THE BLOG

Hidden Wounds And Hidden Strengths Of Our Military Families

04/12/2012 09:06 am ET | Updated Jun 12, 2012
  • Joseph Bobrow Founder, Deep Streams Institute and Coming Home Project

Stephanie's husband, Michael, returned from Iraq in body, but he was plagued by unrecognized post traumatic stress. After six months stateside, he committed suicide. Stephanie's church, their main support system, uncharacteristically condemned him and shunned her.

Stephanie felt both isolated and blameworthy, a toxic brew which did not help as she struggled to maintain stability and to raise Ben, the couple's 2-and-a-half-year-old son.

Claudia sustained a traumatic brain injury in Iraq that kept her from remembering details of the birth of her 20-month-old daughter. She was desperate to recapture critical elements of herself, that she felt had been stolen from her. Thankfully Claudia's sister was helping with her care and responsibilities.

Jeremy and his wife were struggling. After two long tours, he was drinking too much, shouting at the kids, and taking his frustration out on his wife. The couple had broken up and gotten back together twice.

Tonia helped her husband, Kenny, a Marine Master Sergeant, take back his life after he sustained a devastating head injury in Iraq. When Ken entered a VA Polytrauma unit, Tonia was instructed to return home so as not to interfere with his treatment. But Tonia didn't take a back seat in her husband's rehabilitation. She fought to have family members recognized as playing an integral role in the treatment of TBI survivors.

Tasha and Alishya, Tonia and Ken's teenage daughters, and Brittney, the daughter of Jesse, a retired Sergeant Major who had been blinded in combat, wrestled silently with the stresses of having a seriously wounded father and overextended family members, while doing everything they could to make life easier for their parents.

These examples, drawn from the first Coming Home Project retreat in January 2007, are just a few of the tens of thousands similar stories of military families struggling to push forward.

"When a service member deploys, the whole family deploys" is a saying that is often repeated. But even though nearly 3 million service members have served in a war zone since September 11, this phrase is rarely grasped.

The family members, like their service members and veterans, often feel that civilians, providers, and the government just don't "get it," don't understand their experience. And with good reason. On the home front, there are no overt signs of war, and few signs of shared sacrifice. When you calculate the number of extended family members and close personal friends and associates for each of the 3 million service members, the numbers add up.

When military and veteran family members come together at Coming Home Project retreats, they connect in a non-judgmental, safe and confidential environment with others -- fellow spouses, girlfriends and boyfriends, parents, grandparents, step-parents, teens, children, siblings, uncles and aunts -- who, like them, have also been through it. The isolation disappears, stigma vanishes, hope returns, they feel understood and they come back to life.

Rand Corporation studies, and other reviews, detail the impacts of recent deployments on children and spouses. Among the results: Wives of soldiers sent to war suffered significantly higher rates of mental health issues than those whose husbands stayed home. This includes an 18 percent higher rate of depression, than those whose husbands did not go to war. When deployments were 11 months or longer, wives had a 24 percent higher rate of depression. Children of deployed parents suffer more emotional issues, particularly if separations are long or the parent at home is troubled. Confirming decades of child development research, children do worse when the spouse who is caring for them does worse.

When a service member goes to war, their family and the entire community goes to war too. We have all, in some way, been impacted by 10 years of constant war. Even if we were not asked to sacrifice, we are still all connected and so the scars run deep and wide.

On Veterans Day 2011, Coming Home helped bridge the chasm between veteran families and civilian families, a gulf that benefits neither. We were hosted a benefit concert at the Freight and Salvage Coffee House in Berkeley. Our first community forums and retreats in 2007 were held at the First Congregational Church, also in Berkeley, and our first Veteran Toolkit Workshop, an innovative holistic approach to career development, was held at the UC Berkeley's Veteran Transition offices. We've since held retreats in Texas, Virginia, San Diego and welcomed people from 45 states. In some way or another, each of these programs, including our equine-assisted therapy workshops,
created a genuinely cross-cultural experience for all participants, both veteran and civilian.

In the afternoon, before the benefit, Coming Home held our first veteran and civilian community art experience, patterned after a simple ritual we developed at our retreats to bring adults and children together in an intergenerational dialogue. Through expressive art, civilians and veterans and their families crossed the unseen divide, discovered surprising similarities, and came to treasure the differences in their experience of 10 years of war.
It is not only the civilian military and veteran divide that needs to be healed; connections within our military and veteran families need to be repaired and strengthened too. At Coming Home Project retreats we have children and teens express their experience of deployment and hopes for the future through art, drawing, music and poetry. In a simple but powerful ritual, the adults really see and hear what the children have created, and respond to the children's experience with a single word. Children listen closely as the adults "get" what they, the children, have been through. Then it's the adults' turn; reflecting on their own experiences of war, as well as their hopes for their and all kids present, they create an expressive piece which they perform for the children and teens.

I cannot convey the emotional power of seeing the children taking this in and getting to comment on it. Nor can I convey the experience of the adults, listening to the responses of the children gathered. In this safe, mutually supportive setting, participants become capable of expressing how they truly feel in the presence of those they love, and of listening with loving attention to their stories and feelings.

In the closing circle, a single military father comments that he never knew what was going on inside his teenage daughter's head. Tears came to his eyes as he spoke of how powerful it was to witness her now coming back to life like a blossoming flower, "the smile returning to her face after 5 years," as she connected with fellow teens.

After pushing his teenage son during a post-traumatic rage episode, and storming out of the house, a veteran father did not see his son for two years. Shame kept him from returning to their home. With the support of his fellow vets though, the father-son reunion hug at the retreat's conclusion surprised and brought tears and cheers from all those gathered.

Stephanie was taken in like family by fellow spouses and mothers at the retreat, bonds that grew over time. While playing with another toddler from a veteran family, her young son, Ben, was able to voice his experience in the retreat's first moments of silence. He told his new buddy Isaiah: "My Daddy died in Iraq." Out of the mouths of babies: although Michael committed suicide back home, something had indeed died in him in Iraq. Something he never got to repair.

Tonia and Kenny renewed their wedding vows as the retreat ended, before all those gathered. Her eyes reached out for Ken's, while Ken strained to respond and to make eye contact with Tonia, in spite of being unable to see much because of his TBI. It was heart-warming and heart-wrenching.

Claudia, afraid or unable at first, shared with her fellow veterans pieces from her journaling, expressing with surprising clarity her experience of having parts of her self stolen, and prompting deeper sharing from others. When her lovely daughter later danced playfully in front of her, making a bid for her attention, a responsive smile appeared on Claudia's face, replacing for a moment the frozen blankness.

Mark, a father, Marine officer and helicopter pilot during the first Gulf War, and now a priest, was recruited to be a small group facilitator. He described how he began the teen group with a moment of silence, and then asked "How are you doing?" Tasha was quick to respond, "You really want to know?" And she immediately started crying. Alishya, strong like her mom, said she was fine and told Tasha not to open things up. Jesse's daughter, Brittney, was feeling isolated, had no one to talk to, and didn't want to burden her suffering parents with her own feelings. She said her father can't see her face and he doesn't know if she is sad or happy. She uses that to hide her feelings, but she feels bad about it. She wants to communicate but is afraid that she will upset her father. Tasha and Alishya both shared their drawings in the closing circle and spoke about how isolated they felt and how hard it was to speak their thoughts and feelings to their parents. Tonia and Ken were able, with some difficulty, to listen and take it in, allowing their daughters this freedom of expression and learning from it too.

Jeremy and his wife won the impromptu family kayak race back from Heart's Desire Beach on Tomales Bay. When they hit shore, he exclaimed, "Joe, I'm so high!" His face and his wife's face showed the natural high of connection within themselves, between one another, among other veteran families, and with the sheer beauty of nature.

Aliveness is our natural birthright, but Jeremy had been unable to reclaim this quality from the adrenaline-fueled surges of the war zone. On the beautiful, rushing waters of Tomales Bay, together with his wife and children and other supportive military and veteran families and civilian volunteers, he found a way once again to enjoy life giving exhilaration and share nourishing connection.