Either way, the information slammed into me like a tidal wave. My bustling world stopped, and my body went numb. The truth of how close I’d come to being a war widow left me stuttering and stunned — and the trauma of that lasted for years.
When Aaron came home four months after the crash, I didn’t understand that although my husband made it back physically unscathed, he was emotionally scarred and so was I.
His brain was wracked by images of the bullet- and bomb-ravaged bodies he couldn’t save — men, women and children — combatants, comrades and civilians. Besides sleep, he also lost his religion, faith in humanity and ability to feel much of anything. We were supposed to be in the prime of our lives together, experiencing parenthood for the first time with our 6-month-old son. Yet I felt like a single mom. Aaron was trying his best to be a good husband and father, but when it came to being emotionally engaged, he couldn’t give us what he didn’t have.
Two years after coming home, he was finally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I felt relieved, truly exhaling for what seemed like the first time in our four-year marriage. Once we understood the problem, we could use tools provided by his therapist to help him cope. The more Aaron recovered, the more he wanted to share stories about the war. That’s when I discovered that I wasn’t as well-adjusted about his helicopter crash and deployment to Afghanistan as I thought I was.
Whenever he’d start talking, my body would start to tense and I would not look at him. Until one day, a decade after his accident, when we were bickering about something else, he burst out, “I’ve tried to share my pain with you! You don’t want to hear it!” Suddenly, I was aware of the unspoken truth that had been living quietly in the space between us: When my husband needed me most, I wasn’t there for him. I couldn’t be.
Typically, veterans are the ones who suffer from PTSD, who often can’t speak of the horrors they’ve experienced and witnessed. But, I was the one who couldn’t talk about war. That’s because, as I later discovered, I was suffering from symptoms of secondary traumatic stress (STS).
Ginny Sprang, a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine Department of Psychiatry who has published extensively on STS, defines it as “a response to indirect trauma exposure that can be mild (i.e. transient and less intense) to severe (i.e. PTSD).” Symptoms can include intrusive thoughts, hyperarousal, irritability, sleep disturbance, altered mood, negative emotions and avoidance.
“The partner gets exposed to trauma through the veteran’s reexperiencing of it or talking about it,” says Brian Bride, a professor of social work at Georgia State University. “Even if the veteran doesn’t want to talk about it, the partner sees the effect it’s having on them.”
Like me, partners of military veterans who have been deployed often aren’t aware of their own symptoms or question their validity because they didn’t experience the terrifying events firsthand.
Yet the symptoms are real: A 2010 study published by the New England Journal of Medicine found that wives of Army soldiers with combat deployments were more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and sleep disorders than spouses of soldiers who weren’t deployed. And the longer their spouses were deployed, the higher their likelihood of a mental health diagnosis.
After enduring 27 months with a deployed spouse, I was struggling with anxiety. I had frequent, uncontrollable ruminations, worries about my own health and mortality that left me feeling miserable and depleted.
Bride says people with prior unresolved trauma are more at risk for developing STS; hearing someone else’s traumatic stories can retrigger past emotional pain. In my case, when Aaron called to tell me his helicopter crashed, it resurrected agonizing memories of a childhood sweetheart who had been killed by an airplane that was landing and struck him while he was riding an ATV on an airfield near his home.
Past trauma isn’t the only factor that makes a caregiver vulnerable to STS. Spouses often have long-standing, intimate relationships with each other. This makes it easy for veterans to share their experiences and emotions, and for us to feel them a little too deeply — something Bride calls “empathic engagement.”
The reality of what Aaron had gone through hurt so badly that I couldn’t help but turn away. His pain was my pain. Whenever he talked about flying into enemy fire and his out-of-body experience in the midst of the crash, his trauma penetrated my core. The only thing worse than my own suffering was his. And if I allowed myself to wade into that darkness, I worried I’d drown in it.
Yet tolerating the intolerable is a part of the job description of an Army wife.
It’s impossible to describe what it’s like to know that someone you love is in a place that’s the closest most of us will come to hell on earth — places filled with blood and death. To carry that weight without crumbling, I stuffed my feelings down and held my breath, wondering whether I’d hold Aaron’s warm hand again or a cold, folded flag.
Although denying my emotions had helped me get through my husband’s deployments, that strategy was no longer working. If I didn’t try something different, my marriage might suffer.
Veterans Affairs offers a variety of support services to military veteran families and caregivers, including couples therapy, family therapy, parenting classes and education about PTSD and STS. But services for spouses and family members are only ancillary, and caregivers typically have to find a mental health provider outside of VA.
The Trump administration’s recent drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and Biden’s commitment to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 are a comma, not a period, when it comes to nearly 20 years of war. These veterans will need help — and so will many of their family members.
Bride says that more research into STS is also critical, to further understand and document the condition as an issue for caregivers of military veterans and to identify ways to help them.
After six months of counseling, I can’t say that confronting my emotional “stuff” has been simple. I’m realizing that what I mistook for strength — that I was a woman who rarely cried, an Army wife who “soldiered on” — was actually fear. Living in the shadow of fear amounted to only a half-life for me and my family, as I refused to fully open my heart to prevent hurt.
But as I start to peel back the layers of my own grief and trauma, I’ve also been reminded that I love and am loved. Recovery requires digging up profound sadness, seeing love in sorrow and uncovering a heart that’s whole.
Lately, when Aaron starts to talk about war, and I feel myself stiffen and want to withdraw, I take a breath. He takes my hand. And we turn toward each other, holding each other close — so together, we can heal.