Wounded Warrior, Leonard, standing in Afghanistan mountains

It was 6:00 on a Saturday evening. The phone rang. My husband was on the other end. He excitedly said, “Honey I made sergeant!” Wow, I thought…such great news! He went on…”and my new unit is deploying to Afghanistan.” I felt my eyebrows rise on their own; I wondered what in the world did that mean?? After all, since our marriage in 2000, my husband had served only one weekend per month, with the Army National Guard. So, I had no idea what a deployment would even “feel like” in our house.

We spent the next few months learning what deployment might look like, and I gradually adjusted to the idea. We talked with family members who had had experience with deployments and talked with many of his comrades about what to expect. These conversations all helped me understand more about what might be in store. We also continued to enjoy our usual weekly date night, which usually included a movie or sports event, and kept up our regular activities until it was almost time for him to go.

But Leonard had started to become very distant and gradually grew even more distant as his departure date drew near. I couldn’t count on him to talk to me about things pertaining to our house, our marriage, or important family affairs. He just seemed to distance himself from almost everything. I had been warned that a soldier usually exhibits distant behavior right before deployment, which also would involve difficulty connecting emotionally. I felt such a sense of loss, and loneliness even before he left. He left for Afghanistan, and I started a life on my own as I tried to figure out what to expect at this stage of our lives. We stayed in touch through cell phone communications (both text and pictures) and SKYPE as often as possible, and our contact reassured me that all was well.

Afghan police vehicle

Fast forward, one year later. I receive a call from Joint Services Support (JSS) late one night that my husband and his unit will be arriving back into the states. Pre-integration, FRG, Yellow Ribbon… all support for family members to minimize anxiety of loved one’s return. In spite of this support, my head is spinning with excitement and anticipation at his arrival. I’m excited and nervous at the same time. I try to focus: minimal tasks to do before his return —replace scratched windshield of our truck, put finish shellacking the floors, get approval from job to be off a few extra days.

I arrive at Ft. Stewart, most (not all) tasks complete, but so ready to see Leonard and take him home! Excited to tell him about so many things that he had missed. I feel ready to meet him. One of my colleagues, a school counselor, had served in the military, and I would talk with her about what to expect. She had provided great articles about what happens after deployment and recommended books and resources to help with deployment issues. I had ordered books from Mil1Source that helped calm my nerves a bit about what to expect, and got a lot out of the booklet, “Coming Home,” about a veteran returning combat, and that helps returning service members and their families deal with all aspects of reunion and reintegration. MilitaryOneSource’s deployment library was also very helpful for me during this time.

My husband arrives with his unit at 2 am and comes out on the field where many other military families are waiting. We all disperse frantically on the field; I pick my husband out of the crowd. He looks good, and healthy. We embrace but, not with the passion I have been expecting— this is not the reunion I have imagined. My heart sinks. I’m slightly confused, suddenly unsettled. But, I am ok. My husband is home. When we get back to the hotel, he seems distant. But, that’s the only change I notice. All is well; I have my husband next to me.

But my joy was soon to change into more confusion, more uncertainty. The next day, Leonard had to report to his assignment for the day, what is called de-mob. This series of activities is what all returning soldiers undergo when they transition back with their unit into society. As Leonard was getting ready to go to this assignment, he repeatedly fell in the shower as he was trying to get dressed. My husband, committed to the Army and his pride, did not cry aloud for help. He reacted with frustration and concern. I was alarmed and reacted that way.

Leonard standing with Afghan

He arrived at the de-mob location with his unit. The military medical doctor immediately flagged him due to a back and neck injury sustained in combat in Afghanistan. He was then re-assigned to the Warrior Transition Unit to recover and undergo medical treatment. His medical treatments did begin the healing process for the physical injuries he sustained. What I didn’t know early on, however, was that he had also sustained serious psychological injuries from these grave incidents, in the form of traumatic brain injury. He also was experiencing PTSD. I would learn about these over time, as his behavior changed.

After Leonard returned from Afghanistan, things were different. Our lives were different. We no longer went on date nights. We could no longer talk about things. A short time after his return, I recognized that we had difficulties carrying on a conversation. I would start saying something, for example, and before I could finish a sentence, he would interrupt me excitedly and start talking about something else. So frustrating and totally NOT ok. He remained distant, even more distant than he had been on his initial arrival home.

I wasn’t sure how to talk about these and other changes I’d noticed; he would always speak to me in a loud and angry manner. I felt that if we could at least deal with these communications issues, the rest of the adjustment period would be relatively easy. Leonard agreed to attend counseling with me to help resolve these communication issues. I found a counselor at Ft. Stewart’s Soldier Family Assistance Center (SFAC) who began working with us on strategies to communicate as a couple. At that time, we didn’t have any other major issues, but we needed help adjusting to an entirely new way of life together.

Our lives suddenly involved making and attending numerous medical appointments for Leonard’s care: he still had major physical concerns that needed ongoing treatment. We also had to adjust to complying with Ft. Stewart’s Warrior Transition Unit (WTU) protocols and rules, which involved his being at formation twice a day. We traveled to the hospital and outside medical clinics for care nearly daily. Ft Stewart’s WTU managed his calendar. I attended all of these hospital appointments with him.

However, about six months after Leonard returned from Afghanistan, things changed again. First, was the obvious—since we returned home on orders, Ft. Stewart’s WTU no longer handled any of his appointments or schedules with doctors and hospitals—I did. I found myself increasingly busy with these and other activities because, due to his mental disabilities, Leonard could not complete these tasks.

The most significant, and increasingly obvious, change, though, was in his behavior. He began to show rage and would exhibit emotion many levels higher than anger. If I dropped something or closed the refrigerator door the wrong way, it would set him off. I had to start announcing myself when entering a room, or to wake him, or it would startle him to the point of acting out. I started to feel very scared about doing anything around him, scared that I might trigger him and set him off … kind of like I was walking on eggshells. Can anyone relate to that?

My husband was not the same. Soon, we couldn’t go out to events— I had to cancel too often, because he changed his mind seconds before we had to walk out of the house. I began to feel helpless, alone, and afraid. But, I think the straw that broke the camel’s back was when a famous international minister, who often went to the Middle East, came to our city and invited us to a meeting. Both Leonard and I really wanted to take advantage of this very special opportunity, and I had made multiple phone calls to confirm our attendance. Just as we were leaving for the event, Leonard became apprehensive about going. We had to cancel yet another event! This was enough. I felt hopeless because I could no longer make plans to do anything or go anywhere.

I had never received a call. I hadn’t received a knock on my door with news that he had been wounded.. My husband returned home injured physically, was assigned to a Warrior Transition Unit, and was expected to fully recover from those injuries. It was not until I took him home that PTSD began to rear its ugly head … in my home, in my bed, in my marriage … it was horrible!! My husband—the personable, funny, handsome, intelligent man that I had married had changed dramatically. Everything that I once knew was forever changed.

 

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