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When I first considered writing this, I thought that it would be simple because it applies to my life and is a very important topic. I’ve talked about it many times in a variety of settings in an effort to raise awareness and advocate for more resources. However, when it came time to actually put words to paper, I hesitated because there is something so final about writing this and sharing it with the world. But I know that if I am feeling this way, there are probably many other military wives and mothers out there that are feeling the same way and are just looking for an opportunity to share with someone who understands.
When I think about all of the hats that we as military spouses wear, I have always felt that the role of military parent has been the hardest since our kids will have to face unique challenges created by the military lifestyle. The good news is that we are not alone in this parenting thing. Over half of military members are married and one third are married with at least one child (Military OneSource, 2014). Despite these statistics, there have been many times that I have felt isolated when it came to figuring out how to support my military children. This is a feeling that is undoubtedly exacerbated by the fact that we were a Reserve family, living isolated within a community of civilians. My husband served 12 years as a military police officer in the Army Reserves, deploying 3 times (twice to Iraq and once to Kuwait) before deciding to separate in 2015.
During his service, many things came up that caused me to question my skills as a parent to support my children through these challenges: a deployment, a death, transition, etc.
When their dad deployed in 2013, they were 6 and 8, which made them old enough to understand some things, while not understanding others. For example, the 6 year old wasn’t able to understand why his Christmas present wasn’t going to be his father jumping out of a huge box like he had seen so many times on TV and YouTube. But they were able to understand that when they went to school their dad wasn’t going to be there for any of their school events, any of their football games that season or any of the holidays that they would celebrate that year. They also understood that none of their peers had to give up their fathers for a year of their life, as there were no other children from my husband’s unit that were also experiencing a deployment in their school. It broke my heart knowing that they had no friends who could really understand. Obviously, the deployment wasn’t the only time that dad had to be away for things. There were also drill weekends, trainings and schools that took him away for extended periods of time.
Along the way, my husband unexpectedly lost his battle buddy and best friend. That meant that our boys lost their “uncle.” This was extremely hard because of how profoundly it affected my husband, rendering him unable to talk to the boys about it. I didn’t really know the right words to say or how much information to give surrounding the event. But I know that if I could see how it changed my husband, they could sense it, too. I’m still not sure we offered enough support/information 3 years later.
Then came the 2 straight years of transition. My husband returned from his tour in 2014. We had to go through the reintegration process, which we all know can be a bear. While I was struggling very much with the process because of the transition that had occurred in my own life during the months that he was gone, I also had to think about creating a stable environment for the kids and supporting them through their transition. However, this added an extra layer, making me feel pulled in many directions. My husband had needs, the kids had needs and my full time job had needs. There was clearly no time for my own needs. I hope most of us can relate to that feeling, and know that it doesn’t change the fact that I loved being a military spouse and parent. It just created some really tough moments.
Next was his separation from service about 9 months after he returned home. This is when I faced my largest challenge as a military/veteran spouse and mom: PTSD. It is not uncommon for service members and veterans to experience either an onset of or spike in symptoms during major transitions. A recent study found that on average it took 7.5 years post deployment for a service member or veteran to engage in minimally adequate mental health treatment, even after being previously diagnosed with a behavioral health condition (Maguen et al., 2012). Other studies have found a lag between adverse outcomes and separation from the military, such as increased risk for suicide or family instability (Reger, Smolenski & Skopp, 2015; Clever & Segal, 2013). Ending a 12 year career in the military was a huge transition for my husband and it certainly showed in the form of PTSD.
I don’t even know where to begin with describing this time, other than it felt like I was constantly treading water just trying to navigate from day to day. I was exhausted both physically and mentally all the time. I was scared for my husband because he didn’t seem to want to get better and I was also determined to not let it affect the boys. I know now that I can’t totally insulate the boys from the PTSD, as it is a part of our life and always will be in one form or another. It will ebb and flow. I need to give my boys the knowledge to understand what PTSD is and how it affects their dad, as well as the skills to function through the PTSD, just as my husband and I are learning the skills (see Zero to Three below). I would love to see this become a space where we can talk through PTSD and how it affects our families, support each other and provide guidance for traversing this road that we are on.
Invisible or visible injuries from war have an effect on the entire family. In 2014, RAND commissioned the largest study of military caregivers ever conducted. They defined military caregivers as a parent, spouse or friend caring for an injured or disabled veteran. They identified approximately 5.5 million military caregivers nationwide, with approximately 20% caring for a post-9/11 veteran. These 1.1 million caregiver are more likely to have little to no formal support network, be employed outside the home and care for a veteran with a behavioral health problem. They are also likely to be younger than other caregivers, increasing the likelihood that they are also caring for children. In fact, 39% of post-9/11 caregivers have child under the age of 18 that lives with them (Ramchand, Tanielian, Fisher et al., 2014). So on those really hard days where you wonder how you can do it all, remember that you are not alone.
It is important to recognize that the emotions and fears that we face as a result of military service and PTSD are normal. I know that my family is not unique when it comes to military families, but is instead incredibly common. One thing we can do for ourselves is to talk to other spouses/moms who actually get it. I recognize that as military or veteran spouses/mothers we push ourselves to be strong and handle things on our own, but I think this online community offers us a unique opportunity to come together. We can lend support and learn from each other. By sharing our stories, we can confirm that we are not alone and there is nothing wrong with sharing our struggles. I’m excited to watch this community grow and I am honored to be a part of it.
Zero to Three: https://www.zerotothree.org/early-learning/military-and-veteran-families-support
Sesame Street Veterans Toolkit: http://www.sesamestreet.org/toolkits/veterans
Our Military Kids: http://ourmilitarykids.org/
Military OneSource: http://www.militaryonesource.mil/
Clever, M., & Segal, D. R. (2013). The demographics of military children and families. The Future of Children, 23(2), 13-39.
Maguen, S., Madden, E., Cohen, B. E., Bertenthal, D., & Seal, K. H. (2012). Time to treatment among veterans of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan with psychiatric diagnoses. Psychiatric Services.
Military One Source. 2014 Demographics: Profile of the military community
Ramchand, Rajeev, Terri Tanielian, Michael P. Fisher, Christine Anne Vaughan, Thomas E. Trail, Caroline Batka, Phoenix Voorhies, Michael Robbins, Eric Robinson and Bonnie Ghosh-Dastidar. (2014) Hidden Heroes: America's Military Caregivers. RAND Corporation
Reger, M. A., Smolenski, D. J., Skopp, N. A., Metzger-Abamukang, M. J., Kang, H. K., Bullman, T. A., ... & Gahm, G. A. (2015). Risk of suicide among US military service members following Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom deployment and separation from the US military. JAMA psychiatry, 72(6), 561-569.
I loved reading your post!! This is definitely something that hits close to home for me and my family! My husband is separating from the military after 30 years... in 6 weeks. Because he is special forces, he has kept his PTSD under wraps to keep deploying, keep a security clearance, and essentially support our family. Now that it's time to claim disability, he is coming to terms with 30 years of service and experiences that we will never understand. Not only that, he feels like he is losing his identity. I never imagined how hard this transition would be for him, our family, our marriage, and even me! I have to give myself permission to be angry and sad too. I remind myself daily that I'm allowed to feel these feelings. It's been very important for us to seek out professional help in dealing with PTSD and learn how to navigate this new territory. Especially for me! I have not lost my friends in tragic accidents. I have not lived my life daily, being terrified of being attacked. I haven't spent my day jumping from airplanes at 20k feet or dismantled bombs for a living. Helping a spouse and family through PTSD takes patience, understanding, and a wealth of resources. Thanks for sharing!!! :)
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