"Wars begin where you will, but do not end where you please." – Machiavelli
Conditions that have haunted war veterans since the beginning of mankind have more recently been assigned labels: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), survivor's guilt, situational depression, compassion fatigue. The tour may be over, but, for many veterans, the war rages on inside their head during waking and sleeping moments.
Wives, too, are affected by trauma experienced during deployments, be it facing alone a life-threatening situation such as a heart attack or home invasion; receiving a call informing them of their husband's injuries; or holding the sobbing, suicidal wife next-door in their arms after she's received word of her husband's death.
What's a couple to do with so much hurt? Quite simply, take it to the cross. While some post-deployment conditions might seem too much for a marriage to bear, remember: You are your spouse's helpmate, a vessel of God's mercy chosen especially for him. You and your spouse don't have to journey alone. You have God, and you have each other. If the way was impassable, He wouldn't have brought you to it. And when you can't carry your spouse or yourself, He'll carry both of you.
Upon returning home from deployment to a combat zone or disaster relief situation, it's typical for service members to feel out of sorts. Normal reactions during the first six to eight weeks include:
Spouses can help their service members by ensuring they:
If symptoms persist beyond eight-weeks and significantly disrupt a soldier's routine or quality of life, there may be a more serious issue at hand; counseling, medical attention or psychiatric help may become necessary.
If your service member exhibits one of the following behaviors, seek help immediately:
Possible causes of any of the aforementioned behaviors include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) or Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI), survivor's guilt, depression and compassion fatigue.
Wives, too, are susceptible to many of the same conditions that plague returning veterans. Though they didn't experience combat, many indirectly experience the same traumatic events (learning of the loss of a comrade, hearing of the horrors of war). Some develop PTSD, survivor's guilt, depression and compassion fatigue second-hand during the intense task of caring for their husbands.
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!"
When you first met your spouse, you were attracted to his shining qualities: his rugged handsomeness, caring heart, strong hands and sense of humor that made you downright giddy. The two of you married. But living side-by-side with your spouse may have caused you to become disenchanted by some of his habits – serious or otherwise – you were previously unaware of.
Deployment was painful, but it served as a "reset" button for your relationship. The hurts of the past were replaced with longings to be with your spouse again, to have him hold you and to simply hear his voice. Your homecoming experience was equally romantic. You'll never forget that moment, that embrace, as long as you live.
It's been a few months, and the homecoming buzz has now faded away like the honeymoon phase of the newlywed years. Your service member is irritable, moody and distant. He has trouble sleeping and often wakes up crying from nightmares. Sometimes you worry he'll hurt himself. You find yourself wondering, "Is this the man I married? Where's my husband? Where's my brave, strong protector? Where's the man who used to care about me? Where's the father of our children?" You're trying to adjust to your "new normal," but every fiber of your being is rebelling against your attempts.
God delighted in gifting you with your spouse – a man with all the wonderful qualities that initially attracted you to him. But just as God refuses to love you and leave you as you are, He challenges you to become more like Jesus through qualities of your spouse, and situations in your marriage, that aren't as alluring.
Marriage isn't a fairy tale, and it isn't forever. Aside from the production of children and pleasure, God practically designed it for spiritual growth and companionship. Adopting this practical view makes it easier to take in stride the not-so-picturesque moments of marriage.
Are you truly committed to your spouse in sickness and in health? Just as God provided you with your mate, He will provide you with the strength to live out your vows, one day at a time. Frequently remind your spouse that you're "in this for the long haul." Stick it out with sheer determination when times get tough. Frame your marriage vows, and display them in a prominent place.
Rely on God for the strength to "be Jesus" to your spouse, and watch Him extend to you the same grace and love through your spouse.