Friday, January 02, 2009

A military spouse speaks out

Carissa S. Picard stands at the entrance to Fort Hood, Texas. Picard is the founder and president of Military Spouses for Change. (Photo: Erich Schlegel / Dallas Morning News)

The Invisible Injuries of the Invisible Ranks

by: Carissa S. Picard, t r u t h o u t | Perspective


I never expected it to be so damn windy in Texas. I expected it to be still, dry and hot - something like Arizona, maybe. Of course, nothing is really what I expected it to be when I married Caynan.

I never expected to feel so lonely, so isolated, so out-of-place and out of sorts all the time, always in that in-between place of neither here nor there, neither this nor that. As an Army wife (excuse me, as six percent are male, Army "spouse"), you are no longer a civilian, but you are not a soldier either.

I don't know what military life was like before 9/11, but I can tell you what it is like now: and it isn't quirky and wacky and "just like civilian life but different." There is a reason Sarah Smiley (a female Dave Barry) is a Navy wife and Jenny (the cartoon) is an airman's wife: Army and Marine wives have less to laugh about.

In March 2008, The Associated Press reported that 72 percent of Iraq deaths were Army, 24 percent were Marine, two percent were Navy and one percent was Air Force. These percentages obviously reflect who is being deployed the most; i.e., who is being exposed to combat and who isn't. However, there is not a huge difference in the overall size of each individual branch; e.g., the Army has a little more than 500,000 active duty soldiers, the Marines have nearly 195,000 troops, and the Navy and the Air Force each have approximately 330,000 service members.

Consequently, there is a disproportionate burden for this "global war on terror" being placed upon the Army and the Marines. Not to mention the repeated 12- to 15-month tours with no guaranteed dwell time for soldiers, whereas rumor has it (as well as news reports) that Marines at least serve six- to seven-month tours at a time.

Casualties of War

My ex-husband called me the other day and asked me what a "Blue Star wife" was. I explained that it was a wife whose husband was serving in combat.

Then I asked him if he knew what a Gold Star wife was. Of course he didn't.

"That's a wife whose husband has died in combat."

"Wow," he replied, "that's, uh, kind of sick, isn't it?"

I laughed. I knew what he meant. The "Gold Star" comes across as a quasi-cultural "WAY TO GO!" for the surviving family member (as the term technically applies to the entire family). And let us not forget the "Silver Star" for the family of a service member wounded in a war!

There is no star for a lifetime of sacrificing one's own career and/or educational aspirations to support a service member. In times of peace, as well as war, the military demands that family comes second to the military. ("Army needs come first!") The household moves are frequent (every two to three years). The inability of the service member-parent to participate in parenting brings tremendous challenges to working in an era where two-income households are the norm for maintaining a decent standard of living. The lack of family, friends and community makes loneliness an expectation, not just a fear.

What color star should a spouse get for years of living like this?

These designations are all "unofficial," of course. Everything pertaining to the familial appendages known as the spouse and children of the service member is unofficial.

As for Army spouses (like myself), we exist in this in-between world. We are no longer civilians, yet we are not "soldiers" either. We are expected to live the military life without being seen, heard, prepared, paid, or recognized for our service. We are called "the silent ranks," but really, we are invisible too. The "new" Army likes to say it "recruits the soldier but retains the family," but the reality of "if the Army wanted you to have a family it would have issued you one" remains.

We are outsiders living inside an institution that doesn't want to see or hear us. Civilians and lawmakers lack interest in our experiences with the military as well as with the wars - yet our experiences with these are second only to those of the service member. There aren't any star-studded galas for our service and sacrifice or public service announcements and national dialogues about how war affects us (and/or our children).

Veterans' rights advocates talk to the "signature" wounds of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Both are "invisible." Both are hard to diagnose. Both fundamentally alter the service member in ways that are complex and confusing - to the afflicted and the non-afflicted alike.

Also unseen, however, are the injuries of those who love the service member, whose own changes, traumas and afflictions frequently go unidentified and untreated. We call our returning warriors with invisible injuries the "walking wounded;" I include military spouses and children in that definition.

Consider the 19-year-old bride who witnessed her husband's suicide on webcam in Iraq. Or the (very young) children who watched their father wrestle their large family dog to the living room floor and break its neck, followed by threats to do the same to them if provoked. Or loving one person for seven years, waiting for him for a year, and being abused by a stranger when he returns.

You don't have to wear a uniform to be wounded by these wars - but no one outside of those of us impacted seem to know this.

There are many things that I may not be able to tell you about actual combat, but this much I know is true: by the time this deployment is over, my husband will not be the only veteran in this marriage.

A Call to Arms

Nothing prepares you for war. There is no training center for spouses. You are either going to make it or you won't.

My husband Caynan is a helicopter pilot for the Army. A few nights before he left, we went over all the materials the families were given by the unit in preparation for their departure: the handy flip chart with emergency information about my husband's unit, how to get a Red Cross message to him in case of a family emergency here (as if they would let him leave the combat zone for it anyway), information about communication black outs, who will contact me if something happens to him, etc..

What really had me in stitches were the leave dates and the return dates - those were hysterical.

They're Not Waving, They're Drowning

In June, the parade of terribles begins. News from the front: soldiers being electrocuted in the showers, self-inflicted gunshot wounds, 10-year-old suicide bombers, sexual assaults on female soldiers.

I am learning not to worry about that which I cannot control (i.e., the life or death of the father of my children), although much of your time will be spent listening and validating the feelings and experiences of others: your soldier-spouse, your warrior-children.

As for your own feelings, questions, and pain: Who has time for those? Civilian friends don't understand and your army spouse girlfriends run hot and cold' AWOL half the time, coping with their own dramas and lashing out at you as often as you, unfortunately, perhaps, lash out at them. Moreover, since we are NOT soldiers, there are no 24-hour mental health clinics for us on installations, no "rest and resiliency clinics," no pre- or post-deployment mental health assessments for us or our children. Even our pain and our coping are "unofficial."

Some days I can't decide which is worse, the breaking spirit of your soldier or the breaking hearts of your children. These are invisible injuries that no one has names for, no one tabulates, no one keeps track of ... no one but the mother/spouse/father/sibling/family member who witnesses it and knows that some people will become stronger and some people will simply break.

For example, when a soldier deploys to combat, those of us at home eventually get "the call."

The call comes when his (or her) veneer of strength has cracked. When something really bad has happened; when he (or she) has witnessed (or done) something that he/she was not prepared for or expecting to be upset by; when the surreal becomes real and that reality comes crashing down upon them with crushing force.

Nothing prepares you for this call, and you will usually hang up hurting and feeling totally useless.

Over the next few months, you will get emails, calls and/or letters, referring to incidents giving you glimpses into a world where "humanity" has been turned on its head consistently and violently. Your soldier will ask a lot of rhetorical questions that will make your heart hurt. All the while your children will be asking a lot of real questions that will make your heart break. You live in fear that you will handle their struggles poorly and long-term emotional or psychological damage will occur and of course, it will be your fault. It is illogical, but it is your fear nonetheless.

Caynan's call came a few weeks after he left us and two days after he started flying real medevac missions in Iraq. Unfortunately for him, even when combat missions settled down for our troops as we were handing security for large areas of the country over to the Iraqis, our medevac helicopters still go in and pick up injured Iraqis as well as wounded Americans; i.e., there is little reprieve from the carnage.

The first soldier to die in Caynan's Blackhawk did so with his legs lying on his chest, having been completely blown off by an IED blast to the Bradley he was driving.

Caynan, in broken sentences, tries his best to tell about "the look, baby, the look when the spirit leaves the body, the body changes, the eyes are different, everything is different, you know before the machines know, he's dead, he's just dead." But that wasn't the worst of that mission. When they landed at the Baghdad CSH and unloaded this dead soldier, the aircraft's rotor wash blew one of his disembodied legs off his chest. A crew chief had to chase the leg as it rolled across the dusty landing zone to return it to this 26-year-old soldier who would never use it again.

"It's so surreal. You're watching this happening but it's like a movie ... It just doesn't seem real. How is this happening? How am I sitting in this helicopter watching this dead man's leg roll across the tarmac like this? It just doesn't seem real baby. This can't be real ..."

Silently I listened. Silently I cried. Because it was real and we both knew it.

The next call came at 4 AM. Caynan sounded like he might actually have been crying. In bits and pieces I got the story, but mainly he repeated, "The screaming, my God, the screaming."

Apparently, two men were picked up. A US soldier and an Iraqi interpreter were hit by an IED. While they made it to the CSH alive, there was an "ungodly amount" of blood. Caynan "never knew blood could smell like that." But it wasn't the blood that disturbed Caynan; it was the screaming. He said he couldn't get the interpreter's screaming out of his head.

"I've never heard anything like that before, Carissa. I can't his screams out of my head."

I had nothing to say. All I could do was remind him that he got them to the CSH alive. But getting them to the CSH alive doesn't erase those screams and I know that. And I worry about him. I wonder how long those screams will haunt him.

Jennifer told me that Stephen called her once, just once, when he was in charge of viewing all the Apache videos when we lent air support on a ground attack in 2008, and all he could say to her, over and over, was "you're my normal. You and the kids, you're my normal. THIS, THIS IS NOT NORMAL."

What Stephen was referring to was our Apache pilots using Hellfire missiles on apparently unarmed Iraqis and laughing about it. In case you are wondering, Hellfire missiles are NOT supposed to be used on human targets, period.

Nonetheless, it is my youngest son, Connor, who leaves me feeling helpless and hurting most of the time. Three months into this tour, a failed webcam attempt led to our first nightmare. I was awakened by Connor crying out, repetitively, "Mommy, I want Daddy. I want Daddy, Mommy. I want Daddy, Mommy, I want Daddy."

I did the only thing that I could do: I held him tight, rocked him back and forth, and told him (repeatedly) that I knew he missed his Daddy.

Two broken records painfully breaking the silence of night until Connor fell asleep in my arms, his tears still wet on his face and - having soaked through my shirt - my shoulder.

Imagine my surprise when two months later Connor sees a picture that Caynan sent us (from Iraq) of himself in the cockpit of the Blackhawk and asks me, "Is that your friend, Mommy?"

"No, baby, that's your Daddy in Iraq," I respond - probably an octave higher than I should have. He didn't seriously NOT recognize his own father? When did THIS happen?

I pick up the photo to talk to Connor about what Caynan is doing in Iraq (again) but Connor has walked away and is playing with Legos, clearly not interested. I have to find out where to get one of those "daddy" dolls made ...

After getting Connor to bed, and letting Caleb watch a movie in my bedroom because of course I have no idea how to force him to go to sleep, I go outside to sit on the front steps to smoke a cigarette and ponder what Connor will be like when he sees his dad again. Add that to my list of mommy failures; I have had to start taking Caleb to therapy at Darnall Army Medical Center, since apparently he wishes Connor was dead and has started drawing pictures of himself dying horrible deaths.

To my left I see the spouse who drinks every night, with her cigarettes and a beer. I wave. To my right lives the Mormon spouse who doesn't drink or smoke but is addicted to Percocet, so she never leaves her house. No one to wave to there.

A 2008 RAND study reports that at least one in five soldiers are returning from war with PTSD. When are they going to do a study on the spouses and children left behind in these wars? The ones who self-medicate or are prescribed anti-depressants (parent and child alike), who can never look at the world or the Army or themselves the same way again? What have we lost in service to this country?

We are only a third of the way through my husband's deployment and I can already identify our wounded. Am I the only one paying attention?

If this country wants to maintain an all-volunteer force, then the Department of Defense and Congress need to start recognizing the service of military families in actions and not just words. An investment in the family IS an investment in the service member. Fortify and strengthen the family and you fortify and strengthen your forces.

Taking care of military families is not just a moral imperative - it is a troop multiplier.

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Carissa S. Picard is the wife of an active duty Army pilot, an attorney, the founder and president of Military Spouses for Change, and a freelance writer whose work can be found on and

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