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A Wife's Battle
His Illness, Her Full-Time Job
The Turners live in a small rental house in the northern tip of West Virginia, surrounded by enormous blue sky and the dark spine of South Branch Mountain. There is a VFW tavern in town, but Troy doesn't bother. After one of his distraught soldier buddies from Iraq got so drunk he wrapped his motorcycle around a tree, Troy stays away from alcohol. Still, the techniques he learned to calm his PTSD in Army and VA treatment programs -- tai chi meditation and classical music -- seem like distant remedies in this county of farm equipment and Ford pickups.
Michelle thinks Troy's anxiety and depression are worsening, and she tells anyone who will listen -- her pastor, doctors and counselors at VA. His speech is sometimes soupy from mood stabilizers. The meds give him tremors. He used to cut the grass and bring home a paycheck, but now he stays inside like a perpetual patient. His memory is shot, and he relies on Michelle for everything.
"What is the name of the doctor who looks at knees?" he asks one day.
Michelle takes a breath. "Orthopedic," she says. "Troy, please try."
At 31, her eyes are hollowed by worry and her brown hair is turning gray. The Turners live 80 miles from the Martinsburg VA Medical Center, where Troy receives his care, and sometimes they go once a week. The all-day journey requires a babysitter for the kids -- ages 10 and 11, both from previous marriages -- and burns $25 worth of precious gas.
"This is the part you don't see on TV," Michelle says.
One hot morning, they set out for Martinsburg yet again. Troy recently screened positive for possible traumatic brain injury -- he was exposed to multiple blasts in Iraq -- and the hospital wants him back for more comprehensive testing. Troy and Michelle are quiet on the ride into Martinsburg. A Bible rests on the back seat. The cornfields and emerald hills spread out from the two-lane highway. Troy's pill box is between them, along with the silence.
Finally Troy says he thinks his new medication is making him less aggressive.
Michelle is skeptical. "You don't have an 'off' button anymore," she says.
Troy, in the passenger seat, keeps his eyes on the road. "They broke it off when I was over there."
He served with the 3rd Infantry Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Before that, he spent a decade with the National Guard, pulling a tour in Bosnia. A laconic country boy with a plug of tobacco in his cheek, Troy was a cavalry scout with the 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment that pressed into Baghdad. His platoon sergeant was decapitated by a rocket-propelled grenade, and others he knew were obliterated.
Troy's problems started after his tour. While he was on home leave from Fort Stewart one weekend, Michelle found him sitting on the bed with a bottle of pills. He said he couldn't go back. Michelle drove him to the Martinsburg VA hospital, which shipped him to Walter Reed for three weeks of psychiatric care.