I saw a bumper sticker once, and I will never forget it because at the time my husband was in Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom and as his wife I needed to believe in what he was doing or the 12 months that he was supposed to be in Iraq would have been impossible to bear. The bumper sticker said, “Except for ending slavery, fascism, Nazism, and Communism war has never solved anything.” I appreciated the sentiment and it really helped me to be a supportive wife but my husband came home and my thoughts on war changed as the true cost of war became a reality in our home. My belief that we should not allow tyranny when people have a right to be free will forever battle with my desire for no family to have to go through what we have.
My husband deployed to Iraq in March of 2004. On his first day in Iraq his convoy was ambushed and his vehicle was hit with an improvised explosive device. His head hit the windshield and he bounced into the passenger side window. He was diagnosed in the field with a concussion, given a cold pack for his head and he continued on his way. His vehicle was repeatedly hit with explosives during the convoy from Kuwait to just north of Baghdad. For several days, Michael was disoriented and dizzy, but when he requested further treatment he was told that he was overreacting and was sent back to duty. He remained in Iraq a total of eleven months and twenty-eight days.
When he came home, I was so excited and ready to get on with our lives. Our first weekend together was supposed to be a second honeymoon; I got us a hotel room and sent the kids to a friend’s house. When I first saw him I ran to him, kissed him and hugged him. I noticed when we hugged that he winced and only hugged me with one arm. I knew that something was wrong but I wanted to enjoy our weekend and figured we could deal with whatever it was later. The weekend was more like a getaway with my friends than a romantic weekend with my husband. We went shopping, ate in restaurants, talked, took walks together and drove around the city for a little while. When we got to the hotel room he would sit on the end of the bed watching old sitcoms until the alarm would wake me. Any time I reached to touch him; he would recoil like my touch burned his skin. I spoke with several other Veterans’ wives and they all said that he just needed time to decompress from being in a high alert environment and that he would be fine once he got into a normal routine.
I spent the next couple of years trying to keep things as normal as possible, with a husband who was withdrawn, angry, depressed, and in physical pain. He was diagnosed by a counselor at the Veteran’s Hospital with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and was taking medication for anxiety which helped some but he was having problems that seemed more cognitive in nature. In 2007, he was administering a brain function screening to Soldiers who were getting ready to deploy. They absolutely hated it and to see what they were complaining about, he took the screening himself. The results were consistent with a Severe Traumatic Brain Injury. His cognitive function, memory and processing speed were greatly diminished. He sought treatment at the Air Force Hospital, the Veteran’s Hospital and at local civilian hospitals. When we finally knocked on enough doors that the Veteran’s Hospital agreed to do a full neurological work-up, the psychologist dismissed most of his symptoms as Post Traumatic Stress and signed him up for group therapy. In the one phone conversation we had with the Psychologist, she told us that she didn’t believe that he had any brain damage at all and that the inconsistencies in his evaluation led her to believe that he was manipulating the system to get a higher disability rating.
The more he struggled with day to day life and the more we tried to find help, the more frustrated he became and one afternoon, he lost his temper and went too far. He says that he reached to put his hand over my mouth because I wouldn’t be quiet, but what he did was place his hand around my neck. He finally realized what he was doing when our children started screaming and he ran out of our house. When we talk about it now; he says that he thought for a moment that he had killed me. He drove himself to the Veteran’s Hospital and they admitted him on psychiatric watch. He was taking too much of his medication, and had eight times the prescribed dosage of his anti-anxiety medication in his system. Once all the extra medication was out of his system they sent him home with no further treatment. We started seeking counseling from a private psychologist instead of the Veteran’s Hospital and he started showing some improvements but his cognitive ability was on the same level as an eight year old.
We never stopped looking for help and in the summer of 2010, more than six years after his vehicle was hit with an explosive device, we found a treatment center that would take him as an inpatient. The center is located in Virginia and we live in Arkansas, which meant that he would have to leave his wife and children to fight another battle, the battle to regain his ability to function as an adult. I am happy to report that my husband has made a miraculous recovery but he will never be the man he once was. Every single day is a struggle. Things that we take for granted, like reading and writing, are no longer a simple task. He takes on every challenge and works as hard as he can to set goals and obtain them. He truly is an inspiration, but his life after deployment was much harder than it should have been.
Looking back on the last eight years, it’s easy to see where the Army, the Veteran’s Hospital and the Air Force Hospital did not provide proper treatment to my husband. Sadly, he isn’t the only Veteran that has received insufficient care. In the article, Invisible Wounds of War, RAND Corporation estimates that in October of 2007 there were 320,000 veterans with probable Traumatic Brain Injury. At the same time, the Defense Medical Surveillance System had only identified 113,816 Veterans with Traumatic Brain Injuries. The Department of Defense has gotten much better at screening the brain function of Soldiers before and after deployment and the diagnosis numbers drastically increased after 2007 but there are a lot of Veterans from the first 5 years of conflict who, like my husband, are struggling through life with no idea what is wrong with them. There are many spouses who don’t know why their Soldier is a completely different person and many children who don’t understand why daddy can’t read to them anymore.
I asked my husband if he would do it all over again, if he would go to Iraq knowing that his vehicle would get hit and that it would change everything about him. He said he would do it again every single time. He gets frustrated sometimes that there were so many missteps, that diagnosis and treatment took so long. However, he was in Iraq when the 2005 elections were held, and saw all the people walking around proudly with ink stained fingers and he says that memory is worth all the struggles of the last 7 years. He has seen true tyranny, and he acknowledges that the cost of war is high, but the cost of tyranny is even higher.
I think of our story and I struggle with whether or not war is worth the very high cost. People should have religious freedom, little girls should be allowed to go to school and we should all be free to choose our own way of life, but is a single life lost or irreparably altered worth those freedoms? I think the question should be not whether war is worth the cost, but whether or not we’re willing to pay the high price of freedom and provide our Veterans with proper care when they return home.
Tanielian, Terri L., and Lisa Jaycox. Invisible wounds of war: psychological and cognitive injuries, their consequences, and services to assist recovery. Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2008. Print.
" DVBIC - TBI Numbers." DVBIC - Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Feb. 2012.