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As If Military Spouses Mattered

July 13, 2010

A guest post from Stacy Bannerman of the Sanctuary for Veterans and Families, author of  WHEN THE WAR CAME HOME: The Inside Story of Reservists and the Families They Leave Behind. (March, 2006, Continuum Publishing).

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A little more than a year ago, Stars & Stripes ran a story about the suicide of an Army wife whose husband was on his third deployment. There have been deployment-related mil.spouse suicides before and since , but few make the news. None are considered a service-related casualty. They aren’t counted at all.
In the Stars & Stripes piece, Army spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver was quoted as saying that “the Army doesn’t track suicides among family members mainly because in many cases, the incidents happen off post or involve [family members of] reservists or guardsmen.” Tell me again how much my service (I am the wife of a Guard soldier/veteran ) is valued. Better yet, show me: Act as if military spouses matter.
After more than nine years of war, there still aren’t any culturally appropriate programs and services developed by, for, and specifically tailored to address the real-time mental health issues of military spouses and the ground truth realities of wives of OIF/OEF combat veterans, even though it was a top priority of every single wife at my table at the Congressional Military Family Caucus Military Spouse Summit (Washington, D.C., April 2010).
Silly Blue Star wives, what do you know? Was that post-deployment PowerPoint presentation insufficient to help you wade through the wake of “Welcome Home”? You know, when you’re dealing with the side of the veteran that no one else sees the things that desiccate your soul when nobody’s there and the yellow ribbons have all been taken down. Did you find the acronyms annoying and useless since you don’t really talk that way at home, and, come to think of it, never actually went through Basic?
Or was it perhaps a tad out of touch because it was put together by a Rear DMF who had no idea what it’s like when your beloved husband, who came home a familiar stranger, “shoved a sock in [your] mouth and tried to tie [your] ankles with a length of rope. Soon he was splashing lighter fluid across the kitchen floor and all around the living room.”

Given that roughly half of all combat veterans in counseling committed at least one act of interpersonal violence their first year home, that the majority of active duty troops and OIF/OEF vets with PTSD and combat stress issues aren’t currently in treatment, and that the rates of mental health issues in OIF/OEF veterans are being reported at higher levels than previous wars, not to mention the fact that these wars are still being waged, why the incredible dearth of tailored programs specific to wives dealing with veteran interpersonal violence?
Given that:
[S]tudies have suggested that spouses face similar levels of distress and appear to develop mental anxiety or trauma as a result of experiences prior to, during, and after the service member’s deployment. (Mansfield, et.al., 2010)… spouses and service members reported similar levels of major depression and generalized anxiety disorder. (Preliminary Assessment of Readjustment Needs of Military Personnel, Veterans, and Their Families, National Academy of Sciences, 2010)

Why has there been so little attention, funding, and innovation in addressing the needs of military spouses?
Given that, all else being equal, the marital relationship and support of the military spouse, the primary unpaid caregiver, is the single most critical factor in a veteran’s successful reintegration, as well as recovery from physical and psychological wounds, why aren’t there programs for wives of combat veterans? If marital issues, separation, and divorce are considered by the military to be a major factor in troop suicide, doesn’t it stand to reason that military wives, are also at risk, which begs the question: Why no Stand down on Suicide for spouses?
Knowing that wives of combat veterans with PTSD suffer significant social isolation, and have, over a lifetime, markedly poorer physical and mental health, and that “Partners [of combat veterans] endorsed high levels of psychological distress with elevations on clinical scales at or exceeding the 90th percentile. [Including] Severe levels of overall psychological distress, depression, and suicidal ideation (Psychological Distress and Burden Among Female Partners of Combat Veterans With PTSD,” 2007) why hasn’t Congress mandated funding for programs for them?
Why hasn’t the community – the nation – stepped up to help shoulder the burden and care for military spouses and wives of combat veterans? I have for years tried to raise funds to provide Sanctuary Weekends™ and other services for military spouses. I have found that people will give ten bucks or more to send a care package to a soldier, sponsor a female veteran at a Sanctuary Weekend™ retreat,
help the child of a soldier attend Camp Howdy for Military Kids,  but they won’t drop a dime for a military wife.
The military and civilian community is concerned with the effects of multiple deployments on military kids, and rightly so, since the rates of usage of mental health services by military kids has doubled since 2003, and mental health visits for military children under the age of 5 jumped 73 percent between 2005 and 2009 .
Since virtually every study and plain common sense indicates that parental distress in the non-deployed spouse is one of the main predictors of depression/anxiety in military children, doesn’t it make sense to take care of the caregivers? Sense and cents. But it would mean a fundamental shift in literal and figurative values. It would necessitate acting – and spending – as if the military spouse mattered. And right now, all signs say that we don’t.
Right now, the public and private sectors are continuously adding innovative programs and expanding mental health care services for active duty/Guard troops and veterans.
Right now, the military and a variety of for-profit and non-profit corporations continue to ramp up funding, research, programs, and services specific to the unique culture, needs, issues, and challenges of today’s military children growing up in the shadow of war with a churn cycle the likes of which the United States Armed Services – and their dependents – has literally never seen before. And thank god for that – for all of it.
But failing to do the same – and I mean right now! – for military spouses doesn’t merely prove false the professed commitment to supporting military families. It undermines every new program, service, and initiative geared towards military kids and veterans. The foundation of the military family is the spouse left behind – and when you fail him/her, you fail everyone.
If the military spouse really mattered, there would be funding and interest for research, support, programs, and services for us. If military spouses really mattered, we wouldn’t just be patted on the back metaphorically and thanked for our service in words. If military spouses mattered, we, like our beloved soldiers and Marines, and children, would have dollars and programs and support dedicated to us. If military spouses mattered, we would be counted in the casualties of these wars. If America valued military spouses, this country – and its elected officials – would corral its resources, support, energy, dollars and innovation to assist them. More so than anywhere else in the world, this country funds what it values. The heart of the Army – the military spouse – is in cardiac arrest, and needs life support now. After more than nine years of war, it’s time to start acting as if military spouses matter.

Stacy Bannerman is the author of When the War Came Home: The Inside Story of Reservists and the Families They Leave Behind. She is the force behind the Military Family Leave Act of 2009, and is currently working to secure sponsors for the Military Family Mental Health Improvement Act of 2010. She is the Director of The Sanctuary for Veterans & Families. www.sanctuaryvf.org E-mail her at her website, stacybannerman.com.

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. July 13, 2010 9:03 pm

    Right on! Thanks for this piece!!!

  2. July 14, 2010 9:57 am

    I agree with a lot of what you said–military spouses don’t get the financial or emotional support they need from the community–but just so you know, the Wounded Warrior Project has retreats going on for military spouses with wounded loved ones, and the wounds include PTSD and TBI if I’m not mistaken. They have weekends of counseling and spa days. Tiffany Calhoun used to head up the project, but I’m not sure who does now. http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org should get you started in the right direction if you want to participate. They pay for everything.

    I also work for Not Alone, an online based non profit that provides counseling and support networking for military service members, veterans, and their families. We have a ton of resources devoted just to military spouses, including face to face counseling and online support groups devoted to their marriage and to them personally.

    HerWarHerVoice is a growing community for military spouses that focuses on the deployment stressors and the spouse, not the service member. I’d look at them too.

    There are so many people trying to help out the spouses, but I think the problem is that the people that need them the most don’t know they exist.

    Thanks for your blog! If you ever have stuff that needs to go out to a larger audience, I’d be happy to forward it through our community.

    -Jenny
    http://www.notalone.com

    • LAW permalink
      July 15, 2010 2:51 pm

      Jenny – exactly! those that need the help, don’t know where to find it! we need, really really NEED, to have an umbrella, a site/link/organization/ something, that pulls all of this together, into an easily retrievable location. We need to be able to search, in broad terms, for what we need – whether it’s help with support before, during and after deployment, with school, family, employment sites.

      I love NotAlone. it’s another great tool. Now, how do we all work together to get information to everyone?

      LAW

      • July 16, 2010 10:59 am

        I’ve thought about compiling resources before into one massive place, but honestly, I don’t know that that’s a solution either. I think the trick is that the organizations out there have to be in touch with several of their “competitors” and be able to honestly recommend those resources on a personal basis when they can’t serve the population themselves. Blanket recommendations like, “Go to MilitaryOneSource” isn’t helpful if they are swamped and can’t take new patients. It also doesn’t give specific enough direction. A user will get there, and then what? Who can they trust? Who are the good therapists in their area?

        Resource libraries quickly become outdated as compassion fatigue sets in or funds run short. It’s our job as providers to keep up to date with what’s out there and helpful to people, to maintain contact and relationships with those that are available to help at anytime. Nobody can be everything to everybody. I couldn’t specialize in all the treatment types of therapy in my lifetime. But I can tell you who does it, and who does it the best.

        Is there a program out there written that could continuously troll for outdated information on databases? Websites that have been shut down or information (telephone/addresses) that have been changed? Until I hear of it and can afford to get it, my mission is to make sure I know about as many quality organizations within my field as possible, and to know individuals within that organization. That way if I can’t immediately help someone from A-Z, I can personally introduce them to someone who can.

        Word gets out by people talking. The way we do that might have changed with social networking, but essentially it’s just about throwing information out there in a mindful way to those that we believe can benefit from it.

  3. July 14, 2010 11:44 am

    This is so true, but attitudes need to change. When people ask me how I made it through my husband’s deployment and I very honestly say with no hint of sarcasm, “Zoloft and sedatives.” People shrug it off or even laugh as if I’ve just told a joke. No, really. I had to take Zoloft and 2, yes TWO sedatives just so I could sleep more than 2 hours a night and take care of our preschool aged son. Counseling was out. I didn’t have the money to pay a sitter, and there were no programs to help me pay for one. I certainly couldn’t talk candidly in front of our child to take him to appointments with me, so what was the point? I know I still have issues from that deployment and my husband has been fortunate enough to have been home for 5 years now. Oh, and we’re a Guard family. The gum on the bottom of the Army’s shoes. At least that’s how they treat us when it comes to any sort of support.

    • Cathy permalink
      July 18, 2010 2:29 pm

      Amanda, As a guard wife, I know exactly how you feel. I am a veteran of two deployments and drugs are how I am coping. I tell people the same as you did, they laugh it off. My phone never rings and no one comes by. I guess if I fell off the latter in the backyard eventually my corpse would smell and a neighbor would stick their head over the fence and find me. A councilor does not help.

  4. July 14, 2010 11:51 am

    The military establishment wrings its hands constantly over the care given to assisting families sift through the spiritual wreckage left by a combat deployment. It develops programs, powerpoint presentations, preparation packages, and psychobabble. That’s seven P’s. Here’s another seven for you:

    Proper
    Prior
    Planning
    Prevents
    Piss
    Poor
    Performance

    I was very deliberate in saying that the wreckage of post-deployment is SPIRITUAL. Some may think that’s a touchy-feely word. Others may believe that it’s too religious-sounding. Either way, it doesn’t make people, especially high-ranking people who deal with things like suicide on a purely numbers-based analytical basis, comfortable. They need things that are quantifiable. They believe the psychiatrists are the answer.

    And then they come down to a deploying group of Soldiers or Marines and give a speech about the Warrior Spirit.

    Let me tell you something about PTSD in the Army. I had it. I know I had it, and I know that I am qualified to make that diagnosis because I know as much about it as Army psychiatrists. In a 2008 interview, a high-ranking Army psychiatrist told CNN that she suspected an increase in suicides was due to “winter weather.” There sat one of the highest-ranked and educated members of Army leadership, charged with the care of Soldiers, telling everyone out there dealing with severe problems that they had a case of the winter blues.

    I had it. I lost my marriage over it. I almost lost my life over it. Army psychiatry didn’t do a damn thing to help me. They couldn’t. I would not be here today if a Lieutenant Colonel hadn’t taken an hour to sit by me against a wall in an empty house and hear me sob. I wouldn’t be here if a fellow Captain hadn’t stood by me and helped me limp on when I was too weak to struggle forward on my own. Army psychiatry, with all its post-deployment surveys and online check-the-block 12-step programs, won’t save a single Soldier’s psyche.

    Leaders will save warrior’s spirits.

    It was a long time before I healed from my wounds. I served on a rear detachment while recovering. When it came time for the unit to come home, we prepared to give the spouses the typical redeployment briefs they receive. You’ve seen the drill. I attended the first round, and true to form, the psychiatrists at Blanchfield (this happened at Fort Campbell) were a no-show, despite being scheduled and coordinated nearly a month in advance. Not really knowing what to do, I stood up in front of a room full of anxious wives– some on their first deployment, some on their third or fifth– and told them that the shrink wasn’t available, but that I’d been through it and would talk about it from the perspective of a guy that’s been there if they wanted to ask questions. They wanted to hear it.

    “Well, I don’t know how much of an expert I am”, I began. “My story is more of a ‘what not to do’, worst-case scenario thing.” I told them the whole story, warts and all. I got back to the office thinking my boss would call me on the carpet for scaring the crap out of the wives. It only took him half an hour. When I came in the room, the wife of the Lieutenant Colonel who saved my life was in there. They asked me if I’d give that same brief again. “This is what they need to hear”, she told me.

    So I did. It was difficult to relive past mistakes. It was painful to remember things I’d rather not. It was embarrassing to admit old failures. But I did it. I did it because you can’t rate the pain of a spiritual scar on a scale of 1-10 or score enough points on an Army-approved “PTSD form” or whatever they call it now. I did it because it’s not the f—ing winter blues killing troops and spouses, and if Colonels and Generals can’t fix it, then the Sergeants and Captains have to.

    Right now there are good people out there trying to do good things. They’re having some success. But to do much of their work, they have to wait for the troops to get home to them. But right now– RIGHT NOW– there are Platoon and Squad Leaders leading men and women around Baghdad and over Afghan mountains. Right now, leaders can care, can look back at the most brutal forms of warfare throughout history, and learn how others kept up the spirits of their warriors in the darkest of hours. We fight in an age of stealth jets, live-video feeds, GPS-guided bombs, and battlefield robots. But none of that has yet to give us the ability to deny the human dimension of warfare. The human condition is not a science. A scientist can’t fix it with surveys and pills. It requires another human, with a genuine will to help and a correspondence that comes directly from the heart.

  5. Melissa permalink
    July 14, 2010 12:01 pm

    The article states, “After more than nine years of war, there still aren’t any culturally appropriate programs and services developed by, for, and specifically tailored to address the real-time mental health issues of military spouses ….”

    I’m sorry, but I have to disagree with the author’s assessment that there is “nothing out there” for military spouses. Has the author heard of the MFLC (Military & Family Life Consultant) program? MFLCs are certified counselors from all different disciplines of counseling. They will meet you anywhere except your home. They will not keep any records. The only thing they are obligated to pass on are thoughts of suicide or thoughts of hurting yourself or another person. MFLCs move around every few months. For instance, Fort Campbell has MFLCs embedded in each Brigade.

    I have personally used this service during my soldier’s last deployment to Afghanistan and found the resource extremely helpful.

    The MFLC program link can be found on any post’s ACS webpage. Here is the link for Army Reserve personnel: http://www.arfp.org/skins/ARFP/display.aspx?ModuleID=8cde2e88-3052-448c-893d-d0b4b14b31c4&Action=display_page&ObjectID=dc78097f-fbcc-49ee-b536-2935dad0f91e

    • July 20, 2010 12:16 pm

      Military One Source also offers free counseling services as well, and records are not released. Tricare will also pay for counseling services. I saw a therapist (OFF post, not attached to the Army AT ALL) the entire year that my husband was deployed. Once my initial 8 sessions were up, my therapist called up TriCare, suggested I needed to keep seeing her, and we continued. Never a dime out of my pocket.

      The resources are there. They aren’t always GREAT, but they are available if people would just look for them.

  6. LAW permalink
    July 14, 2010 3:56 pm

    Melissa, thanks for the link! there are programs out there, but so many wives don’t know that they are there. Military OneSource http://www.militaryonesource.com/ and Give an Hour http://www.giveanhour.org/skins/gah/home.aspx are great assets as well.

    I’m so glad you are able to use this program, and I’m very happy that it’s helping you through deployment and reintegration.

    LAW

  7. Cathy permalink
    July 18, 2010 2:22 pm

    Right on. I woke up this morning feeling exactly the way this article describes. During and after my husband’s first deployment I know that I had PTSD and no one gave one ounce of concern. This time I am struggling just as much, the military spouse is the one who gets the pat on the back, but is forgotten as soon as she is no longer in sight. Thanks for the article.

  8. Trinity Woods permalink
    July 18, 2010 8:16 pm

    I completely agree….right now we are on deployment number 4….Im in a new place and know no one. It doesnt get any easier!!! ANd there is not enough support, especially if they know you are “seasoned”

  9. July 19, 2010 9:51 pm

    Okay, ladies, breaking my own policy here about not responding to comments, but I am compelled to do so on behalf of my beloved sisters of the sword – the Guard wives, who muster through without even the support and resources available to active duty spouses on post, and in the face of combat/deployment-related issues specific to citizen soldiers. The ‘scrip s work wonders, and I am not going to apologize for it anymore. You shouldn’t either. It’s one thing to sacrifice along with your fellow Americans for a war that most support and serve in. It’s a whole different kind of cookie to know that you are one of less than .04% of Americans (Guard/Reserve – who previously enlisted with the belief and protections preventing them from deployment, thank you very much), and you and your soldier, and family, are losing years of your lives and all too often financial stability and security to fight a war that most people have forgotten and/or don’t support. Because we live in the civilian community, we are painfully aware of just how much our – and our loved ones – service and sacrifice doesn’t matter and doesn’t count. Hence the piece, “As if Military Spouses Mattered.”

  10. Ally permalink
    June 28, 2012 8:36 am

    FROM LAW ~ I was reluctant to approve this comment, I wanted to talk to her before I did. we tried to contact her, the only email response was that we shouldn’t worry or bother, she’s fine with her decision. ” Thank you for caring, but I have made up my mind, hopefully you can spend your time helping others, but I pray the soldiers will be brought home and you won’t have to. Thank you so much, for everything. You truly are meant to help people.” I can’t do that. if you know this person, talk to her. can you help us find her? ~

    My husband deploys to Afghanistan in two months. For the past year and a half we have been apart way more than we have been together. I can’t take it anymore, there’s no support from FRG. I can’t handle this stress anymore, I’m on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication but it can’t mask this. Every day, all day I feel as though I am going to be sick, I cry when my husband is close because I know I may never be close to him again. I think this time I may actually end it, so this constant pain, stress, fear, worry will stop. I don’t even want to get out of bed anymore because being awake hurts too much. When he deploys, I think I’m going to get a bottle of vodka and take all of my anxiety pills. I can sacrifice no more for obama’s waste of life on wars. I wish more people understood what is going on in the military community, maybe there would be a little more outrage and demands that the troops are brought home and out of this endless war. For me, this is my breaking point. I hope for you spouses out there that you and your soldiers see the day where they are no longer in harms way. Good luck and God bless you all.

    • July 5, 2012 5:50 pm

      Ally please reach out to someone, your doctor, your husband someone. What you are enduring is more than anyone should be asked to bare. let someone talk with you there are others who have seen the same darkness you are looking at and they have come back. they have found joy, they have found normal again, please give someone a chance to help you find that normal. I know its bad and I know that myself and others want you to get through this. Your life is precious as WInston Churchill once said “When you are going through hell, keep going.” people want to help carry you through.

    • July 5, 2012 6:15 pm

      Ally, ive been there. Ive gone down that road and failed. Its now something i regret and have to live with forever. But its not worth it. It really isnt. You think its the end of the world, but its not. Things change, life goes on. I thought it was the end of the world twice. The first time i was about to try but got stopped. And you know what? Life went on. Things got better. I was in a similar position. My husband was gone. Gone shortly after we got married. And he was gone after a huge scandal and in restriction, which is kind of like jail. And one silly stupid thought hit me on the way to the hospital. If i would have killed myself, idve never seen my husband again. Ever. So maybe i shouldve just lived chow to chow, like i did when i was serving out my time in bootcamp, and know this too shall pass. Ally contact me. Please. I dont care if we have to serve out our time together. Im currently waiting a little over a year for my Airframer. And before that it was two weeks together, 8 months in Japan, 3 weeks together, a year and 4 months apart. Ive gotten good at waiting. You will too doll. But only if you dont kill yourself.

    • July 5, 2012 6:59 pm

      Ally.
      It’s a beautifully simple plan, isn’t it? You’ve thought it out, and considered your options.
      But you forgot a couple of small things.
      Us.
      We see you. We hear you. We care if you go into the dark. We know what it means to fall so hard, and so far, your knees so broken and bloody that you’ll never be able to stand again-to look at that bottle of pills, and say, well, maybe this time I really can’t go on. And maybe you can’t.
      But that’s what we’re here for. Just as our spouses carry each other off the battlefield, broken, wounded, shattered, maybe dead-we are here. To catch you as you fall, to hold you up until you can see over the edge of the pit you’ve fallen in, to be a shoulder to lean on, a back to carry you.

      If it’s too much to carry for you, then set it down on our shoulders. Walk away from the life, but for gods’ sake, walk. Or fall and let us catch you, before the endless night.

      I know you think that you’re ok with this-maybe you are. But we aren’t. And I’m pretty sure your husband isn’t.

      If you have to, leave your life behind and start a new one, far away from what you have now. But don’t tell us that it’s going to be ok.

    • July 6, 2012 8:53 am

      Dearest Ally,
      First let me say, I know exactly how you feel. You may not believe that, but it’s true. I just spent the other night in the hospital, again, because I had such a bad anxiety attack that I honestly believed I was dying.
      There were times early in our marriage when I thought about suicide to make all the pain, depression, and anxiety stop. Pills don’t help me and that coupled with everyone telling me how I ought to feel, how great military life was, how amazing the benefits are, it all made me feel more ill, more out of control, more crazy…how could I be the only person feeling this way?
      The truth is there is no magic pill that made things better for me and some days I still really struggle with everything, but friends help…the friends I made here that are on LF are so very important to me as a lifeline when I don’t feel like I can cope. Please let us be your lifeline and we will walk this road together.
      YOU ARE NOT ALONE.
      I will not leave you alone. Please choose life.
      Please contact me and we will talk as long as you need to as often as you need to because I know exactly how you feel and your life is too precious to be extinguished. You are worthwhile and you do matter.
      Please contact me and we can get you whatever help you need. We will be your battlebuddies and walk this path with you. I promise we won’t leave you. Don’t leave us.

  11. libarmywife permalink*
    June 28, 2012 7:07 pm

    Ally – please contact me.

  12. July 5, 2012 9:08 pm

    Please, please write me. I’ve been where you’re at now.

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