not blame yourself. Resist the temptation to look inward and cower from the problems. Instead, look outside yourself, find helpful resources, delve deeper into your faith, and talk with your warrior if you can. If not, take baby steps towards that last goal. It can be slow-going, but the walk is worth it.
Resources of the Week:
On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace by LTC Dave Grossman
Hope for the Home Front – Facebook support group
Wounded Warrior, Wounded Home by Marshele Carter Waddell
“Help for My Life” video series on PTSD
“How War Changes the Mind of a Warrior” by Dr. Keith Ablow
June is PTSD Awareness Month, so during this month, all my Military Monday posts will focus on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I will preface this series by saying that in NO WAY am I an expert on this subject. I have no formal training in it – all I have done is read books and online articles, watched educational videos, and observed. So this is not meant to be an academic treatise on PTSD, but a way to bring awareness to it because many do not have an accurate understanding of what it is. It is something in which I am constantly educating myself, so these posts will be a learning experience for me as well. (Disclaimer: if there is anything I write that is inaccurate, please let me know!)
Needless to say, there is a stigma surrounding PTSD, especially in the military. Because it is classified as a “mental disorder,” many of our warriors are extremely hesitant to admit that they struggle with it. They are supposed to remain strong, right? They aren’t supposed to have something “wrong in the head,” right? However, PTSD is so much more than a mental problem. It is actually a physiological condition that stems from being exposed to a traumatic event. As Dr. Charles Hoge (a retired Colonel and M.D.) says in his book Once a Warrior, Always a Warrior: “Physiology is the science of how the body works, including how the brain and the rest of the nervous system functions…PTSD is a contradiction, a paradox – a collection of reactions that are both normal and abnormal depending on the situation…” (p. 2)
So what exactly is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Basically, it is a collection of symptoms stemming from experiencing a traumatic event. The American Psychiatric Association has “diagnostic criteria” with which to official diagnose PTSD. A complete overview can be found HERE, through the Veterans Affairs website, but in short there are six factors:
1) The stressor: A warrior must have experienced a traumatic event where he felt that his life or others’ lives were in danger, or there was actual death; and his response included feelings of helplessness, fear, or horror. In combat, this could be a myriad of things: being involved in a firefight, being in a vehicle that was blown up or was in a rollover accident, witnessing others dying, etc. It is also important to note that what might be traumatically scarring to one person might not be the same to another. It is different for everyone.
2) Intrusive recollection: The traumatic event will be relived or re-experienced in some fashion. For example, some warriors will have flashbacks of the event, as if they were actually there again. Others will have nightmares, and still others will become psychologically distressed by a “trigger” that reminds them (even unconsciously) of the traumatic event. A trigger could be a smell, sound, dates (like the anniversary of the event), words that are spoken, or situations (like being in a crowd).
3) Avoidance/numbness: The veteran will consistently avoid situations or stimuli that remind him of the trauma, and will also experience numbness of some fashion. The official diagnosis requires that at least 3 symptoms are exhibited, so for example: the warrior could feel detached from others, have numbed emotions (like being unable to feel loving or sympathetic), and make the effort to avoid conversation or recollection of the trauma.
4) Hyper-arousal: The warrior’s senses and reactions to stimuli will be extremely heightened and at least 2 of these symptoms must be present. So for example, he could have outbursts of anger and have trouble sleeping, or be hyper-vigilant and suddenly startled by seemingly minor things.
5) Duration: Symptoms from #2, 3, and 4 must persist for more than one month. It is normal upon returning from combat to experience disturbed sleep, hyper-vigilance, and angry outbursts. These things are what kept the warrior alive in the combat zone, and so they are completely normal to experience in that environment! But once they come home, reintegrate into civilian or garrison life and these symptoms continue for more than one month or so, it becomes abnormal.
6) Finally, these symptoms must cause marked distress or impairment. Oftentimes the wife or loved ones will be the first to notice that something is “off,” partly because they are the “soft targets.” They get blamed for problems, they get yelled at, they are the ones who have to endure the warrior’s hyper-vigilance and avoidance of normal situations such as family gatherings. The symptoms also may cause impairment on the job.
According to the Wounded Warrior Project, approximately 400,000 veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars suffer with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But how many of us realize this fact? It is one of the “invisible wounds of war,” along with Traumatic Brain Injury (which I wrote about here and here). It’s not something that we can see, yet invisible wounds are just as valid and hurtful as the wounds we can see.
While there is no “cure” for PTSD, it is possible for healing and progress to take place. Many veterans will struggle with PTSD in some degree for the rest of their lives, but they still have hope for a bright future and a full, fulfilling life! Next Monday we will explore this aspect and what kind of healing resources are available.
On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace by LTC Dave Grossman
Once a Warrior, Always a Warrior by Charles W. Hoge, MD, Colonel (Ret.)
www.ptsd.va.gov – the Veterans Affairs website on PTSD
“Greater love has no man than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Today is Memorial Day, the day we remember all fallen warriors of our military, from all wars and conflicts in United States history. While pop culture hi-jacks this holiday weekend for store sales, barbecue parties, and the “unofficial start of summer,” we need to set all that aside and focus on exactly why we have this vacation day. It is so much more than having a relaxing, fun time. The families of our fallen heroes know this the best, and the loved ones of current military servicemembers know that Memorial Day could become extremely personal in the future.
A group of bag pipers played Amazing Grace as part of the riderless horse tribute, which is one of the most moving things I’ve ever experienced. Hearing Amazing Grace on the bag pipes is emotional enough, but couple that with honoring our fallen heroes – I didn’t actually cry, but my throat hurt. However, we are wise to remember the words of the renowned General George Patton, which Master of Ceremonies Keith Self quoted:
“It is foolish and wrong the mourn the men who died. Rather, we should thank God that such men lived.”
It is natural to feel sadness when loved ones die, and it is always heartbreaking to lose one of our warriors. But instead of becoming stuck in our sadness, we need to celebrate the lives of our heroic military members. We need to be grateful that our country was blessed by their service, that they had the courage to give the ultimate sacrifice so that we and future generations might live in peace and liberty, in the greatest country the world has ever known.
God Bless our fallen heroes! To you we are eternally grateful.