Trigger warning: My heart is a little raw and exposed right now and I’m going to go some place I haven’t publicly gone before. I belong to a support group for spouses of veterans with PTSD and TBI and I keep finding just how painful and isolating it can be to love someone who has been changed by war. And because of 2 Corinthians 1:4, I know that God wants to use every moment of pain that we experience in life to comfort others. He can’t use what we aren’t willing to expose.
In February of 1994 I walked down an aisle and said, “I do” to a US Army second lieutenant. I am not a military brat. I did not grow up in a military town. I had family members who were veterans of various wars, but I never really paid attention to how war defined them or impacted their relationships. I knew that I loved him and that he had the most beautiful heart and soul of any man I had ever known. I knew that he would make beautiful babies and that he’d father them well. I could see us with wrinkles and gray hair, rocking together on a porch as we watched our grandchildren play. I knew that this was a man that I was willing to follow anywhere in the world and that I could feel safe giving him my whole heart all the days of my life.
What I did not fully grasp when I said, “I do” is that I was not only pledging my devotion to the man God made for me, but to the US Army. I very quickly learned to accept that his duty would always come before anything else in life, including me. For the first decade of our marriage I was perfectly okay with that reality. His devotion to freedom and service to our nation made me immensely proud.
After September 11th I watched him chomp at the bit to go to war. He voluntarily went to military school at fourteen, went to a military college, and all he’d ever wanted to be was a soldier. He had dreamed of and trained for combat his entire life. And because I love him with all that I am I wanted to see him fulfill the purpose he believed he was created for.
In August of 2003 I stood in an airport bursting with pride and with my heart shattered into a thousand pieces as I watched the love of my life walk away without knowing if I’d ever see him again.
In 2004 he returned to me. Except he didn’t. I quickly realized that the man I watched leave for war was not the man who’d come home. The guy who had always loved to go and do, never met a stranger, was kind to every human he crossed paths with, and who had never once shown me anything other than kindness and unconditional love, had changed.
In the years that followed his first deployment, he adjusted, we adjusted, God was faithful to heal and restore. By the time he called me in January of 2009 to say he was returning to Baghdad ten days later, I had almost forgotten…
During the second deployment we talked a lot more about the possible changes we could face, we talked about the coming readjustment period, I studied combat trauma and how to best love someone who’s experienced it, I prepared my heart for the possibility of loving a changed man for a period of time with the full hope that in a short time he would be fully restored. And honestly, for the most part (I don’t want to talk about his driving), it seemed as though we’d lucked out the second time around. He still wanted to sit in a place where he could see every door, but he was able to eat at restaurants and attend church and the kids’ activities immediately after he returned home. He was extremely kind and compassionate to me, didn’t look for ways (many veterans use video games, television, alcohol, and other unhealthy vices…) to escape daily life and was able to empathize with others.
And then, in May of 2010, just after we brought our daughter home from Serbia, he was triggered. He walked in the door after work and she slapped him across his face. She then turned and attacked me. I held her until she was calm and did not notice the expression on his face as he walked away from us. When she was occupied I went to him seeking comfort. Instead of comfort I was met with a harsh, “I don’t care about your feelings!” and his hands held out in front of him preventing me from getting near him. I was shocked, wounded, and devastated by what had come from his mouth.
I’ve written extensively about Sofija’s aggressive, self-injurious, and destructive behaviors. In the first weeks and months after bringing her home we had no clue what triggered her, but I quickly figured out that her PTSD triggered his PTSD, and it did not take long for everyone in our house to be traumatized. In family counseling we were able to identify that the feelings of helplessness surrounding her behavior outbursts not only triggered war trauma, but childhood trauma. I have learned so much about the brain in the years since that painful day in 2010. We learned later that year that our daughter has abnormalities in her temporal lobe; specifically her temporal horns, hippocampus, and amygdala. Two years later we learned that my husband (thanks to some bad guys and an IED) has a TBI in his frontal lobe and amygdala. If you’re curious about what that means, the parts of their brains that control memories and behaviors, produce rational thoughts, and trigger fear responses, have stored memories of traumatic experiences that make them respond as if they are in danger or threatened by things that are not normally threatening. For Sofija, she gets stuck in fight, flight, or freeze. EEGs have shown that when her fear response is triggered, the rest of her brain stops functioning and we have to use grounding techniques (What color shirt am I wearing? How many fingers am I holding up? What day is it?) to help her frontal lobe (rational thought) take action to calm her down.
My husband’s PTSD looks a little different from Sofija’s. What I’ve learned about most combat veterans is that because of military training, their brains tell them not to flee or freeze, but to fight when they feel threatened or out of control. I have yet to meet a spouse of a veteran that isn’t frightened by their wounded warrior’s driving habits. Combat has taught them that every person in a vehicle is a threat. Things as simple as asking a veteran to put the dishes away differently, can feel threatening and trigger their fear response. Because God, in His infinite wisdom, prewired our brains to be compatible with one another, I’ve learned that my own fear response is almost always flight. I’m not a fighter and when I feel threatened I find a quick way to escape. This tendency means that I’m able to walk away and wait for my husband’s frontal lobe to take action and remind him of who he is. Full disclosure: my instinct to flee did not stop me in the past from sending hurt and angry texts and emails while keeping my distance. We’ve vowed this year to not write anything that we would not look each other in the eyes and say. I’ll have to update later on how that’s going. 😉
Combat was undoubtedly traumatizing for my husband. But, when he came under investigation in December of 2011 by the same Army that he’d devoted his life to serving, the trauma was almost unbearable to witness. For nearly four years, his first love, his calling, his career, his identity, the things that had come before everything else in his life, were threatened. The days where he was able to see beyond the need to defend himself were few and far between. It was like being in combat for four straight years, day and night, without reprieve.
I’m shining light into this corner of our lives for a few reasons.
First, I don’t want anyone living with a wounded veteran to feel shame, isolation, or hopelessness. YOU ARE NOT ALONE! John 10:10 The thief’s (Satan’s) purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My (Jesus) purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life. I have witnessed far too many individuals and families destroyed because of war. Jesus did NOT live and die and rise again for people to be destroyed. He lived, and died, and rose from the dead, so that the damaged and dead parts of our lives could be resurrected, restored, and redeemed. 1John 1:5-7 This is the message we heard from Jesus and now declare to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all. So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practicing the truth. But if we are living in the light, as God is in the light, then we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin. If you feel like you’re living in darkness, please find some support. See a counselor, join a support group, find a friend or two who will listen and encourage you. There is not a single instance in scripture of Jesus sending a disciple out to perform miracles alone because God never intended for us to fight our battles alone.
Second, it has been almost three years since my veteran retired and lost his first love. This new chapter has been beautiful and fulfilling in ways we never imagined. It has also brought about unexpected challenges, grief, and exposed many layers of unhealed pain and wounds. We are working hard to heal those wounds and better cope with the challenges. So if you have a moment, feel free to pray for us to embrace all of the restoration and redemption that God has promised us.
I want to offer some encouragement and tips to those spouses who are currently in the trenches. First and foremost, if you or your children are being abused, please please please get help! If you don’t have a safe place to go, call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or go HERE and chat with someone who will help you find a safe place. If your spouse is suicidal, call 1-800-273-8255 (press 1) or go HERE to chat with someone who can help you develop a plan. If you need marriage counseling, family counseling, or individual counseling for anyone in your family, Military One Source offers it for free. If your veteran struggles to work and manage money, Military One Source also has resources to help with finances. If you are feeling alone in your battle and don’t have any idea where to turn, THIS is a great website packed full of links and resources. If you are dealing with the VA (God bless you!), they have a webpage for caregivers that outlines all of the resources available to you. https://www.caregiver.va.gov/ Also, find a local church and join a small group or a Bible study. I honestly could not have survived the investigation years or the years after our first deployment without a community of Christians who loved me, listened to me, spoke truth to me, and lifted me up when I couldn’t stand on my own two feet.
Also, no amount of trauma is an excuse for bad behavior. If your veteran is making bad choices, this is your permission slip to stop excusing the bad behavior because of a diagnosis. I’ve experienced a ridiculous amount of trauma in my life. But guess what… I’m still responsible for every choice that I make. If I screw up, I’m accountable for it. So are you. So is your spouse. We will all stand before God some day and answer for every unrepented sin we’ve chosen to commit. Nowhere in scripture does it say that a diagnosis of PTSD or TBI will get us out of accountability. Also, you will NOT stand before God and answer for your spouse’s choices. It is REALLY easy for those of us living with veterans or parenting children with disabilities to make excuses and apologize for their behaviors. If you find that you are rearranging your life to keep your spouse from being triggered and apologizing for their behaviors, I’m giving you permission to STOP IT! In psychology those patterns are called enablement and codependency. Scroll back up and read what the Bible says in John 10:10. You were meant to live a satisfying life! If you can identify a pattern in your life of apologizing for the behaviors of others or you struggle with caring for yourself, get THIS BOOK now! And when you’re done with that one, I can highly recommend THIS ONE. Also, learn the phrase, “I am not getting on this emotional roller coaster with you. Enjoy your ride and I’ll meet you back at the platform.”
Whether or not you give up on the person you chose to spend your life with is a choice. I firmly believe that 99% of success in marriage is the refusal to quit. On January 1st I wrote a post explaining that as much as I didn’t want it to be, my word/theme for this year is “Grace”. Alas, I should have known that it would be tested over and over again. But… 2 Corinthians 12:9TPT But he answered me, “My grace is always more than enough for you, and my power finds its full expression through your weakness.” So I will celebrate my weaknesses, for when I’m weak I sense more deeply the mighty power of Christ living in me.” God only knows how much grace I’ve needed in life and how much more I will need this side of heaven. But He promises that His grace is ALWAYS more than enough for me. And if He’s got more than enough grace for my brokenness, then I trust that He will always give me more than enough for the brokenness of others. The moments when I want to call it quits are always the moments when I forget about grace.
Hebrews 4:16 So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.
Last, but certainly not least, I encourage you to seek God in navigating the journey of loving a veteran. I had a great heart-to-heart talk with my nineteen year old yesterday about something that’s been weighing him down. I told him that I wished I could fix it for him, but I can’t. And then I told him that it’s not his to fix. It’s God’s. I learned many years ago that the only way I could have peace and let go of the need to make other people’s problems my own is this… Every time something heavy pops in my head that is out of my control to fix, I say, “God, I give this to you. It was yours before I tried to make it mine. Thank you for holding my heart, renewing my thoughts, and fulfilling your promises. Amen.” There have been situations in my life where I’ve prayed that prayer at least a dozen times every hour until I felt free from the burden and truly trusted that God was in control. Give your spouse to God. Trust me. He’s MUCH better equipped to restore, renew, redeem, and heal than any of us are.
Always Devoted to Duty,