Suffering on the Home Front
Nancy Lessin (reading from paper) and other members of Military Families Speak Out take part in a protest outside the Pentagon during the recent presidential inauguration. (Courtesy of Military Families Speak Out)
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Many military families are in agony over Iraq.
By PETER GORMAN
Lynn Jeffries figured she knew about emotional trauma from her years of working as a registered nurse in the emergency room of a Lubbock hospital. Then in late 2003, her 24-year-old son Nathan, a sergeant in the Army’s 3rd Cavalry, was deployed to Iraq — and Jeffries was soon dealing with the worst emotional pain of her life, with almost nowhere to turn.
Shortly after Nathan left for Iraq, Jeffries found herself unable to take care of trauma patients; she left the emergency room to work as a hospice nurse. “I just started crying at everything,” she said. “I was so angry about this war, but at the same time I felt like I couldn’t fight against it without betraying my son. It just ate at me every day, more and more.”
Her depression grew until, she said “at one point I thought of taking my own life in order to get my son home. It’s just made me a little crazy. I’ve never felt so helpless in my life — there were days I could not even leave the house.”
Jeffries’ son was home on leave when she spoke with Fort Worth Weekly, and she said she was feeling a little better. But he was scheduled to go back to Iraq soon thereafter. “What will happen the day I have to put him back on the plane to go back?” she asked — and had no answer. “I would do anything to have him go to Canada, but he says his friends need him and he can’t leave them.”
One of Teri Wills Allison’s two sons is deployed in Iraq. The Austin woman said that since her son left for that war zone, she has become so depressed that “though I’d never taken pills before, I’ve needed Xanax just to get through the day since my son’s deployment.”
Sharon Allen, from Fort Worth, held it together during her son’s first tour in Iraq. Now he’s scheduled to go back, and the news has shaken her to her core. I’m a wreck,” she said. “I don’t know how I will get through this one.”
The Texas women are part of a growing number of military family members who find themselves dealing with what psychologists are beginning to recognize as Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder. Just like PTSD, Secondary TSD can clearly be debilitating. And while the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs are having major problems dealing with the unusual caseload of PTSD among those who’ve served in Iraq, there’s no system at all set up to deal with their families’ emotional disabilities.
“The mothers and fathers of the boys in Iraq, we’re getting by, but barely,” Wills Allison said. “Some of them tell me they need a six-pack before bed to fall asleep. Others can’t leave the house for fear they’ll come home to have that call from the military waiting on the machine. Some families are just torn apart by this.”
Nancy Lessin, who helped organize military-family protests in front of the Pentagon during George W. Bush’s inauguration, acknowledged that, “Every member of every family who has ever sent a loved one to war has suffered.” But, the Massachusetts activist said, “this one is different. The stresses are different.” Her stepson, Joe Richardson, served in Iraq during the invasion and is expected to be called back for a second deployment there any day.
Lessin is a co-founder, with her husband, Charlie Richardson, and a friend, Jeffrey McKenzie, of an organization called Military Families Speak Out. They started the group in November 2002, after her stepson and McKenzie’s son — who is scheduled for a second tour in 2005 — were initially deployed to Iraq. “We realized we had no place to turn, no one to talk to about the feeling of helplessness we had, about our outrage over our sons being used in this unjust war,” she said. “So we started our own organization.” Since its inception, MFSO has grown to include over 2,000 member families—nearly 100 of them from Texas — and a very active web site at MFSO.org.
MFSO members organized the inauguration weekend protest after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld refused to reply to e-mails and letters from family members who had lost loved ones in Iraq. They had written to ask for a meeting to talk about many aspects of the war, including the shortages of equipment and supplies that they believe put U.S. soldiers in jeopardy, and to ask questions about everything from the forced multiple tours of duty to why Rumsfeld didn’t sign the letters notifying them that their son or daughter or sister or husband had been killed in action.
For some, the feelings of helplessness are beyond endurance. In late November 2004, Marine Lance Cpl. Charles Hanson Jr. was killed in a roadside bombing of his convoy in Iraq. One week later, on Nov. 30, his stepdad, 39-year-old Mike Barwick, entertained guests at his Crawfordville, Fla., home with stories of the stepson he loved so much. Three days later, just hours before guests were coming for a wake at the home Barwick shared with Charles’ mother, Dana Hanson, Barwick shot and killed himself. Family members were quoted in the local newspapers as saying it was clear he simply couldn’t live with the pain.
Misha ben-David, a drug and trauma counselor from Austin, said he remembers his own family being torn apart when his father went to Vietnam. He’s beginning to see the same kind of trauma developing again now that his son is being deployed to Iraq. “The stress on the family is unbearable,” he said. “I can already hear my ex-wife starting to freak out, retreating into a ‘rah-rah, do you love your son or not?’ frame of mind. We’ve got so much pressure on us from people like the Fox network to see this as a black and white issue—either you’re for the war and a patriot or you’re a no good, liberal, anti-American.”
Why do people like Lessin and ben- David believe the suffering of families in this war is different from other wars? “Because this is a war that didn’t have to happen,” Lessin said. “We were told that this war was about weapons of mass destruction, about Iraq’s ties to al Qaeda and the Twin Towers horror. But there were no weapons of mass destruction, no ties to al Qaeda. We were told ‘mission accomplished’ when Saddam Hussein fell, but there was no mission accomplished.
“All of our loved ones signed up to protect our country. They took a vow to give their lives, if necessary. But the assumption was that they would be fighting for a just cause. And if this were a just war, while Charlie and I would still have been terrified of that knock on the door or that telephone message telling us that Joe had died, we would have been able to move on. But in this war, a war for oil markets and corporate interests, a war in which every reason given for fighting it has proven to have been a lie, I don’t know that we would ever be able to move on if that knock on the door came,” Lessin said.
“And what that has done to the families of the men and women in Iraq is horrible,” she added. “They know their loved ones are in harm’s way for nothing. But they feel terrible guilt about feeling that way. This is a level of stress that is on top of the normal stress of a loved one being in a war that is justified. And it is beyond almost what a family can take.”
There is also the added stress — not just on the soldiers, but on the family members as well — of involuntary tour extensions, multiple deployments, and shortages while the troops are in the field of body and vehicle armor and, sometimes, supplies as basic as drinking water. “Put it all together, and what you’ve created is an emotionally explosive situation,” said ben-David, an MFSO member.
This is also the first war in which soldiers have access to the internet, intended by the military to keep morale up by keeping soldiers in regular contact with their families. But there have been unintended consequences to such regular contact as well. “It’s not a letter every couple of weeks, where parents can try to imagine that everything is OK,” Lessin said. “With the internet we’re learning that our loved ones don’t have enough food or water or weapon replacements or armored vests, things that leave us feeling helpless.” Wills Allison eloquently described her feelings of helplessness in an essay that initially appeared on the internet. One of the worst aspects of this war, she wrote, is the wedge it’s driven between her and much of her family. “They don’t see this war as one based on lies. They’ve become evangelical believers in a false faith, swallowing Bush’s fearmongering, his chickenhawk posturing and strutting, and cheering his ‘bring ’em on’ attitude as a sign of strength and resoluteness ... . These are the same people who have known my son since he was a baby, who have held him and loved him and played with him, who have bought him birthday presents and taken him fishing. I don’t know them anymore.”
Lynn Jeffries feels similarly isolated. “How can I hate this war so much? How can I fight against it and not betray my son? I feel like I’m betraying him just talking with you.”
The military offers social services and family counseling for husbands, wives, and children of servicemen and women deployed overseas. But help is available only to those who live on base.
Soldiers’ parents, since they almost never live on base, have very few places to go for such services. In August 2003, under the direction of Lt. Col. Anthony Baker, Sr., who’s in charge of the National Guard’s family programs, the Guard began working with its families in crisis situations, sometimes in one-on-one settings.
There’s also the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a national nonprofit with strong ties to the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The group provides extensive services to those who have lost a loved one while serving in the armed forces — but has no real services available for military families in other situations. Still, director Bonnie Carroll said, the people who staff the 24-hour hotline (1-800-959-8277; www.taps.org) will talk to anyone in a crisis situation resulting from the stress of a loved one deployed in Iraq. “We’ll try the best we can,” she said.
But for most families, MFSO and a few other internet forums are the only things that even begin to fill the void. “It’s the only place I can go at 4 a.m. when I can’t sleep, even with the Xanax, to talk with people who feel like I do,” Wills Allison said.
Cathy Wiblemo, deputy director for healthcare at the American Legion, a Veterans Affairs watchdog group, said that while the VA and the American Legion are very concerned about the issues facing the families of deployed or returning vets, there is simply no funding to provide them services. “We do have a hotline (1-800-504-4098) referral service where we try to find military family members the services they need in their local community, but in terms of paying for those — they’re on their own.
“The truth is that the VA is not ready to supply the services that are going to be needed for the returning vets. And if we can’t even provide for soldiers, how could they possibly be available to family members?”
Unfortunately, because the phenomenon of Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder is just beginning to be recognized, there are no studies on the numbers of people severely affected. It might be thousands or tens of thousands. It’s also unknown how long the stress will last even after the family members return home.
“We’ll find out as we go along,” said ben-David.
Peter Gorman is a local freelance journalist.
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