Page 5 of 5   <      

A Wife's Battle

The Turners received $4,500 to cover three months of late car payments, rent and various other bills, and a grocery card for food. Troy was angry and embarrassed, but Michelle told him they had no other choice. The $860 VA disability check barely covers expenses.

Michelle has been pushing to have VA reevaluate Troy in hopes of getting his disability rating raised and his compensation increased. He can't drive, he can't work, he can barely function without her. A Black Hawk model set is next to his recliner, a therapeutic hobby made impossible by the shaking in his left arm.

The house is small, and the blare of Nickelodeon from the TV chokes the day.

"I am at the end of my rope," Michelle says. But at least now she has the help of an assistant officer with the West Virginia Division of Veterans Affairs in a little office in Moorefield, about 30 miles from Romney. The officer submits the right paperwork to have Troy reevaluated.

Doctors find that his condition has worsened and that his PTSD is "chronic and severe." Michelle gets copies of the medical records and sits down with them on her living room floor. Wearing an Army T-shirt that says "Got Freedom?" she begins reading. The documents are a gold mine of information that validate what she has said all along. But instead of feeling exonerated, she feels sickened.

He has nightmares frequently, two to three times a week, in which he sees himself back in Iraq . . . and Baghdad. He sees himself fighting, sees dead bodies, parts of bodies, blood rushing from bodies. In the dreams he smells blood and burnt flesh and he hears bullets passing over his head. He is fearful and scared and wakes up in cold sweats. Flashbacks are also frequent, 2 or 3 times a week, triggered by helicopters passing over, burn flesh smell, barbecue, current Iraq news and sometimes seeing military vehicles brings flashbacks.

Michelle goes page by page. Troy is in his recliner holding the remote control. From time to time she looks up at him, then her eyes go back to the records.

He has a lot of guilt feelings that he could not save his sergeant.

She comes to a page that lists Troy's problems.

Hearing loss.

Tremors.

Obesity.

PTSD.

Depressive disorder.

Michelle calls out to Troy. "They are saying your memory is extremely low," she says. "And here's another thing. 'Hearing loss. Exposure to artillery and machine gun fire.' "

VA concludes that Troy's worsening condition merits an increase of his disability rating to 70 percent, raising his monthly check to $1,352 a month. According to VA, he doesn't meet the criteria for 100 percent because his impairment is not "persistent," with "persistent delusions" or a "persistent danger of hurting himself or others." He is still able to perform his own hygiene.

From Michelle's point of view, Troy can hold a toothbrush, but he can't hold a job. "Even at 70 percent, you can't raise a family," she says. She has a year to appeal the rating.

But there is good news: The VA hospital in Martinsburg finds a bed for Troy in the PTSD residential rehab program.

Michelle is relieved. Troy will get help and she will get a respite. Troy packs his small suitcase with resignation. He doesn't want to go. During the intake session in Martinsburg, he is withdrawn and sullen. When the doctor asks if he has been having suicidal thoughts, he says yes. The news punches Michelle in the gut.

Troy is allowed to come home on weekends, so Michelle makes the four-hour round trip to pick him up on the first Friday night. On Sunday, he refuses to go back. He says he has been through it before. Michelle pleads with him to get in the truck but he won't, and he loses his spot in the program.

Troy returns to his recliner. VA tells Michelle that a contract counselor who visits rural counties will be in touch to schedule time with Troy. Two weeks later, Troy has his first appointment. Whatever is discussed in the 60-minute session causes him to cry the next day.

The Turners decide to pack up and leave their $475-a-month rental house for a $450-a-month mobile home in Moorefield to save money and be near Troy's mother for help. They are strained beyond belief. Still, there are moments of gallows humor. "I have PTSD, what's your excuse?" Troy kids Michelle.

"I have a husband with PTSD," she says.

Before they leave, someone from Hampshire County's Heritage Days parade calls to see if Troy wants to ride on the veterans float. Troy declines. It's not just the crowds.

"Other people got wounded, and all I got was a mental thing," he says.

Michelle raises an eyebrow. "It's still an injury."

"I think about that doctor down there," Troy says, referring to a psychologist at Fort Stewart who suggested he was faking it. "Plus, the fact that guys are missing arms and have bullet holes and everything else. Ain't a scratch on me."

To remember who Troy used to be, Michelle keeps a photo of him hidden in her camera case. In the picture he is smiling and eager, ruggedly at home in his Army fatigues. Now she looks at the man in the recliner. "It's people like you that made our country," Michelle says. She goes back to filling out forms, and Troy goes back to Nickelodeon.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.


<                5

© 2007 The Washington Post Company