"I was on the floor, curled up in a ball in the bathroom...my four-week-old son was crying in his crib, waiting for me to go feed him, and I couldn't...I couldn't get up."
That was my wife, standing onstage before 500 members of our community, describing her darkest, yet most redemptive, moment as a military spouse and mother of two small children.
On the wooden floor of our bathroom, feeling abandoned by her suffering husband, her “Marine hero,” a man who had the night before checked himself into the mental ward at the VA hospital for life-threatening post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), my wife was paralyzed by fear and anxiety. A tough, energetic, and disciplined woman—Kristen had earned a PhD in educational psychology at the University of Virginia—she was now reduced to frayed nerves, confused and upset that she couldn't just pull herself out of her misery.
Though she didn’t know it at the time, Kristen was suffering from both postpartum depression and “secondary PTSD,” an oft-overlooked condition afflicting thousands of military spouses (and children) whose loved ones are themselves battling PTSD. Many of the symptoms of secondary PTSD rhyme with those of PTSD: social withdrawal; hypervigilance; jumpiness; anger; depression; and—in my case, though not hers—substance abuse.
You see, the person who checked himself into the VA hospital, a man with so much apparent promise and potential, heralded as a hero by friends who were impressed by his decision to join the Marines following 9/11, was just an ordinary man trying to cope with extraordinary circumstances.
Haunted by battlefield decisions I had made during two combat tours to Iraq, and pushed to the edge of sanity by severe chronic pain and an addiction to prescription painkillers, I had become a burden to my family, and I hated myself for it. As my physical and emotional suffering reached unbearable depths that night—four and a half years after I returned from my final tour to Iraq—I was desperate for it all to end. So my choice was clear: I could immediately check myself into the hospital and embark on the most arduous journey of my life, or I could simply give up and end it all. I could fight, or I could terminate the pain.
A seductive logic presented itself: Wouldn’t killing myself also release my family from the burden of my suffering?
Thankfully, I rejected that logic. I decided that my suicide would have been an even bigger burden for my family to bear than my day-at-a-time recovery. So I checked myself into the hospital.
That night in the hospital, and for years thereafter, the VA took care of me and shepherded me through my worst days. They helped save my life. My employer got behind me as well, standing in my corner and providing me the support, resources, and time off that I needed to recover. Most important of all, I felt the love and steady support of my wife as I struggled to feel well again.
Kristen’s own suffering, by contrast, was a solitary experience. Since I was the one who had gone into harm’s way, I received all the accolades, thanks, and medical attention when I came home. Kristen, like most military spouses, didn’t receive that kind of communal embrace. The war, and the depression that I “infected” her with after I came home, was every bit as real for her as it was for me, only she didn’t even know she was a “carrier” and didn’t have the same avenues available for support that were available to me. Secondary PTSD wasn’t something she’d ever heard of, much less contemplated experiencing herself, so she didn’t know where to turn for help.
She was another casualty of the war, inflicted thousands of miles from the battlefield.
I got to wear the medals of recognition upon my chest, and all she got was the thankless job of caring for a disabled veteran—an inequity that must be fixed. This Veteran’s Day, while the country honors the bravery and selflessness of our proud warriors who fight for our country, I will celebrate the service and sacrifice of my wife and of all military spouses, people every bit as deserving of public recognition for their service to our country as we vets.
The next time you see a soldier or a Marine in uniform with their family in tow, remember that the spouse and their children may have suffered every bit as much, if not more, than the service member that deployed into harm's way. A genuine "Thank you for your sacrifice" is a nice gesture that can go a long way toward making a military spouse feel valued and understood.
On that terrible day three years ago, my wife curled up alone on the bathroom floor while I was surrounded by a team of medical personnel in an emergency room, both of us were devoid of hope and in need of a miracle. I learned about God's—and my family’s—love and forgiveness and began to slowly pull myself back together again. My wife picked herself off that floor to care for our young daughter and newborn son, learning about and affirming the depths of her perseverance. Together we learned how to honestly face the burdens we both shouldered from the war.
We are much happier now, years removed from the suffering and turmoil. Kristen and I are grateful for the tribulations that forged our strength, individually and collectively – we are living proof that it’s always darkest before the dawn. And this Veteran’s Day, especially, I am grateful for men and women like my wife—the spouses who are the invisible veterans of our nation’s wars.