Invisible. That’s how I felt as my family had to overcome the many interruptions thrown at us because of the injuries inflicted on my dad by war.
Even though we lived close to a military base, it seemed no one understood the pain I carried seeing my dad suffer from something that resulted from his dedication to our country. What hurt the most was witnessing the people whose freedom he fought for respond with judgment. I felt alone.
Unfortunately, it’s not just me who has carried this heaviness. Over two million children across the United States feel unheard and overlooked. What do these children have in common? They all have parents who are wounded, ill, or injured Veterans.
For one day every year, America stops to honor Veterans and those who actively serve. But, what about the other 364 days of the year? What happens to those who daily brace themselves to face the unknowns that may surface from a family member struggling with mental illness? Consider those who must suffer in silence knowing their peers cannot understand what they deal with.
Although we are not in the same place we were six decades ago regarding our understanding of mental illness in Veterans, unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to the topic. I believe honoring the injured Veteran, and supporting the family should go hand in hand. Because whenever a family member signs the dotted line to serve, knowingly or unknowingly, the whole family signs up right along with them. When a Veteran is injured, aside from any medical help they may receive, who is their greatest support system? Their family. And because of the stigma attached to mental health struggles, Veteran families often lack the support they desperately need.
The hope is by the end of this piece, you will have a greater understanding of the fight Veterans suffering from unseen wounds must combat every single day. I also hope you will gain insight on the crucial role the family plays in a Veteran’s recovery process, and how important it is for you to reach out to the Veteran families in your circle with compassion and support.
The experience of every Veteran and his or her family is different. They are like a fingerprint. Some families’ stories may appear to be similar, but each is unique to the warrior and their family. My story is also my own.
This is My Story
My dad was deployed in 2013. Near the end of his deployment, he was injured and forced to return home to receive care because the installation he was assigned to was unable to provide the care he needed. The only visible wound was the injury he received in his right leg, and it was assumed that was all.
We lived in California at the time, and although we were ecstatic to have my dad back, we noticed he was exhibiting signs of unwarranted anger, bouts of depression, and heightened anxiety. My mom, who is in the mental health field and had been a Key Spouse in my dad’s unit, knew there was something more going on. As a Key Spouse, she worked alongside my dad’s unit commander providing support to families of deployed members within the unit.
In an effort to get my dad and our family the help we so desperately needed, mom consulted with his commander regarding my dad’s condition. After all, that was the role of the unit Key Spouse. Unfortunately, my mom’s legitimate care and concern backfired. The commander’s response was surprisingly unsupportive. When my dad recovered from his physical injury enough to go back into the office, he was mistreated and ostracized by his superiors. He had gone from being a well-respected Major in the United States Air Force with a promising future to dealing with maltreatment and the success of his career being threatened. Life continued, however, and although we didn’t understand everything that was going on, we began to accept life as it was.
We moved to Virginia in 2015 and thought we could start fresh and new. All seemed to be fine, that is, until August of 2016, when one unexpected night, my dad suffered a stroke. That was when our already complicated life was turned upside down. Multiple tests were administered and in addition to the stroke, the doctors found that my dad had a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), which was tied to his deployment back in 2013. Because of this finding, they were prompted to test for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) which he was eventually diagnosed with. These multiple diagnoses, which required years of treatment and therapy, led us on a long search to find a new norm in our chaos. We knew from then on, our family would never be the same again.
How Mental Illness Affects Veteran Families
Mental illness is real, especially in wounded Veterans. Due to their combat experiences, invisible wounds such as depression, anxiety, PTSD and TBI are common. Because of my dad’s TBI, there are certain activities he cannot do, and he processes things differently than many people. His combat-induced PTSD can cause setbacks that lead to depression. Some who suffer from these two conditions combined can also exhibit symptoms of mania, if triggered, another possible result of combat experience.
According to NVHS (National Veterans Homeless Support) up to 25%, or 1 in 4 veterans suffer from mental illness, as opposed to the national average of 1 in 5 Americans. In addition, many don’t have enough support, leading to feelings of hopelessness, a higher chance of homelessness, and substance abuse.
Another very grave reality is divorce. As recorded in a study by BYU (Brigham Young University), 62% of Veteran marriages end in divorce.
Without a proper support system, we could lose those who fought to ensure our safety and freedom.
There is also the risk of secondhand PTSD which many military children face because of the trauma they view their parents struggle through and attempt to overcome every day.
If it had not been for my parents, who fought to have us present in my dad’s care and recovery, I wouldn’t understand my father’s disabilities like I do today. The sad truth is many children are unaware of what is truly going on with their Veteran parent. Sometimes, they go their entire childhood blaming the parent. Although it seems safer to shield the child from what is truly happening, in reality, it can sever the parent-child relationship leading to dire consequences within the family.
Even though it was comforting to have the knowledge that my dad’s depression, anger outbursts, and sudden changes of mood were his condition and not him, I still found it hard coming to terms with the reality that I didn’t know how he would respond at any given moment.
I remember the pain I felt one day when a friend came to my home and bluntly asked, “Why is your dad always so angry?” How could I explain what was happening? How could I tell her these behaviors were not how he normally would respond, and it was a result of his injuries? My friend did not know my dad like I did. Would she really believe me if I told her that his reactions weren’t him? I was at a loss for words at her blatant question and confused as to how to respond.
Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be the only time I would have to search for a response, endure the side glances, the disapproving looks, or insolent behaviors not only from friends my age but also from adults who didn’t understand. Because of this, there was a time in my life when I remember shutting down. I had no will to live, make friends, or even trust anyone. It was hard suffering alone, watching as my mom struggled to care for my sister and me, and at the same time be a caregiver to my father. Almost more challenging was seeing my younger sister step up to help my family in ways no child should at her young age. Additionally, the rejection of people who we previously considered our friends, seemed unbearable.
Support Makes all the Difference
The life of the child of a military injured Veteran is a hard one, but it doesn’t have to be. The simple act of reaching out, showing them their suffering matters, and they are not invisible makes all the difference.
I truly believe my experience would have been different if more people had a greater understanding of injuries such as TBI and PTSD and lent greater support. Conversely, had I not gone through this experience, I would not be able to write this. I wouldn’t be able to bring attention to the need for greater mental health awareness for Veterans and their families.
This Veterans Day, as we honor the wounded, ill, or injured Veterans around us, let us also boldly acknowledge the sacrifices their spouses and children make. Let’s take the time to reach out, check in with, and pray for them. Let’s offer support to struggling families, even if all that looks like is listening as they share their unique story, maybe for the very first time because, they signed up too.