Former spouse of US Army service-member, Soldier advocate
I met Chris* in August of 1991. He had just gotten back from Desert Storm.
We met in California, and I knew him four months, and then I married him. I came back to Texas, and he was getting stationed in Germany at the time. He came down to Texas, we got married, and four days later he was in Germany.
I stayed here in Texas, and had my first child. I wanted to be close to the family. He got out in December of ’91. That’s when Clinton was doing all the cut-backs and stuff, and he got an early retirement, but he stayed Reservist, and worked civil service for five years. And then in ’98, I think it was, he decided to go back active duty. And we lived here in Texas that time. So, we went back.
After that, he was stationed in Germany, and it was ridiculous. He got there September 4th, I think, of 2001, and then 9/11 happened. And I was pregnant with my second child, ten years later! So he was in Germany again. And at that time, that was really hard. Because he was stationed, and then of course, all the security happened, and everything. And I’m here in Texas going to school, and have my first child already, and pregnant with my second. And we were apart. I think we saw each other 10 days of 14 months. And then I had my second child. And I told him, ‘That’s it. I need to go with you. I need to be there with you.” Because I knew they were gonna deploy. And so, after the 14 months, I went to Germany and spent four months with him there. And then he was gone for his first deployment after re-enlisting, to Iraq.
So basically, we saw each other four months in a span of probably two years.
We were stationed in Fort Hood in 2004. And then, he deployed again, about two years after the previous one in Iraq. He got wounded there in 2005. He was a truck driver, but they were security in the humvees, convoys, and all that. And I don’t know what happened—it was a roll-over. He was on life support. It took them seven days to bring him back to Walter Reed. And then he was there, and he was…you know, PTSD, TBI. They actually didn’t think he was gonna make it. He died on the table three times. And they had him on life support, and he had fractures in his back, his pelvis, face, everything. He was really messed up.
That was in 2005. And then they redeployed him again in 2007. After the doctors told them, “He’s non-deployable. If you send him out there and there’s enemy fire, he won’t be able to save himself.” Because his body was so messed up. And so was his mind. He had Traumatic Brain Injury. And what people don’t understand, which they were explaining to me at Walter Reed, is that it’s actually ‘permanent brain injury.’ Because it is permanent. By the time I got back to Fort Hood they had changed it to Traumatic Brain Injury.
That third time is even harder to remember. It was August of 2007, and he was supposed to be gone for 15 months. And I had told him, “You don’t have to go. I can—I’ll fight for you.” And this was of course before I was an activist, or knew anything about it. I was just a spouse. And I was like, “Don’t go. Don’t go. You should not be going.” Because mentally, he was just not there. He had a lot of memory loss. And considering the injuries he had, he was only at Walter Reed one month, and I brought him home.
I had enough courses in nursing that I was able to do it. He was like, “I don’t want to be here anymore. Take me home, take me home.” And so I told them, “Do whatever you have to do. Hospital bed, everything.” We were in a townhouse, and so I said,
“I’ll take care of him at home.” And they said, “Okay.” He was in a wheelchair, and had a back brace and everything. He got wounded on September 25th and he was back at work by February.
And he had lost 30 pounds in 30 days, and was in the wheelchair, and wasn’t supposed to be really doing much. But they didn’t give him any physical therapy when he got back. They would send him to the pool with the older women who were doing their little water exercises or whatever. He did have some cognitive therapy. They did some biofeedback, you know. But I think it was maybe six month’s worth, and that was it. They were like, “Okay, we’re good.” And it was like, “No, you’re not good.” And they didn’t even know how bad it was unless I spoke up. I was like, “He needs therapy. This is what’s happening.” Because he didn’t even realize he had memory loss. I would observe him, and I would talk to the doctors and everything. But I think it was really hard for him, because every time they would see the paperwork, they were like, “How did you survive?” And that would mess with his head. But they knew, and they still deployed him.
They gave me no support, as his spouse. None. Even at the time they came and notified me. But one of the good things was the commander from over there with the rear detachment. The commander from over there wanted them to take the Chaplain with them to notify me because they thought he was gonna die. And the acting commander was like, “Ah, no. Unless he has passed, we’re not doing that, because that is a trauma in itself.” And so, when they came and notified me they didn’t have the Chaplain. But of course, that didn’t matter because I didn’t notice that he was there or not. At that time I had to prepare to go to Walter Reed. I had a three year-old and a 13 year-old at home.
So that’s one of the things the military needs to start understanding. When this happens, there is no support for the family members. I think somebody from the Family Readiness Group called me over the phone. She had five kids of her own. I could hear all the kids in the background, and she’s like, with no expression, “Oh, well, you know, what happened? Do you need any….”—and I was just like, “Mmm, no. No.” That’s not support; that’s not what we need.
I had prepared myself if something like this had happened, so I was lucky enough that since I had prepared, I kind of had my head on a little bit straight. I called my family. I had my mother and my sister come up. I went to Housing, and I told them, “My sister’s coming here with her three kids. They need to be allowed in Housing. They need permission that they’re going to live here.” I gave my sister power of attorney to all my accounts and all my bills. I enrolled her three kids in the base school. I was lucky that my sister could do that for me. But the unit support and Family Readiness Group didn’t do anything. I asked them, “How do I get an ID for my sister?” So that she could use the commissary, come in and off post, and stuff like that. It took them two days to get back with me. By then, I had already had the answer myself. I just went in to the ID place, and they gave me the paperwork.
There is nothing in place to help the family members through any of this stuff. I think it would be a huge help for family members if they would make support available. But until this day, I don’t think anything’s in place like that. Because the last thing that our kids need is to be uprooted and sent off to another place. I think if we could have something within the base to help our kids while we’re off taking care of our husband, or if you have a family member that can come on post and take care of our kids then that would be great. That was a huge relief for me.
His third deployment was supposed to be 15 months. And we talked all the time. And I was always asking, “How are you doing? How are you doing?” For one, his body was not in shape enough. He was pulling 16-hour days. But he couldn’t really do much. The doctors told him, “You’re never even gonna run again, much less drive trucks.” So of course they left him on the FOB. But they were making him sit at the FOB doing dispatch or whatever for 16-hour days.
He was an E-7 at that point. And he was just in so much pain. They were giving him medication. For one, one of the medications they gave him specifically said, “If this person has Traumatic Brain Injury, do not give them this medication, because it could cause seizures and kill them.” And they prescribed him this medication. The good thing was that he had told me, “I took this medication, and it made me sick.” And I was like, “What’s the name?” And of course I google it, and I just said, “Do not take this medication.” So he didn’t anymore. Also, they knew that he was already wounded and they would not let him go to the doctors. The base doctor would see him. But they were just like, ”Oh, no.” And he was saying, “I have a lot of headaches. I have a lot of headaches.” “Oh, it’s because you need glasses.” My husband has always had 20-10 vision and never ever has wavered from that. And then they’re saying, “Oh, because of your age.” He’s having dizzy spells, he’s having headaches and they just didn’t care. They just really didn’t care.
After 12 months, he calls me and he’s like, “That’s it, I can’t do it anymore.” He’s on the verge of tears he’s so emotional and stressed. And that’s when I started fighting for him. I went and talked to the battalion sergeant major and it was the worst experience of my life up to this day. They were so callous. You know, they’re just like, “Oh, well, I think he’s fine.” And it got to the point where I showed up and they’re like, “Well, no, we don’t know. We ask them if they’d had any prior injuries or anything like that. And he must’ve put no, because if he’d put yes, we wouldn’t have deployed him.” And I said. “He would not.” He said, “A lot of soldiers hide this from us because they really want to be with their brothers.” I said, “No. Mine wouldn’t have. You don’t understand how badly wounded he was.”
My husband had copies, because he keeps everything. So he sends them to me, and I show up, and I said, “Here’s your paperwork. He told y’all, over and over.” And I remember the month prior to him deploying, where they were asking him, “How are you doing? What’s the doctor saying? You ready to go?” And he’s like, “No. The doctor says I’m non-deployable.” I remember. He had permanent profiles.
And I’m like, “Don’t tell me you guys didn’t know!” And he said, “Well, I don’t know.” I showed up with a stack, two, three inches thick, of his paperwork from Walter Reed. I said, “There you go. Bring him home.”
And they said, “Well, this and that.” And so we fought, and I said, “Look, all I want you to do is send him to see a doctor. Not just the local doctor, but an orthopedic doctor or somebody that had specialized in his body and everything.” And they had to fly him there. I told them, “Just send him there. If they say he’s okay, then I’m good. But if they need to send him to Germany to get checked, then you need to send him to Germany. And if they okay it, and send him back, I’ll be good with that. Someone just needs to check him.” And I knew, that as soon as they saw his chart, there was no way they’d have him stay. He was not supposed to be there.
And that’s exactly what happened. They sent him, and as soon as the doctor saw his chart, they said, “What the hell are you doing here? There is no way you should be here. You’re on the next medevac out.” And his doctor told him, “Well, no, because he’s not emergency, we’re gonna take him back so he can get his stuff. And we’ll medevac him from there.” And they kept him. Even though the other doctor had said, “He’s outta here now.” They kept him for another month. I was over here just fighting. It got to the point where I was having screaming matches with them, and I almost physically got in an altercation with the sergeant major. Because he was just horrible.
And that’s when I realized that, my husband being in his 40s, he had already served over 20 years. I was in my 30s. We had already done three deployments. He had done Desert Storm. I was like, “If they’re treating us like this…” He had a little bit of rank. “If they’re treating us like this, what chance do these young couples have, that have been in the military one, two, three years? They don’t have a chance at all.” And that’s when I decided to fight and become an advocate for soldiers.
Before his third deployment, I had been pretty ignorant. You always think something could happen but you don’t really think about it that much. But then, when you get that knock on the door, it all changes. So the third deployment was really hard. I went into depression. The majority of the wives here are on medications and depressed.
I started reading on the internet—I didn’t agree with the wars anymore. My step-son joined the Marines, and then I thought, “We’re gonna be fighting these wars—our kids are gonna be fighting these wars.” And so I started looking for a group, and I couldn’t find one in Killeen. I had seen a picture of Desiree from Code Pink when she was at Congress, and she had the blood on her hands. She was telling Condoleeza Rice, “You have blood on your hands.” That image stayed with me. So when I found out who the group was, I looked up the website and found out that there was an Austin chapter. That’s when I reached out to them. I just showed up at one of their meetings, and never left.
I was in Austin at least three times a week with them. And of course, meeting other activists. Actually, the first day I was at Code Pink, they were doing an interview with the Austin Statesman. I ended up doing an interview that day. If it wasn’t for Code Pink, I don’t know what would’ve happened that year with that deployment. Because I was with them a lot. They were a huge support. So when all this happened, that’s when I decided to take active steps.
We had already talked about the old coffeehouses, and people wanted to do something in Killeen. The peace community cares so much about soldiers and family members. But we’re always so guarded, families in the military, and we stay away. We’re pretty much brainwashed. When Chris came back in August of 2008, we had already started the concept of the coffeehouse. But a lot of it starting had to do with when my when my son just called me and said, “I have something to tell you.” And I knew immediately, as soon as he said that. And it was devastating.
He told me, “I’m joining the Marines.” And one of my biggest regrets was not taking him to see his father at Walter Reed, because I think that would’ve changed his mind. And he joined. He got lucky and he never deployed. He was in four years. He knew immediately that, “Oh, this is bullshit.” He figured that out in Boot Camp. Boot Camp’s eight weeks, and he’s like, “Damn, what was I thinking!” And then he had to stay in for another four years. But he’s out now, thank goodness. And he’s good. I’m still trying to get him to move down here.
So Under the Hood opened in 2009. My ex-husband was a big part of that. I wanted to create a space for soldiers, but I tell people I had also selfish reasons too, because I wanted him to have a space. Little did I know that he just wanted to block everything out. He just didn’t want to think about it. But he was supportive. I mean, he helped clean it up, and with our first barbecues he would barbecue for us, and it was great. It just took up a lot of my time. And they always told me “You gotta find a balance. You need to take care of your family first.” But how do you tell a 20-something-year-old soldier that you’re not there for them? It was hard on him too, you know. But it was something I had to do. And I knew that, with him, I had given him all the support I could give him, and now he had to take that next step, go to counseling. Because he wouldn’t. He just didn’t want to. He didn’t want to think about it. It was difficult. But he just kind of separated himself from it.
The coffeehouse became a place for organizations to come and collaborate, which is what I wanted. I didn’t want an organization, because we have a lot of great organizations. But I didn’t want one organization, with their agenda, or what their views were about it. And when I was working with our active duty soldiers at the time, we had a lot of Vietnam vets that see things differently. Fort Hood is a world of its own. What works in one base does not work at ours. What works at ours does not work at another base.
We had to make sure that it was community-run. When we created our board and we made our organization, the first thing was that the Fort Hood people are gonna call the shots, because we know our community. It would be real difficult for someone from the outside to understand how it is for us there, and what we have to deal with on a daily basis. One of the biggest things I wanted to do was bring our military community and our peace community together. Because the peace community has this misconception that they’d be used, or that the military brainwashed us. I wanted to bring them together. I also wanted other organizations to be able to come together. Since it wasn’t one organization’s space they could all use it, whether it was ISO, or whether it was Veterans for Peace or whether it was Iraq Veterans Against the War.
For the most part, we created the space for IVAW, you know, but we welcomed everybody. So, and that’s why we had the Communist Manifesto, the Koran, we had everything there. And some people did not like that. Our more conservatives or moderates, were kind of like, “Mmm, what’s…”—But it was like, “No, it’s open to everybody.” I loved that.
The biggest issue we were facing, from the beginning, was of course the PTSD, the self-medicating. But with prescription drugs, from the base. They would just give them all this medication. They would take extra, or whatever, and it would get them high. They were just a mess. With some of the medication, they weren’t even coherent. They were zombied out. And so they would decide to stop taking the medication, or we would try to help them out in whichever way we could. A lot of cases we had, I took them to the fifth floor. I would sit with them in the ER. I was lucky enough that even though I wasn’t a spouse, I would just tell them, “I’m a family friend, and their mom just wants me to make sure they’re okay,” and they would let me go in the back with them in the ER. And because they were freaking out at the time, at least they weren’t by themselves.
And then of course, the ER calls whatever NCO to come and sit with the soldier. And some of them were real jerks. Having someone else there present made them back off and stuff. But I did that with several of them, and we had one that was there for a couple hours. It was a black-out. I mean, he doesn’t remember anything of it. And we ended up asking, “Where’s he at? Is he in the restroom?” We started looking, and he was hiding behind a tree in the front. He was there and he was freaking out because he was seeing images of a child he had shot. He just freaked out. We ended up having to take him to the ER, and they admitted him. He was there for probably a week or two and came out.
Then, there’s always that stigma and shame. They make you feel like you’re crazy because you go to the fifth floor. But these guys found a way to say, “You know what? We’re human. We are human, and we have break-downs, and we’re fucked.” And so, towards the end, they were saying, “Well, I was there five weeks! I beat your ass!” You know, it kind of became okay. When we had other new soldiers come in that needed help, it made it okay to go get the help.
We had a lot of people come in to the coffeeshop that were just needing advice, or saying “Okay, this is what’s going on. What do I need to do?” And we would say, “Okay, well, this is what we found helpful.” And we would tell them the process: you can do the walk-in, and just ask for an appointment to get an evaluation. And we would tell them, “This is what you do. Just go sign in.” And I would tell them, “Be prepared, because your ass is gonna be there all day.” It’s almost like they do it on purpose just to see how many of them walk out. Also, the paperwork you have to fill out. I went several times with a couple soldiers that had panic attacks. They had to sit against the wall, because they didn’t want anyone walking behind them. And I would sit there with them. I had gone through the process with mine, so that’s why I knew. A questionnaire of 300 questions! I’m like, “You cannot give a soldier with issues these questions! That’s ridiculous!” There would be almost the same question but re-worded, and that would frustrate them so much. And I would say, “It’s okay.” And just give that support, being there with them where it’s like, “Okay, why don’t we take a break. Let’s go outside and smoke a cigarette.” Come back in, finish the paperwork. We would be there hours, five, six hours. It was ridiculous.
And so people would come in and we would give them the step-by-steps, what they could do, what options they had. Later on we would hear that they made it into the Warrior Transition Unit or that they got their 5-17 and they were out. But people that came to the coffeehouse didn’t always stay at the coffeehouse. Now I wish I would’ve collected the data. Because at the time I didn’t, but now it would’ve been…Even just, “John Doe,” and what they came in for, what kind of information were they seeking, and what would we give them? We never did that. Now it would’ve been kind of nice to say “Okay, this is who we helped.”
But I know that all those soldiers that came through our doors…our regulars, none of them redeployed. I didn’t realize that until one of my soldiers told me that at the end, when I was leaving. That’s good. We did our job. That’s what our goal was, to make sure they were okay. So that was cool.
I was there at the coffeehouse about two years. We had our soft opening in February, and we had our grand opening by the first of March of 2009. And I left April, 2011.
I’ve heard it blamed on spouses, when guys get PTSD. The most the command did was say, “They’ve been at war”—and this is later on, it wasn’t at the beginning. “They’re gonna come back a little different,” or, “They’re gonna be a little stressed, and you guys just kind of need to take it easy on them.” It was just bullshit talk at one of the meetings right before they came home. It was nothing like where you could sit and hear testimony from another spouse, like how bad it can get, what are the issues. You are not prepared when they come back, for any of it. Because you have no idea. You have no idea what they went through. And some of them talk about it, some of them don’t. A lot of them come back and they’re just violent, they’re angry. They leave the war, but they bring it home with them.
Our war starts at home. My husband was always passive, very laid-back. With every deployment, he was different, and definitely more aggressive. So if you’re already aggressive and hyped before, then you come back that much worse. The stories some of the wives would tell me, it was unreal. It was unreal. That’s where all the abuse comes in, and we’re talking bad. Breaking arms and putting their heads through walls, out of pure rage and anger that they just don’t know how to control.
The soldiers need counseling, and anger management. With a deployment, you have to be able to find ways to cope, and they don’t know how. And not only that, it’s almost like they’re discouraged to do it. If they’re already having issues at home, and then you send them for another deployment, it’s not gonna get any better. I used to think of when, at the beginning in 2005, mine was wounded. And I was watching some TV show. It was a soldier speaking, about how his wife had left him. He had PTSD. And I was so angry. I was angry at her. Like, how could you leave your soldier? How could you do that? No matter what, I would never leave mine. I loved my husband, and no matter what issues he had. But I was dumb, I was ignorant. I didn’t know what she was dealing with. And then when you walk a mile in those shoes, then you’re like, “Oh, okay. This is what she was dealing with.” And then of course you understand. But those issues are never addressed by the military.
And we got divorced. He chose to leave, in September of 2009. We were separated by October first. That’s when I moved out. We had our issues before, you have to understand. After he was wounded and we reconnected, we were just completely inseparable. And then, the issues started. He got a little bit physical. I packed up my stuff and I left with the clothes on my back. I got my kids and I said, “You know what? I’m not even sticking around for it to get any worse. This was enough for me.” And I left.
Before that I had already started going out of town, just to get away, because he was so detached and then when he would interact with me, it was usually fights. Not provoked. He could be sitting down, watching TV, and I would walk by, and he would turn and look at me, and I knew the moment he would look at me that that was it. It was pure rage. And it was on. My kids saw a lot of that because we were always home. We never went out, we never drank, we never did any of that. He would drink at home. It just got to the point where I started leaving the house, going out of town for a week at a time and then go back home. Since he had separated himself, I started keeping myself busy doing other things.
So then, I ended up leaving. He was really, really angry, and hunting me down, and threatening me. And I was calling his command. I was calling his first sergeant, because he was good friends with him. And I said, “Look, I don’t want to get him in trouble. I don’t want it against him, or anything like that.” Because I knew he was not getting help. And I was like, “You need to talk to him. He’s calling my family and my friends, and threatening them. You need to go check on him, please. Somebody go check on him.” So they would and everything. But it took him a while. We filed for divorce. And he calmed down, and we started talking again. And we were trying to figure out, “Okay, we’re gonna sell the house.” He was going to buy me a house in Houston. We were on good terms again. And then we find out he’s deploying again. And I was not gonna leave him like that. I came home. We were only separated a couple of months. And I came back. I was there again a few months, and then he deployed, to that last one.
This was on his third deployment to Iraq. The issues started with when we was wounded. When he came back from this last deployment, I knew he was gone. Completely gone. He was already different with each deployment, but I knew I’d lost him with the last one. And so that’s why I kept myself busy, and I threw myself into my work. Of course, he wasn’t used to that because my life was him and the kids since I was 18. I was always at home and taking care of the family. He wouldn’t get help. And it just got worse and worse. He finally just one day said, “I don’t want to be married anymore.” And by that time he was already running around. I could’ve tried to convince him, but I was like, “He’s gone.”
The real sad part is that he didn’t get the help, and it’s already been—what? Two years now? His anger is a lot worse, than even when I was around. I’ve talked to him, and he drinks a lot, a lot, and gets angry. He was never like that. And I’m like, “Are you kidding?! You cannot expect for me to let my kids go to see you.” I’m not sending my 10 year-old, because I don’t know what’s happening. That’s my fear, that he’s explosive. And he’s a good father. But when he explodes… He said, “No, no. I’m getting help.” And whether he has or hasn’t, I don’t know. But it just gets worse.
My younger daughter, the 10 year-old, she doesn’t know anything else. But she has attachment issues. She does not like to be left alone. She gets scared if one of us goes, like we’re not coming back. I’m thinking that all has to do with when she was little and we disappeared on her, because I went to Walter Reed, and then dad comes back and he’s in a wheelchair. She was only three at the time, but she remembers. She will tell me, “Yeah, I remember, when I would sit with dad on the bed and watch TV, and he was in his back brace.” She remembers all that, and she was three. So she does have separation anxiety, things like that.
With the older one, she’s got more shit. She hides things very well, but she also has commitment issues, separation anxiety, everything… She even says, “I need counseling.” You know, I say, “That’s good that you realize that, now just go get it.” But she hides it all. She doesn’t talk about it, because she starts immediately crying, because it’s very hard for her. She says, “I have daddy issues.” “That’s not my father.” She does not consider her dad her dad anymore. And she hasn’t since she was 13, 14. By his second deployment, she was like, “That’s not my dad.” And she’s said that since.
I just got lucky with my kids, because they’re good kids. They didn’t turn to drugs or just acting out. That’s because I was hard on them. But a lot of their friends are base kids and are very, very messed up. They’re lost, just lost. Because the parents are having their own issues, or the kids are unsupervised. When my daughter was in junior high, they were sneaking out of the house and drinking, doing drugs. They were having orgies.
Supposedly they have services for the kids. But we never hear about them. I think it was sixth, seventh and eighth grade talking to the principal and the counselor, and they were talking about the kids: “We don’t just have kids that have one parent deployed. We have kids that have both parents deployed or the single parent deployed.” They gave me examples. One girl, it was both parents deployed for the last six years and mind you, she was in seventh grade. For six years, one would go, and one would be home, and then this one would go, and the other one would go. That’s how they were doing it. Another one, her mom was deployed, and she was a single parent, so the girl went with the grandmother, but the grandmother died. So she’s the only one at home, and her mother’s in Iraq.
I knew about my daughter’s friend, whose mother was involved with the rear commander, and the daughter was seeing this while her dad was deployed. These kids just don’t have the support. They don’t have enough counselors for our soldiers, much less for the family members.
One woman I knew had a 15 year-old at the time and he was having issues. They sent him to behavioral health, the psych ward, whatever, off-post. This was at midnight or something. I drove them over there, and we were admitting him and so she was doing the paperwork. I’m sitting there and I’m watching the night shift. They’re all standing around there and they’re talking and all the kids are asleep, listening to them, and they’re like, “Oh, yeah, so and so was running around! And he ran around me, and I had to catch him!” I’m listening to them, and I asked them, “Do you mind if I ask how old he was?” The little boy was six. And I was like, “What?!” Because the way he made it sound, he was a big orderly. So, but I’m thinking, he was bigger and so I asked him how young, and he was like, “Six.”
He was one of their inpatients already. We were admitting my friend’s son but the orderlies were talking about another patient that was already there. And so, I found out the patient was six. So I asked him, “How young do they come?” “Four.” I was like, “Wow!”
Then I said, “Do you have military kids in here?” And he said “The majority are military kids.” And I was like, “Really?!” And he said “Yeah. The majority of our patients are military brats.” And that was when I started becoming aware of what’s happening.
But those are extreme cases. And that’s when the parents decide to send them, but a lot of times they don’t. I had Criminal Investigation Command come to my door, and ask about a neighbor. And there was abuse there. I don’t know if it was physical, sexual, or what, but it was abuse of a child. And these are our neighborhoods. This is what we deal with on a constant basis. Kids running around, and people just don’t talk about it.