TBI and PTSD affects wives as well as service members and veterans

TBI and PTSD affects wives as well as service members and veterans

By Marilyn Lash

I have just come back from another weekend retreat for wives of wounded warriors, led by Hope for the Homefront  and Operation Homefront.  Aptly titled, When War Comes Home – Don’t Retreat! our team of Marshele Waddell, Julia Warton, Kelly Orr, DiAnna Steele, June Morse and myself, leads a program for wives who are caregivers to husbands injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was the 5th retreat we have done within 6 months and there is one more to go in 2 weeks. We’ve been to Kansas, Texas, Washington, South Carolina and Tennessee with the final retreat this year scheduled in Colorado.

Facing the emotional trauma of war

Traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder are the most common conditions, but it’s not just their husbands who are dealing with the aftermath of war injuries. These women are living with the emotional trauma of having their husbands return from war vastly different from the person they knew before. Some of the changes are physical – amputations, burns, paralysis, broken bones, hearing losses, vision changes. Other changes are less visible – memory losses, mood swings, personality changes, frustration, irritability, anger, and disinhibitions. The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD are evident in their husband’s nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance and emotional withdrawal.

These women – so many of them young and newly married – have now become caregivers to their wounded warriors. This is a role for which they were not prepared and did not want. Their wish was for that their husbands return from war safe – unhurt – and for life to go on as they knew it. Instead, their husbands came home – but the comment repeatedly made is, “He is not the same person.”

Educate, empower and encourage

This is the purpose of theses retreats. By helping the women focus on themselves rather than their husbands, they begin to explore their own needs for support, information, and help. An inventory of symptoms for secondary traumatic stress reveals that almost have compassion fatigue. Most of them are exhausted, emotionally and physically. Many question their faith. They are not only caring for their husbands and managing the household, but many are also raising children and working. The demands upon them and the stresses are constant. Their lives feel out of their control as their husbands go through the lengthy process of disability determination and transitioning out of active duty to civilian life.

We have now met close to 200 women and the themes at each retreat are markedly similar. Their emotional trauma is evident. They are angry – at what has happened to their husbands, to their marriages, to their lives. This anger is part of their living grief – yet they don’t know how to mourn their losses since their husbands have survived. Many struggle with depression. They feel isolated and alone, even within their communities. Loss of intimacy within their marriages causes many to question their sense of worth and attractiveness as they feel rejected and unloved. Many describe life at home as “walking on eggshells” with the constant fear of “setting him off’ or “pushing his triggers.” The unpredictability of the day only adds to their anxieties. Some women admit they have been hit or beaten. Too often, this is a shameful secret they have hidden from friends and family.

Finding a New Sisterhood

The power of the weekend retreats comes in their recognition that, “I am not alone.” They find a new sisterhood among themselves. Here are women who understand as they are on the same journey. Too many of them have put aside or ignored their own well being, so each retreat helps the women develop and commit to a wellness plan for themselves.

At each retreat we have seen the transformation from Friday night as they arrive, uncertain, anxious, and tentative. One woman admitted, “I almost turned around at every exit when I was driving here.” They come because they know they need something  – even if they do not know what it is. During the talks and workshops on Saturday, we see them start to open up, to bare their emotions, and to reach out to each other. They find they are not alone – here are other women who understand them and will support them. By Sunday, they have made a commitment to care for themselves. Many have mixed feelings about going home – they are uncertain about what they will find, how their husbands have managed in their absence, and how they will be greeted. But they have a new sense of direction and a hope that they can create a better path and future.

You can view some great videos and clips about the women of wounded warriors and the retreats at www.whenwarcomeshomeretreats.com 

Recommended Reading

PTSD and Blast Injury in Adults and Veterans: Tips and information on trauma and brain injury

By Samantha Backhaus, PhD, Kathleen Bell, MD, Janelle Breese Biagioni, Bill Frey, PhD, Marilyn Lash, MSW, Maureen K. O’Connor, PsyD, LaShanta Petroski-Ackley, LICSW, Ron Savage, EdD, Nadia Webb, PhD, Nathan Zasler, MD


4 responses to “TBI and PTSD affects wives as well as service members and veterans”

  1. Dear Marlene,
    Hope for the Home Front was previously conducting retreats for wives and caregivers such as yourself, but unfortunately, this organization is now closed. There is a new documentary titled Their War Came Home which you can view for free that discusses the impact of PTSD and TBI on veterans, their families and caregivers. If you go to http://www.youtube.com and enter Their War Came Home it will play for you.

    I wish I knew of another organization offering these retreats as they were really powerful and supportive. Many women find support through blogs – if you enter the search words “military spouse blog” you will see a listing of blogs that may be helpful.

    Marilyn Lash

  2. Marlene Bethune says:

    Please help me, It’s 48 years of marriage to a Vietnam Nam veteran
    I am coming unglued dealing with this man…
    I need help, I’m at the end of my rope
    He suffers PTSD and TBI….I’m looking to get away
    Looking for a retreat…he is 72 and has major health
    Issues….what is available for me… Thank you
    Marlene Bethune

  3. Hope for the Home Front retreats welcome women caring for a wounded service member or veteran from any conflict.

  4. Lydia Brown says:

    I am a wife of a combat wounded veteran with severe PTSD. I would love and desperately need (along with other wives like me) to attend one of your retreats. I am heartbroken that we are not included because our husbands are veterans from the Vietnam War. Their PTSD is as severe as the recent returning veterans and we have suffered and struggled for over 40 yrs. Why are we left out? If we cannot attend, could you please refer me to an organization that would include us? Thank you so very much!

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