What spouses of veterans need to understand about PTSD

On Veterans Day, vets get a little more attention than normal. People who know we’ve served will walk up and thank us for what we did. Older gentlemen wearing ball caps commemorating their Vietnam-era units or ships won’t have to buy their own restaurant meals that day.

I appreciate those gestures of gratitude, but I want to use the holiday to thank the people who served in a different way: the wives and husbands who held down the home front while their spouses were deployed. They’re the people who slept alone for months at a time, took on double duty with the kids, lived for the few minutes of telephone or email contact each month, and prayed they would never open the door to find a chaplain standing before them.

Many of these wives and husbands continue to serve long after their spouses receive their DD-214s and return to civilian life. Now it’s when they are awakened by angry voices or crying in the night and find themselves comforting a shaking spouse. Or it’s when that spouse suddenly becomes withdrawn from the rest of the family, or snaps in anger when a child commits some minor transgression. The vet seems to disappear into a mysterious dark place for hours or even days before returning to be the man or woman they’ve known and loved for years.

We’re becoming increasingly aware of the effects combat and similar traumas have on those who play active roles in keeping the world safe for freedom. We also need to be aware that issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have a profound effect on their loved ones. If a vet is grappling with PTSD, it’s a safe bet his or her spouse is also suffering the symptoms, because PTSD impacts the whole family. Spouses and kids not only bear the brunt of angry outbursts; they often learn to walk on eggshells out of fear they may do something to trigger that anger. Sometimes, that stress will lead them to develop symptoms like insomnia or depression.

Living with someone who has experienced combat trauma and is battling PTSD is hard, and there are times you may wonder if you’re up to the task. It’s so important for you to be there, because as your vet tries to process the bewildering emotions, feelings, and memories, he or she needs the stability you provide. Your support may not always seem to accomplish anything, but trust me, it’s more important than you’ll ever know.

But — and this is a very important but — that doesn’t mean you’re expected to handle this all by yourself. Being strong for the sake of your spouse and your marriage is admirable, but it is so difficult. You both need the help of professionals who understand the realities of PTSD and who have the expertise to treat it. And you are the one who is best equipped to get both of you the help you need. Vets are trained to be tough and handle life-or-death situations alone, so it’s hard for them to admit when they’re overwhelmed. That’s why it’s important for you to reach out to professionals like our counselors. We can help you understand what you’re dealing with so you protect your emotional well-being and that of your children … and we can work together to encourage your spouse to obtain the help he or she needs.

It’s not easy, but there is hope. We’ve worked with others who were in your shoes. If you’re in the situation I’ve described here, or if you have a friend or relative who is facing these issues, please connect with our team. And don’t delay, because the sooner you start, the sooner you will all benefit from the healing that’s ahead.