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Thirty-Three Months at War

Note: Because of the sensitive topics addressed in this article, names have been changed.

Army Cpt. Mike Bartman, an air defense artilleryman, was chosen to serve as his battalion's rear detachment commander during the initial invasion of Iraq. Consequently, he didn't deploy with his men.

"It was one of the emptiest feelings I've ever experienced, knowing my soldiers were in battle while I was back in the United States going home to my family each night," Mike says.

Eager for battle, Mike volunteered to deploy to Kuwait for a six-month tour in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom after the return of his unit. He did so without first consulting his wife, Jolene.

"I was rather excited to get in the fight somehow," Mike says. "I told my wife that evening, and she started crying, looking at the calendar and realizing how long I would be gone."

The Bartmans had just learned they were pregnant with their second child, and Jolene was apprehensive.

"When he told me he volunteered for the tour, I was very angry at first," she says. "But when he told me why, it made sense. I was honored that he considered his family in his decision; he knew if he didn't deploy soon he would miss the birth of our daughter."

Less than three weeks later, the Bartmans were saying goodbye at their doorstep as a friend waited to take Mike to the airport.

"I couldn't have been more conflicted in my emotions the day I left," Mike says. "I was so incredibly excited, proud, apprehensive and overwhelmed. A lot of serious emotions came with the thought of leaving for war and leaving my family behind."

Currently deployed to Iraq for 15 months, Mike has spent nearly 33 months away from his family. Though he's never been injured or needed to defend himself with a gun, he has seen the ugly side of war.

"One memory that comes to mind is one of my soldiers lying on the ground with a bullet wound in the right side of his neck," he says. "The exit of the bullet blew the left side of his head away." He's also seen "what was left" of a suicide bomber and experienced the death of comrades.

"My husband lost a friend during his second deployment, and that was very tough on him," Jolene says. "He had run with the solider before they deployed. It was a shock to all of us, both overseas and back at home."

The violence and personal losses of war has left Mike a changed man.

"I am very impatient," he says. "Sometimes I just leave when there are long lines or crowds somewhere because it's overwhelming. I long for peace and quiet when I'm back home. I don't sleep like I used to, and I've been told that my emotions are almost nonexistent."

"Ever since I got back from my first tour, I've suffered from major insomnia. I've been told by a mental health specialist it's a classic symptom of PTSD, but I don't feel like I have PTSD. I haven't experienced nightmares based on what I saw. I just wake up at night with my brain swimming with images. It's hard to slow down and extremely difficult to relax. I've found myself smoking cigarettes just to have the claming effect of the nicotine."

Jolene has faced her own mental health struggles as a result of her husband's deployments.

"I dealt with depression and anxiety during two of his three tours," she says. "I'm not ashamed of my experiences because I know, in the future, I'll be able to use what I've been through to help and bless another Army wife."

For all the hardships caused by war, it's had its positive effects, too. Mike now appreciates the freedom he's fought for.

"Some Americans complain about traffic jams; well, in Iraq, a traffic jam could mean you're being set up for an ambush," he says. "So back in America, I don't care if I sit in traffic. It's a perfect chance to play with my kids or talk to my wife. The 'bad' stuff in America always has a silver lining."

His wife is grateful for the perspective war has given him.

"My husband better appreciates what he has and realizes that a simple life isn't bad, "Jolene says. "The people in Iraq don't have everything we do, and many are just fine. He hopes to take some of what he's learned and make it a part of our family."

Their advice to other couples facing life after war?

"Date your spouse again," Mike says. "Know that sex will be different. With time and great patience it all comes back, but if a husband and wife think they're going to automatically 'jump back into it,' they may be surprised at the difficulties."

"Strive to have great communication," Julie adds. "Talk things out, and listen to your spouse. Don't try to make the reunion something it's not. Be yourselves, pick up where you left off and put God first – that's most important!"