How much stress can soldiers' spouses handle?
By: jordan lite
Every day of Capt. Brandon Dawalt’s 12- and 15-month deployments to Iraq, his wife, Sara, worried about whether he’d return to their home outside the giant Fort Hood military base in Texas. She thought she’d finally be able to relax when he came back from his second tour nearly two years ago and went back to work at the base. At least there she felt assured that the sounds of explosions and gunfire were only training exercises—until last week anyway.
That’s when Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist who counseled soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), gunned down 13 people and wounded 29 others at the base. While Brandon wasn’t hurt in the Nov. 5 shooting, Sara says she was overcome by feelings of shock and betrayal. She couldn’t comprehend how a member of the military—someone who was supposed to help returning soldiers like her husband, could hurt them instead. In one afternoon, Hasan had ruptured the safe haven the Dawalts and so many other military families thought they had found back home.
“If your soldier is gone, your home is your safety zone where you feel closest to that person. This is the one place we have to feel safe,” says Sara, 32, the author of 365 Deployment Days: A Wife’s Survival Story. “I couldn’t believe it was happening on Fort Hood and it was one of our own doing it.”
Though such violent incidents are rare, mental health experts worry that Hasan’s recent rampage may amplify the high levels of anxiety that military families already are feeling from the extended U.S. engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. While there’s little research to draw comparisons between the mental health of military spouses today compared to those who lived through past wars, many experts believe today’s spouses, the majority of whom are still women, are now suffering unique stresses from the long, multiple deployments that have characterized the current conflicts.
Jaine Darwin, Psy.D., co-director of Strategic Outreach to Families of All Reservists (SOFAR), a network of volunteer mental health professionals who treat military families, says the shooting has now given spouses an additional reason to worry even before a soldier is deployed. “That’s a very emotionally stressful period for the families,” says Darwin, a psychologist-psychoanalyst in Cambridge, MA. “The idea that the process of getting ready [for war could be] physically unsafe is mind-boggling. It re-brands the whole experience of going, making pre-deployment a danger.”
While the rampage is bound to have an effect on soldiers, Darwin expects military spousal anxiety, depression and sleep problems along with misbehavior among their children are likely to increase as well.
An Army study of 940 spouses published last year in Military Medicine found that many spouses today already are experiencing similar levels of depression and anxiety as returning soldiers. (In the study, nearly one-fifth of the spouses interviewed reported symptoms of anxiety or major depression.) Yet many were reluctant to seek help for fear that it would be “embarrassing” or that “they would be seen as weak” if they did.
Stress and its physical manifestations (tiredness, trouble sleeping, headaches, and menstrual and back pain) are common among spouses of deployed soldiers, research this year in the Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitionersshowed. Pregnant women with deployed husbands are particularly at risk, according to a 2007 study in The Journal of Reproductive Medicine.
Some experts even suspect that military wives are suffering from a post-traumatic stress disorder of their own, unrelated to caring for veteran husbands with the disorder. In an online survey last year of 100 military family members (most of them wives), 40 percent reported severe to debilitating symptoms of anxiety, and 20 to 25 percent met the criteria for PTSD. While there are flaws in the survey—namely, that the people who participated may have done so because they were struggling with their symptoms—the results speak to the real and profound burdens shouldered by military wives, says Michael Sunich, Ed.D., a psychologist and faculty member at Troy University in Tampa, FL, who is conducting the research. (Family members can participate in the survey online.)
Several characteristics of the war on terror may account for the additional stresses that military families are facing today. Most soldiers who served in the Vietnam War weren’t married; today, many troops are, says Jay Teachman, Ph.D., a sociology professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA. What’s more, military Reserve and National Guard families who never anticipated active duty are now dealing with deployments. “In the all-volunteer era,” Teachman says, “more families are involved in stress.”
During the Vietnam War, deployments were yearlong, one-shot assignments unless the soldier volunteered to go back, so couples and their children could re-adjust once the period ended. Today, soldiers keep one foot out the door in preparation for multiple tours; since 2001, some have served four or five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan for as many as 15 months at a time. The fact that they are in harm’s way overseas makes it extremely difficult to cope. There is little family bonding, which can create more tension and anxiety for those left behind,says Bonnie Domrose Stone, coauthor of Campfollowing: A History of the Military Wife.
While spouses today may benefit from cell phone, email and Webcam communication with their soldiers that didn’t exist during past conflicts, they also are confronted with constant, graphic battlefield mayhem in the media, she says. Now that the violence has spilled onto Fort Hood, the geography of war has widened and so have the concerns among soldiers’ families.
The rampage—and the fact that it was committed by someone who counseled other soldiers—had Kristin Henderson, a 47-year-old journalist in Washington, D.C., wondering how her husband, Frank, a Navy chaplain on an eight-month deployment at a combat trauma hospital in Afghanistan, will fare when he returns. It’s his fourth extended deployment overall, and third since the start of U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Anyone who’s had someone go off to war has seen them come back changed,” says Henderson, the author of the 2005 book While They’re at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront. “The Fort Hood shootings have fed into my concerns. We don’t know if caretaking had an impact on the Fort Hood shooter. Not every caregiver grabs two pistols and shoots people up. But my husband will be changed in some way, and I wonder how he’ll cope when he comes back.”
Still, Henderson notes a silver lining: Like any other family, the military has come together in the aftermath of the massacre. The military also offers many resources today that weren’t available to families during previous conflicts, including family-readiness groups where spouses support one another, and earlier screening of soldiers for signs of trauma when they return from deployment. The Department of Defense also is trying to reduce the stigma of soldiers and families seeking help for emotional problems with its new Real Warriors campaign, and its Military OneSourcehelps soldiers and families get free consultations with civilian therapists.
Private organizations also have sprung up to help vets and their families. SOFAR provides free mental health services to families of National Guard and Military Reservists, while Operation Homefront offers everything from food to financial help to military families in crisis.
That support and the sense of community such organizations have fostered among military families have helped ease some of the fears and anxieties that many spouses are feeling, especially in the aftermath of the Fort Hood attack. Despite feeling shaken up by the shooting, Sara Dawalt says she still can’t imagine living anywhere else. “This tragedy happened here, but this is also the best place to be because we all understand,” she says by phone from her home in Killeen, TX., just outside the base. “We all feel the same thing.”
The question is whether they can all find the help they need to feel better, too.