Veterans Day: Military Spouses Share Their Pain

Amid long wars, troops aren't the only ones pushed to the brink.

ByKRISTINA WONG (@kristina_wong)
November 11, 2011, 4:13 AM

Nov. 11, 2011— -- Less than a year ago, Army wife Kat Honaker opened her bedroom door and found her husband inside with a gun in his mouth.

Minutes earlier, he had rampaged through the house in Bristol, Tenn., picking up chairs and smashing them on the kitchen counter top, turning the family's oak dining table and chairs into thousands of splinters. When she told her trembling children to run and call 9-1-1, he grabbed all the phones and destroyed them, too. He was furious that she had put a trash bag outside the front door instead of trudging through snow to the garbage can.

She coaxed him into putting the gun down, unloaded it, and gave it to her oldest son to hide outside. After he went through all the liquor in the house -- five beers, two pints of Jack Daniels and a bottle of moonshine -- they convinced him to get into the truck.

On the way to the hospital about an hour away, Honaker's husband started ranting about improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and how the route hadn't been cleared and that they were going the wrong way. He started screaming about the tractor trailer in front of them, and how it was a bomb and they were going to get blown up.

Her oldest son, 13 at the time, took charge. Recognizing that his father thought he was in Iraq, he started giving orders.

"Sergeant, you need to get in the truck and drive. Stand down soldier ... stand down. We will be getting ourselves back to the FOB to get some rest," he barked at his father, who kept saying, "I have blood all over me, it's all over me."

"Soldier, we will get you cleaned up ... we have to move. That's an order," the son said, not missing a beat.

He would later tell his mom he learned it from playing "Modern Warfare" with dad.

With her husband safely in the ER, Honaker sobbed in the waiting room. A young Middle Eastern physician abruptly approached her and asked if her husband had ever hurt anyone of Middle Eastern descent. He explained that her husband had just threatened to attack him, and asked her if she was her husband's caregiver. Yes, she replied.

"Well, obviously you didn't do a good enough job, now did you?" he said.

It was a slap in the face.

For Honaker, it has been a four-year long struggle since her husband came home from Iraq in 2007. During his deployment, she said, he suffered an IED attack, and was bleeding from the nose and ears. He was one of two Army medics, she said, and the squad couldn't afford to lose him. Instead of being airlifted out, as he should have been, she said, he was given ibuprofen and sent on a 72-hour mission.

He would later be diagnosed with acute and chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI), she said, both signature wounds of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. But because the Army lost the records showing her husband's entire career in the military, Honaker said, he has been ineligible for awards, including his Army combat medic badge, which is the holy grail of a combat medic.

And since his injury in Iraq was inaccurately characterized as a "motor vehicle accident," she said, he is ineligible for a Purple Heart award. He suffered from severe headaches, loud ringing in his ears and dizziness. He has been prescribed the maximum dosage of an anti-anxiety medication for three years, she said.

Although her husband has been determined to be incapacitated, unable to work, and in need of assisted daily living, she said, receiving disability benefits has been an uphill struggle. He tried to kill himself in January, she said, almost becoming one of the 18 veterans who kill themselves every day, which the Department of Veterans Affairs calls a conservative estimate.

Ten long years of war and multiple deployments have taken their toll on service members, exhibited by the rising suicide rates in the past decade.

But it is not just members of the military who're being pushed to the breaking point: Their families are, too.

Because suicide or suicide attempts among spouses are not tracked by the military, the extent to which military spouses and families suffer is often anecdotal. Kristy Kaufmann is a 10-year Army wife and military family advocate who has personally known three wives who took their own lives.

"A battalion commander's wife. A drill sergeant's wife. A sergeant's wife. It doesn't matter what the rank is," the Virginian said at a briefing for the Congressional Military Family Caucus in February 2010. "They all had the same things in common, and they were good Army wives. They were strong and they never complained. But somewhere they broke.

"Everybody hits a wall sometime," said Kaufmann, who has been fighting to get funding for overstretched military family readiness groups, an argument she has been making publicly since 2009.

The groups are run by wives and supported by fundraising, and often with money from members of the military unit the groups are meant to support.

Another Army wife, asking for anonymity, knows of another three military wives who threatened or attempted suicide. She said that infidelity is a major reason for soldier and spouse suicides.

"It's an epidemic within the military, every rank, every level, it's a huge problem," she said.

But she said military policy prevents spouses or service members from discussing infidelity because cheating is against Army regulations. Punishment is not enforced enough to be a deterrent, however.

She said she expects domestic abuse, child abuse, divorce and suicide rates to increase when troops return home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"A lot of us in the advocacy community are terrified of the next phase because in some ways it's easy to maintain a relationship from afar," she said. "So you've had couples who've been apart for the most of their marriage and they're about to be together."

Her experience in seeking help has not been positive. She said she called a military treatment facility, where, she said, the person who picked up the phone was obviously not trained as a health care provider, and that she started asking her "prove it questions" before transferring her to an advice nurse, where she was placed on hold for 45 minutes, only to tell the nurse her story all over again, before being transferred to a primary care provider.

"What if I was really bad off and didn't have the emotional stamina to stay on the phone for 40 minutes?" she said.

Two years ago, she said, a friend had tried to kill herself. She and another friend spent five hours determining where to take her. She said every place they called kept trying to direct her somewhere else. They finally ended up taking her to the ER, but through a friend of a friend, found her a private area she could wait so their military community wouldn't find out.

"The scary thing for us in the advocacy world is that it's happening the same time as the budget's getting cut. We never had enough programs, and now it'll be first on the chopping block," she said.

Jack Tilley, retired sergeant major and former senior enlisted member of the Army, said there are numerous places for families to turn.

"There's a family support group on every military installation," he said. "And a lot of time, wives don't get involved with that, so that's the first place I think they go."

The 75 percent of military families who live off-post in their communities have fewer options but, Tilley said, "I'd probably say if you go to church, talk to your chaplain, talk to people like that, that can help and assist you."

As for PTSD-related problems, he said, "I think I'd go to the medical facility, the doctor, the hospital and talk to them, and I'd also inform my chain of command and see exactly what they could do to help them.

"A lot of people get frustrated because they don't know, they don't know exactly who to talk to, but I'd start with the chain of command, and I'd certainly get involved with those family support groups on any installation."

However, it isn't the lack of programs that prevents some wives from finding help. It can also be the stigma against seeking mental health care.

Melissa Seligman's husband deployed three times, twice leaving her behind with newborns.

"During the second deployment, I did voice those fears that I wasn't going to make it," the South Carolinian said. "I thought I'd be fine ... It was devastating to realize that I was not fine. I knew exactly what to expect. I said, 'This time I'm not going to fall as deeply,' and I fell twice as deep."

But on the surface, Seligman had to pretend everything was fine because of the stigma against appearing weak.

"You don't want to disappoint anyone ... you are going to be the best army wife ever. It becomes this persona ... 'Everything's fine.' You don't want the last thing he hears is for you to be incredibly honest about how down you are.

"There is a fear that if you put out your deepest, darkest [secrets], that you're going to be chided in some way, shape or form," she said.

This is, in part, why she co-founded the blog, "Her War. Her Voice," where military spouses could talk about issues openly and candidly.

"I wanted to give them a place to come that was safe and free of judgment," she said. "What helps is that you be honest and have other people respond."

Brittany Williams, 30, another military spouse, says the stigma for military spouses' seeking help was so great that during her husband's first deployment, rather than seek counseling on post, she went to an off-post provider. The North Carolinian said her husband's company was so small, and such a close-knit group, that rumors could easily get around.

"The wife is supposed to be the strong one, they're supposed to keep things together, keep the house together, the kids together. If you show even a crack of weakness, people will hold that against you."

Also, there was great fear that if a spouse sought help from a program offered by or attached to the military, it would not be kept confidential, and it was possible it would be shared with their military spouse or somehow reflect badly on him.

"The way that your spouse acts is a reflection of the soldier. The perception is if they can't keep things in control at home, how will they do it at work? If they can't keep their personal lives separate from their work lives, then [the fear is] it definitely reflects poorly on them," she said

Sgt. Maj. Tilley doesn't buy the notion of a stigma, pointing to his rise in the ranks despite his son's illness. "I think that's a myth," he said. "My son had pneumococcal meningitis, left him totally blind, totally deaf, 20 to 30 convulsions a day. Had encephalitis, just a series of things, and I always thought that that would stop me from being in the military. He's now OK, he's doing really good right now.

"But I always thought that would stop me from being promoted in the military. Well I got to be the sergeant major of the Army. So coming forward and telling people what your issues are is something that people want to know and they want to help you, so don't be afraid and don't think it's going to affect you, because it's not."

Williams has personally overcome this perceived stigma, and says that spouses should seek help from a program such as Military OneSource, a free, 24-hour service provided by the Defense Department to service members and their families to help with everything from money management to relationships, stress, and grief.

"There should be no shame in asking for help. I have had my fair share of counseling sessions, anti-depressants and panic attacks before my husband has deployed or left from [rest and relaxation]. Whatever I can do, I am here, and no anonymity needed on my end. I'm OK putting my face to this if it helps someone else," Williams said.

But for Kat Honaker, the wife of a non-active Army reservist who lives far from a military post, the same resources aren't available to her, she says, and that Military OneSource can't help her.

"Whenever someone says Military OneSource, I say, 'Military what source?' It's not a bad program, it's not that it doesn't help anybody. It doesn't help with PTSD or TBI, because it doesn't help with medical conditions." In addition, she said, it would point her to resources that were just too far away geographically.

Like Seligman, Honaker has taken to keeping a blog, which, she says, the VA has asked her to stop doing.

"Writing is feasible for us,"she said. "It's free, it's cheap, you don't have to find a babysitter for the kids."

Honaker said her blog has gotten 5.9 million hits so far.

"I can write it out, publish, post and let it go, and I don't dwell on it anymore," she said.

She believes she has been able to receive the disability benefits she has because her blog has landed on the desk of so many people.

But as she fights for her husband's awards, citations and benefits, she acknowledges that she might never get her old husband back.

"He called me from Iraq and said, 'I don't want to come home. I want to die here.' I knew something was seriously wrong. He started sounding hollow," she said.

When she picked up her husband post-deployment, she said, he looked like her husband, but was a different person.

"His hair was solid white, he was 31 years old at the time," she said. It's a complete 360 of what my husband used to be. He yells and screams, he lies. He's just the complete opposite."

Honaker says she and her three children have to learn how to love somebody different than who they knew.

She knows her husband has gone through a lot in Iraq. He was stationed in Ramadi from 2006 to 2007 as part of a unit of combat engineers, building bridges for Marines. She would find out that he saved a friend who was shot in the face with an armor-piercing bullet. But he also lost a 19-year-old boy, he said. He would tell her, 'Mine was the last face he ever saw again.'"

She says he had to wash the boy's blood from a truck, and has nightmares about washing blood from his hands.

"He tells me bits and pieces. I gather much of it from his nightmares," she said.

Their home now has child-proof locks on the door, and a service animal that will wake him up and wake her up. She said her youngest son is afraid of his father, and has nightmares. Her middle son says he doesn't fit in with the other kids whose worst complaints are being grounded by their parents.

"Every three to four weeks, I see my old husband," she said. "You're so excited. It's like a rose. You're in awe of the beauty, but then you see it shrivel up and die. I keep thinking if I work hard enough, it'll be once every week. And then once every day. I can't let my husband become another stat on a VA suicide sheet."

Honaker is hoping that if he receives his awards and combat medic badge, it would give her husband some closure, but that is hard since his records have been lost.

"He went over there and he gave them his all, and he didn't get anything back. I don't know if getting all his stuff would help him find closure but I hope it would," she said. "He doesn't want anything more than he didn't earn.

"What about the ones that don't have spouses to stand up for them? We are their only advocates. Then we wonder why there are 18 suicides a day."

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