Monday, August 25, 2008

Story from Vietnam Veteran's Wife for the sake of the new PTSD wives

I get a lot of email. Some of them are simple and some are complicated. Some of them break my heart and others warm my heart. I suppose it comes with doing this as long as I have. A woman named Pat emailed me the other day and told me how much we had in common. She shared part of her life with me and in the process of wanting to help the other families going through all of this, she wrote the following. Pat wants all of you to know that you are not alone and don't have to suffer in silence or go through any of this alone. We've been where you are and know the pain all too well. We also know what it's like to have them still reach out to take our hand and know there is still love that lives on. This is Pat's story.

At the age of 32, I met a man who wasn’t intimidated by my independence or education. A man who made me laugh, introduced spontaneity into my life and who cherished me. He was a 30 year old Nam vet...and twice divorced. But we shared the same family values and dreams for the future. When he proposed, I told him that I was not going to be his third wife; I would be his LAST wife. I only intended to get married once.

He told me that he had a dark side. I had no idea what he meant. I was to find out within months of our marriage. He was driven at work. Always put in more than was required. Naively, I just assumed he had a strong work ethic. I didn’t realize he was trying to escape demons. He had warned me about nightmares; told me how to wake him so he wouldn’t inadvertently hurt me. As a GI Brat growing up in a family with a strong, military tradition, I didn’t think it that unusual since I had several uncles with the same problem.

3 months after we married, however, his behavior began to change noticeably. He began “self-medicating” with alcohol. And he began seeing things that weren’t there. Hearing people calling him for help. Sometimes hearing a child cry would make him jumpy. The smell of urine would bring flashbacks. He had to sit with his back to the walls in restaurants. Anxiety attacks in crowded places. Sudden noises, like party balloons popping or a car back-firing would make him jump or even “hit the deck”. He would be embarassed and apologetic, telling me it sounded like small arms fire.

I was to learn that he had entered a 6 month period of “anniversary dates”. Not pleasant anniversaries. Anniversaries of the Tet Offensive, of being left for dead under a pile of bodies, of being a VC POW (until he managed to escape), of ambushes, being overrun, of being shot down, wounded and crawling and hiding for 7 days until he reached a friendly LZ. All of them crashing down on him like an avalanche of horror.

One day he came home from work and instead of coming into the kitchen where I was washing baby bottles, he went downstairs to the basement. That was unusual but I didn’t think too much about it. Then suddenly I felt an overwhelming sense of panic. I dropped the baby bottle and ran down the stairs. He was standing under them, in the dark, with a pistol in his hand. He was exhausted and terrified of going to sleep because at least when he was awake, he could see what was happening around him as well as the “film” his mind was playing. But he couldn’t make himself blow his brains out because he didn’t want me to have to live with that image forever burned in my brain.

The term PTSD wasn’t known then, or at least not known by many. But I knew my husband was suffering from “Combat Fatigue”. He didn’t want to believe that. Hell, he was a Hillbilly. A rough, tough coal miner. A combat hardened Marine. A third generation Marine... But one who’d been on Valium (through a civilian doctor) since he finished his second tour of duty.

He ended up starting therapy before our first anniversary. The man I had fallen in love with was slowly disappearing, being overshadowed by an often cold, uncommunicative loner. Sometimes I felt like a Life Guard, hanging on to a drowning man, refusing to let him go under.

But I had an advantage that many of the younger wives of combat vets didn’t have. Growing up on military bases. A brother and friends who’d gone to Vietnam while I was in college. I was 33 years old. And I had enough psych courses under my belt that I was able to "deal" with the nightmares, hallucinations, rages, and suicidal ideations as well as monitor and administer the massive quantities of anti-psychotic medications the VA was doling out... (and to eventually question the efficacy of most). Even so, the pain of seeing him look at me, with total confusion in his eyes - knowing he doesn’t know who I am but thinks he should... the pain and sorrow was indescribable.

His cup of stress was full to the brim from memories alone. Anything at all, no matter how minor, was like that one extra drop that causes the cup to overflow. Every car “accident” - always single car accidents, one near fatal - happened immediately following his 6 months of anniversary dates, when he had reached the limits of his endurance.

At one point, we lived on the Texas coast. Driving to the Houston VA was a challenge. It’s a nice, straight highway but for long stretches, it has rice paddies on both sides. He drove hunched over the steering wheel , knuckles white. Eyes darting constantly left and right. Muttering about damn rice paddies. I knew what he was doing and finally told him “I’ll drive. You watch for Gooks.” After that, I always drove that stretch.

I found myself “interpreting” other people’s actions and comments to my husband so he wouldn’t deck someone who had merely glanced our way but whom he thought was challenging him. He was quick to anger and quick to fight. But he was mostly able to keep his promise not to get in fights after I told him I knew he could take care of himself but no matter how the other guy looked, it hurt me to see him with scraped and swollen knuckles.

It wasn’t easy. And it wasn’t fun. But the man I loved was still in there and I was determined to beat back the demons that were dragging him down. We lost some friends who just saw him as crazy or irrational or scary. I remember once asking “Who are we not friends with this week?” His head kind of jerked, he looked at me for a moment and then he laughed. It stopped another rampage over an imagined insult or slight.

He had no patience at all. If we decided to go somewhere, the girls and I had to be ready to go the second he was. I’d remind him that no one’s life was in jeopardy if we were slower than he wanted. The thing that did the trick, though, was the time I finally took the car keys from him, handed over our two small daughters and told him that this time, HE could get them ready to go. I’D sit in the car and honk the horn.

He started group therapy and we found friends who understood because they were going through the same thing with minor variations. Almost all had done the “geographical tour”, moving from job to job or state to state as they tried to escape what was inside them. Some had used alcohol, prescription drugs or even street drugs to escape the psychological pain. And, like so many of the guys, his previous marriages didn't last simply because he couldn't let himself care that much and did everything he could to protect his fragile emotions from being fully engaged. A lesson he learned too well from losses in combat.

For some reason, he trusted me enough to open up about a few things that happened in Nam - things that clawed and burned in his mind. Which was both a good and a bad thing for him. He knew he had a safety net but letting those painful memories out (those he hadn't completely blocked, anyway) ripped the scabs off some horrendous memories.

Our two daughters were old enough to know that their Daddy was different from most of their friends’ daddies. But our daughters maintain that the thing that helped them understand their dad the most was that I always explained his behavior to them in terms that were age appropriate. One thing I'm especially proud of was when a VA Therapist asked me how I'd managed to raise such normal kids. While they didn't always LIKE him or what he was doing, they always loved him and knew that he loved them in return, even when he would "go bush", miss out on important events in their lives, or self medicate to excess.

And yes... he went to counseling and group therapies. We went through marital counseling and family counseling as well after one particularly rough patch. All of which were extremely helpful only because he was able to get outside his comfort zone, accept the validity of our feelings and make the effort to change certain behaviors.

When his PTSD, appointments and hospitalizations began to interfere with his ability to support his family, we began the torturous process of applying for disability. And we had to do it all over again for Social Security. Writing to every doctor he’d ever seen, every hospital he’d ever been in and trying to locate witnesses who had made it home, up to ten years after the fact.

I had to help him with the VA claim statement. I remember sitting, after the girls were in bed, writing down what he said as he spilled his guts and his pain all over the dining room table. Crying inside because of the horrors he went through and yet not daring to show any emotion on my face because it would have made him stop talking - for fear of upsetting me, disgusting me, or making me think less of him. And then having to sort through the jumble and make complete, intelligible sentences out of it.

I am eternally grateful to the PVA (Paralyzed Veterans of America) service rep who took the 13” thick stack of documents covering 10 years and went to bat for my husband.

In spite of one VA doctor who attempted to keep me out, I sat in on every appointment with my husband after I realized that the doctor didn’t know half of what was going on. This was something I felt very strongly about. I had to play an active role in his treatment. No one knew him better than I did.

The doctor would ask “How have you been since I last saw you?” And my husband would reply “Fine.” Then I’d jump in and tell the doctor what I’d observed. He WASN’T “fine”. And the fact that he couldn’t recognize his actions as irrational proved my point! Reactions that can keep you alive in combat are not always appropriate Stateside. Asking some of these guys how they are is like trying to get a blind person to describe the color yellow.

And I remember the anger I would feel each time a new doctor was assigned to my husband. The dreaded First Three Questions: Have you ever seen anyone killed? Have you ever been in fear of your life? Have you ever killed anyone? Check his records! 3 Purple Hearts. Siver Star. Bronze Star. Presidential Unit Citation. Combat Air Crew Wings with 3 or 4 devices. You don’t get those sitting behind a desk!

We've had our share of difficulties and I've often been asked why or how I stuck it out with him. My answer was always very simple: He's a good, kind, and decent man with serious problems. I wouldn't leave him if he had Cancer; I won't leave him because he's got emotional or mental problems. With close friends, I laugh and say "Because I'm strong, stupid or stubborn. Haven't figured out which yet!"

After almost 30 years, we're still married. Our family is stronger and closer than ever. The grandchildren all love their Pa-Pa and he adores them. Both daughters have chosen careers in medical fields where they can help others and are totally comfortable dealing with what some of their co - workers call "crazy Nam vets". And they're quite vocal in the defense of these guys. I'm proud of them. But then, almost all of our best friends are men (and their families) that we met while they were in the “Nuts and Flakes” wards at various VA Hospitals.

And I'm proud of my Marine, a crew chief and door gunner on med-evac choppers who served two tours (during which he endured being shot down 13 times, left for dead 3 times and 58 days as a POW of the VC). Once, he apologized to me for "being so weak". I told him he was the strongest man I'd ever met and that I would never want to be with a man who saw and went through what he did... without it bothering him.

My husband is worth the effort it’s taken and the rewards are immeasurable. He’s not “well” by any means, and he may never be because serious help came too late. But we have a good marriage filled with humor, love, respect and trust that goes both ways. Even with the problems, that’s still more than many have.

I have hope for our new Walking Wounded. No one questions the reality of PTSD anymore. More help is out there. I just hope that those who need it are informed that it is available... without the stigma my generation had to fight and without the delays that make it less successful.

Pat Kemm Mann
Fruitland Mesa
Crawford, CO 81415

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