Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Invisible Injuries of the Invisible Ranks


I never expected it to be so damn windy in Texas. I expected it to be still, dry and hot—something like Arizona, maybe. Of course, nothing is really what I expected it to be when I married Caynan.

I never expected to feel so lonely, so isolated, so out-of-place and out of sorts all the time, always in that in-between place of neither here nor there, neither this nor that. As an Army wife (excuse me, as six percent are male, Army “spouse”), you are no longer a civilian but you are not a soldier either.

I don't know what military life was like before 9/11, but I can tell you what it is like now: and it isn’t quirky and whacky and “just like civilian life but different.” There is a reason Sarah Smiley (a female Dave Barry) is a Navy wife and Jenny (the cartoon) is an airman’s wife: Army and Marine wives have less to laugh about.

In March 2008, the Associated Press reported that 72 percent of Iraq deaths were Army, 24 percent were Marine, two percent were Navy and one percent was Air Force. These percentages obviously reflect who is being deployed the most; i.e., who is being exposed to combat and who isn’t. However, there is not a huge difference in the overall size of each individual branch; e.g, the Army has a little more than 500,000 active duty soldiers, the Marines have nearly 195,000 troops, and the Navy and the Air Force each have approximately 330,000 service members each.

Consequently, there is a disproportionate burden for this “global war on terror” being placed upon the Army and the Marines. Not to mention the repeated 12 to 15 month long tours with no guaranteed dwell time for soldiers whereas rumor has it (as well as news reports) that Marines at least serve 6 to 7 month tours at a time.

Casualties of War

My ex-husband called me the other day and asked me what a "Blue Star wife" was. I explained that it was a wife whose husband was serving in combat.

Then I asked him if he knew what a Gold Star Wife was. Of course he didn't.

"That's a wife whose husband has died in combat."

"Wow," he replied, "that’s, uh, kind of sick, isn't it?"

I laughed. I knew what he meant. The "gold star" comes across as a quasi-cultural "WAY TO GO!" for the surviving family member (as the term technically applies to the entire family). And let us not forget the "silver star" for the family of a servicemember wounded in a war!

There is no star for a lifetime of sacrificing one's own career and/or educational aspirations to support a servicemember. In times of peace, as well as war, the military demands that family comes second to the military. ("Army needs come first!") The household moves are frequent (every two to three years). The inability of the servicemember-parent to participate in parenting brings tremendous challenges to working in an era where two-income households are the norm for maintaining a decent standard of living. The lack of family, friends, and community makes loneliness an expectation, not just a fear.

What color star should a spouse get for years of living like this?

These designations are all "unofficial" of course. Everything pertaining to the familial appendages known as the spouse and children of the servicemember is unofficial.

As for Army spouses (like myself), we exist in this in-between world. We are no longer civilians yet we are not "soldiers" either. We are expected to live the military life without being seen, heard, prepared, paid, or recognized for our service. We are called "the silent ranks" but really, we are invisible too. The "new" Army likes to say it "recruits the soldier but retains the family" but the reality of "if the Army wanted you to have a family it would have issued you one" remains.

We are outsiders living inside an institution that doesn't want to see or hear us. Civilians and law-makers lack interest in our experiences with the military as well as with the wars--yet our experiences with these are second only to those of the servicemember. There aren’t any star-studded galas for our service and sacrifice or public service announcements and national dialogues about how war affects us (and/or our children).

Veterans' rights advocates talk to the "signature" wounds of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Both are "invisible". Both are hard to diagnose. Both fundamentally alter the servicemember in ways that are complex and confusing--to the afflicted and the non-afflicted alike.

Also unseen, however, are the injuries of those who love the servicemember, whose own changes, traumas, afflictions frequently go unidentified and untreated as well. We call our returning warriors with invisible injuries the "walking wounded"; I include military spouses and children in that definition.

Consider the 19 year-old bride who witnessed her husband's suicide on webcam in Iraq. Or the (very young) children who watched their father wrestled their large family dog to the living room floor and break its neck followed by threats to do the same to them if provoked? Or loving one person for seven years, waiting for them for a year, and being abused by a stranger when he returns.

You don't have to wear a uniform to be wounded by these wars—but no one outside of those of us impacted seem to know this.

There are many things that I may not be able to tell you about actual combat, but this much I know is true: by the time this deployment is over, my husband will not be the only veteran in this marriage.

A Call to Arms

Nothing prepares you for war. There is no training center for the spouses. You are either going to make it or you won't.

My husband, Caynan, is a helicopter pilot for the Army. A few nights before he left we went over all the materials the families were given by the unit in preparation for their departure: the handy flip chart with emergency information about my husband's unit, how to get a Red Cross message to him in case of a family emergency here (as if they would let him leave the combat zone for it anyway), information about communication black outs, who will contact me if something happens to him, etc..

When I go inside the house, Caynan has gone up to bed already. He has been feeling sick and nauseas for the past few days. It must be that pre-deployment bug. It’s a nasty SOB.

We were supposed to watch a movie in bed together but he just wanted to go to sleep. I sit on the floor next to the bed and started rubbing his back. He didn’t even open his eyes. Much to my horror, and for the first time since we knew he was going to deploy, I started to weep (you know, that silent, expressionless weeping where tears roll down your face through no effort at all on your part).

Feeling like I needed to do something, say something, I told Caynan I loved him.

"Oh, that makes me feel better, hearing that," Caynan said softly.

I smiled quickly and kept rubbing his back. The tears continued. I swear to God, I could be blind-folded and if one thousand men were placed in front of me without their shirts, I could identify my husband just by feeling their bare backs: the skin, the angles, the slopes. So many years, I studied and loved his back, from the nape of his neck to the shoulder blades to the small of it just below his waist.

Caynan opened one eye, "Okay, please stop crying, you're going to make me feel bad."

I did--as quickly and wordlessly as I started.

You cannot be a military wife without knowing how to compartmentalize your emotions. Sometimes those feelings, or those tears, sneak up on you, but you learn how to reign them in. The faster you learn how to do it, the better off you are.

But other times, when you find you can’t feel anything at all, you wonder: where does compartmentalization end and disassociation begin?

A few days later, we spent the day in our ghetto pool (three by fifteen feet of “fun in the sun” courtesy of Super Wal-Mart) with Caynan. Caynan is holding me when I ask what he wants done with his remains if something happens to him… and since I went there, does he have a preference regarding particular personal items going to either boy? Caynan lets go of me as looks at me as if these are unreasonable questions.

“Why do you insist on talking about these things? You know how I feel about this.”

I do know. He doesn't like to have these conversations. But who does? Tired of being the villain I point out the reality of situation, "You're right, it won't matter to you by then, when you think about it," I say.

I am not meaning to be cruel, but factual. Without a word, Caynan gets out of the “pool” (I use this term loosely) to get another beer. This conversation is over in his mind. Easy for him: he won’t be the one stuck making these decisions if something happens when he deploys.

When Caynan returns he is determined to turn the day around. He tells me that we are supposed to get $1,000 a month extra for every month past twelve months that he is in Iraq.

"That's $3,000 we hadn't planned on getting, honey!" He says like we should be happy.

He follows this up with their expected date of return, exactly fifteen months from the date he leaves.

I burst out laughing.

I mean, really laughing. I can't remember the last time I laughed like this.
Caynan didn't know how to react, so he started chuckling uncertainly. "I know, right? How crazy is that?"

I am still laughing. I have my sunglasses on, so he can't see that I am also crying. The boys are shooting at each other with their water guns, blissfully ignorant of the very real wars that will soon change their lives in very real ways.

Caynan is confused and stops laughing, "Okay, it's not that funny."

"Yes, Caynan, it is. It is flipping hilarious."

They’re Not Waving, They’re Drowning

In June, the parade of terribles begins. News from the front: soldiers being electrocuted in the showers, self-inflicted gunshot wounds, 10 year-old suicide bombers, sexual assaults on female soldiers.

I am learning not to worry about that which I cannot control (i.e., the life or death of the father of my children), although much of your time will be spent listening and validating the feelings and experiences of others: your soldier-spouse, your warrior-children.

As for your own feelings, questions, and pain: who has time for those? Civilian friends don’t understand and your army spouse girlfriends run hot and cold; AWOL half the time, coping with their own dramas and lashing out at you as often as you, unfortunately, perhaps, lash out at them.

Some days I can’t decide which is worse, the breaking spirit of your soldier or the breaking hearts of your children. These are invisible injuries that no one has names for, no one tabulates, no one keeps track of… no one but the mother/spouse/father/sibling/family member who witnesses it and knows that some people will become stronger and some people will simply break.

For example, when a soldier deploys to combat, those of us at home eventually get "the call."

The call comes when his (or her) veneer of strength has cracked. When something really bad has happened; when he (or she) has witnessed (or done) something that he/she was not prepared for or expecting to be upset by; when the surreal becomes real and that reality comes crashing down upon them with crushing force.

Nothing prepares you for this call and you will usually hang up hurting and feeling totally useless.

Over the next few months, you will get emails, calls, and/or letters, referring to incidents giving you glimpses into a world where "humanity" has been turned on its head consistently and violently. Your soldier will ask a lot of rhetorical questions that will make your heart hurt. All the while your children will be asking a lot of real questions that will make your heart break. You live in fear that you will handle their struggles poorly and long-term emotional or psychological damage will occur and of course, it will be your fault. It is illogical, but it is your fear nonetheless.

Caynan's call came a few weeks after he left us and two days after he started flying real medevac missions in Iraq. Unfortunately for him, even when combat missions settled down for our troops as we were handing security for large areas of the country over to the Iraqis, our medevac helicopters still go in and pick up injured Iraqis as well as wounded Americans; i.e., there is little reprieve from the carnage.

The first soldier to die in Caynan's Blackhawk did so with his legs laying on his chest, having been completely blown off by an IED blast to the Bradley he was driving.

Caynan, in broken sentences, tries his best to tell about “the look, baby, the look when the spirit leaves the body, the body changes, the eyes are different, everything is different, you know before the machines know, he’s dead, he’s just dead.” But that wasn’t the worst of that mission. When they landed at the Baghdad CSH and unloaded this dead soldier, the aircraft’s rotor wash blew one of his disembodied legs off his chest. A crew chief had to chase the leg as it lulled across the dusty landing zone to return it to this 26 year old soldier who would never use it again.

“It’s so surreal. You’re watching this happening but it’s like a movie… It just doesn’t seem real. How is this happening? How am I sitting in this helicopter watching this dead man’s leg roll across the tarmac like this? It just doesn’t seem real baby. This can’t be real…”

Silently I listened. Silently I cried. Because it was real and we both knew it.

The next call came at 4 am. Caynan sounded like he might actually have been crying. In bits and pieces I got the story but mainly he repeated, “The screaming, my God, the screaming.”

Apparently two men were picked up. A U.S. soldier and an Iraqi interpreter were hit by an IED. While they made it to the CSH alive, there was an “ungodly amount” of blood. Caynan “never knew blood could smell like that.” But it wasn’t the blood that disturbed Caynan; it was the screaming. He said he couldn’t get the interpreters screaming out of his head.

“I’ve never heard anything like that before, Carissa. I can’t his screams out of my head.”

I had nothing to say. All I could do was remind him that he got them to the CSH alive. But getting them to the CSH alive doesn’t erase those screams and I know that. And I worry about him. I wonder how long those screams will haunt him.

Jennifer told me that Stephen called her once, just once, when he was in charge of viewing all the Apache videos when we lent air support to a ground attack this year, and all he could say to her, over and over, was “you’re my normal. You and the kids, you’re my normal. THIS, THIS IS NOT NORMAL.”

What Stephen was referring to was the tendency of our pilots to use hellfire missiles on apparently unarmed Iraqis and laughing about it. In case you are wondering, hellfire missiles are NOT supposed to be used on human targets, period.

Nonetheless, it is my youngest son, Connor, who leaves me feeling helpless and hurting most of the time. Three months into this tour a failed webcam attempt led to our first nightmare. I was woken up by Connor crying out, repetitively, "Mommy, I want Daddy. I want Daddy, Mommy. I want Daddy, Mommy, I want Daddy."

I did the only thing that I could do: I held him tight, rocked him back and forth, and told him (repeatedly) that I knew he missed his Daddy.

Two broken records painfully breaking the silence of night until Connor fell asleep in my arms, his tears still wet on his face and--having soaked through my shirt--my shoulder.

Imagine my surprise when two months later Connor sees a picture that Caynan sent us (from Iraq) of himself in the cockpit of the Blackhawk and asks me, “Is that your friend Mommy?”

“No, baby, that’s your Daddy in Iraq,” I responded—probably an octave higher than I should have. He didn’t seriously NOT recognize his own father? When did THIS happen?

I picked up the photo to talk to Connor about what Caynan is doing in Iraq (again) but Connor has walked away and started playing with Legos, clearly not interested. I have to find out where to get one of those “daddy” dolls made…

After getting Connor to bed, and letting Caleb watch a movie in my bedroom because of course I have no idea how to force him to go to sleep, I go outside to sit on the front steps to smoke a cigarette and ponder what Connor will be like when he sees his dad again. Add that to my list of mommy failures since I have had to start taking Caleb to therapy at Darnall Army Medical Center since apparently he wishes Connor was dead and has started drawing pictures of himself dying horrible deaths.

To my left I see the spouse whose drinks every night with her cigarettes and a beer. I wave. To my right lives the Mormon spouse who doesn’t drink or smoke but is addicted to Percocet, so she never leaves her house. No one to wave to there.

It’s ironic, now that I think about it, because the neighbor that lived there before her was a Sgt. Major who flaunted his alcoholism rather than acknowledge that he may be suffering from PTSD. Sgt. Maj. was old school army. He’s been in for 24 years.

He knew that I was advocate for the diagnosis and treatment of PTSD. On three occasions he told me that "PTSD is bullshit" because he wasn't suffering from it after two tours in Iraq. He thinks people blowing themselves up are funny. He thinks bloodshed is a part of war and apart of life.

Of course, he is also going through his second divorce and is a functional alcoholic. He admits to being an alcoholic freely and in the two months he lived next to me, I saw him try to stop drinking twice--he went three days both times and told me he had to drink because of the shaking and the irritability.

One evening, however, he sat down next to me—drink in hand—on the front steps of our shared townhouse while I was smoking a cigarette. I asked him if he drank this heavily before going to Iraq. He said no. Not like he does now.

"I probably have PTSD but you don't see me whining about it like all these little pussies nowadays."

Then again, he said, it wasn't Iraq that "f--ked him up" but what happened afterwards. His best friend was his battle buddy (the Army's solution for rise in suicides) and he called him one night and Sgt. Maj. missed the call. Sgt. Maj. found out the next morning that his battle body used his at home gym to strangle himself. Sgt. Maj. said he would never forgive himself for missing that call.

As with most things I am told, I knew my words would be meaningless. My heart ached for him and for every other broken soldier wandering around, blindly trying to cope with their pain. We sat there in silence.

Spring was bringing out the first of the bunnies from the fields across the street.

"You know what? I would really like to get a brick and smash that rabbit to a pulp right now."

I shook my head in disgust and stood up. The confessional was over.

"You know you need help, right?" I asked in front of my house door.

He laughed. I didn’t.

I threw my cigarette into the planter on my porch and said goodnight before going inside my house.

I locked my front door and went upstairs to check on my babies, promising myself they would never join the military—not even the Air Force.
A 2008 RAND study reports that at least 1 in 5 soldiers are returning from war with PTSD. When are they going to do a study on the spouses and children left behind in these wars? The ones who self-medicate or are prescribed anti-depressants (parent and child alike), who can never look at the world or the Army or themselves the same way again? What have we lost in service to this country?
We are only a third of the way through my husband’s deployment and I can already identify our wounded. Am I the only one paying attention?


Shannon said...

I can't tell you how much this sums up how I feel! I am so overwhelmed as a relatively new Army Spouse that I don't really know what to do. I work full-time and feel like I am responsible to handle everything as I never know when my husband will be home even though he is currently not deployed. We don't have kids yet even though we are considering it but I spend my days wondering how I will handle the added stress of a child as me not working is not an option for us at this time.

I wish more spouses would express this sentiment and really wish the Army would pay more attention. I feel so betrayed when I see the articles in the press about how they are helping the families and how they want to increase dwell time (wow that helps since every other week or month or so my husband is in some sort of training that lasts a week or month not to mention never knowing when he's coming home from work).

To make matters worse he was supposed to be getting out now but because of the economy he re-enlisted. We had to decided between the evil we knew and the evil we didn't!

I'm just really frustrated!

Military Spouses for Change said...

Thank you Shannon, for being brave enough to comment! There may not be many of us, but we are out there and we are not alone! The more we speak out, even if it is by commenting here, the more we can encourage others to speak up!

I hope you are a member of Military Spouses of America. ( Membership is free! Stay connected...

The author of this is stationed in Fort Hood.




ATC DAVID said...

I spoke to someone recently and he told me this.. A soldier is someone that you give him a weapon and he goes and kills and comes back. A warrior is someone that studies the art of war (think the discipline of a Samurai) that they study for many years to perfect their skills. They continue to be warriors till they die.
As an American Soldier were sent over there to do a job. Plain and simple we destroy the enemy target. How we deal with the repercussions of our action or orders it is up to us to do so. We have also hear that we need to do more to prepare our young men and women that head into the combat zones, that have no clue as to how to deal with these problems by providing training. I believe that that is a good beginning to a rough start in the fight for PTSD and mental health care.
But have we forgotten about the true warriors. The spouses that stay at home doing all of the real work? Who is training them? In a cruel and unusual way, this is a bad way to get on the job training dont you think? Specially to those young wives that have never experienced the stress,the loneliness,the questions that kids may ask and having to deal with the real issues at home.
I had a wife tell me recently, give me a uniform and a gun ill go and shoot someone and he can come over here and deal with this stuff. She was referring to everything that you mentioned on your blog.
I have put my wife through hell and back and back to hell again most recently. I do suffer from PTSD and she puts up with it. She deals with it as best as she can. She has told me till death do us part. Now that means a lot to me, because at times I want to give up. If it wasn't for my wife I dont know where I would be at.

Susie said...

Thank you, dear, for verbalizing. Most nights I end up in a exahusted heap, too tired to type. Now my energy is devoted to typing up IG complaints and legal agruments. (If you let the PTSD and alcoholism set in long enough, the "misconduct" issues appear and the Army will jump on that discharge paperwork in a heartbeat!) We spent almost 5 years at Ft. Hood (my husband is Aviation also), and by the sound of your neighbors, we might have been neighbors ourselves. I think there is an unwritten code, at some posts more than others, that if your battle buddy admits he's going through some shit, then you just might have to admit that you went through the same shit, so it all gets swept under the rug and we all say "cheers" and go about our happy day...
God bless you for posting. My prayers are with you and your family.

"Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass. It's about learning to dance in the rain."