Military wives across the country are stripping down for their soldier husbands to draw attention to what they see as the rampant problem of post traumatic stress disorder. They say they want to create awareness of the anxiety syndrome and help soldiers and families get support.
Ashley Wise of Fort Campbell, Kentucky launched Battling Bare this April to provide a network of support for the soldiers she struggling with PTSD after military service. The project provides an environment for spouses, children and families to share stories and raise awareness of post traumatic battle stress.
"Nobody had an outlet to communicate," said Wise in an interview with ABC News. "Many, many women are very good at putting on this image of perfection when it was a war zone inside their homes. We need to make sure they're getting the help that they need."
Wise, 29, said that her husband, Robert Earl Wise, an E-6 Staff Sergeant who did three tours in Iraq, suffered a traumatic brain injury in an IED explosion in Iraq in 2004. Though he received a purple heart, she says that he never received a brain scan.
Prior to his service in Iraq, Staff Sgt. Wise, 38, had completed eight years with the Marines. While deployed to Somalia, he had been stabbed in the spine. Later, while stationed overseas on his second tour, Wise also saw six people die, and was eventually placed on death notification detail. His wife says that after years of combat duty, he began to withdraw.
"He has never gotten rid of the Marine Corps hard-ass mentality. His solution was to drink Crown Royal whisky and pass out," she said.
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Last October, as he and Ashley were beset with financial problems and a promotion that hadn't materialized, Wise decided to take all four of his guns and two cases of beer and check into a hotel room. Thinking quickly, Ashley tracked him down through online transaction records when he didn't show up for a meal, and soon spoke with her despondent husband in the hotel room.
"He said, 'Life is really hard right now.' He'd never said anything like that," she said.
Ashley decided that she needed to get him the help that he needed, and called his chain of command and got him to sober up. Soon he was on the road to recovery. But in March he took a turn for his the worse when Robert Bales, who was in the same company and with whom he did multiple missions during his first tour, allegedly murdered 16 Afghan civilians. Ashley recalls her husband having an immediate reaction as the news of Bales' alleged rampage ran on TV.
"He quickly logged onto Facebook, and Bobby's page was down," she said. "By the time I walked into the office he was white, in shock -- 'It's Bobby. He's a good dad. How could this have happened?'"
A few weeks later, when another friend ended his life, Wise took another sharp turn for the worse.
"He would sit up in the bedroom and stare at the wall. He was edgy. I found little bottles of coke, filled with whiskey in random places," Ashley said.
In April she and her husband went to Military & Family Life Consultants, and the Army Substance Abuse Program, but the couple felt that they were not addressing the source of the problem -- the post traumatic stress that was causing her husband's withdrawal and drinking.
At one point Staff Sgt. Wise's condition became so bad that while having a flashback he broke Ashley's nose. She said he tells her that he can still smell the body odor of someone he thought was an Iraqi soldier, but turned out to be his wife.
Ashley's frustration with how the Army dealt with PTSD peaked when he was charged with assault after she went to the Army's Family Advocacy Program for help.
"I was very p***ed off, so I started sharing with other wives," she said. "'This is ridiculous,' I'd say. April was the height of suicides at Fort Campbell. I felt like streaking the general's lawn, or the 101st Airborne Command building, but that would end my butt in jail."
She says she was talking to a fellow military wife on her porch when the idea suddenly hit her. She went into the garage, grabbed her husband's M4, and quickly wrote up her pledge to support her husband. She then gave her friend a diagram of how to write it up on her back. After snapping a photo, she immediately uploaded it to Facebook.
Within hours she was contacted by Military Minds, which helps soldiers suffering from PTSD, who suggested she increase her social media efforts and offered to promote her efforts. A week after Battling Bare became public, its Facebook page had 1,000 fans. Now, the page has over 35,000.
Today, Wise says that over 600 women have sent photos to Battling Bare. It is even getting submissions from kids writing about their fathers on their arms. The organization's website also provides a forum for military families to share their personal stories and find support.
"The online forums have blown my mind. To be able talk with other families, it's so freeing, because they don't feel creepy," she said. "I thought I was going crazy -- I was told I'm fighting a losing battle by my family. We know who our soldiers are on the inside. We don't want to leave. We don't want to give up on them."
The site has also been helpful for soldiers, helping them connect with civilian programs to get help that they need, and link them with people who can help them deal with their emotional wounds.
As Battling Bare grows, Wise says she plans to launch a fundraising calendar, eBooks, a global T-shirt contest. Wise also plans to promote the effort through smaller events in her community.
Her next project, she says, will be to help female soldiers who have been raped while performing military service. But for now, she's amazed at how Battling Bare has grown in only six months.
"It's been hugely successful and the people have really been sharing stories," she said. "They felt there was no place for them to go."