Operation Recovery

The Fort Hood Testimony Report

Nora Leighton *

Spouse of an active duty service-member

 

Editor’s Note: Nora and Jake Leighton had been married for two years at the time of the interview, and were living on post at Fort Hood. Nora is white, in her mid-twenties, and originally from Colorado. Nora testified to their experience as a military family member struggling to cope with multiple deployments, relocation, and isolation at Fort Hood. At the time of the interview, she had recently become pregnant with their first child. Nora also described her husband’s experiences with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, along with how it affects her as his wife and primary support person.
Two and a half years ago, we met on MySpace. It was kind of weird. I didn’t know him, really—he was just somebody you add. But we just talked and talked and talked. And then he came to see me once and I was like, “Oh, yeah.”

He was deployed in Iraq, and I think that’s why we actually started talking. He just wanted somebody to talk to, I think, and I didn’t mind. So, it just started out as friends talking. Then he came to see me, and that’s about it.

…It might have been his third deployment. We got married in summer 2010…shortly after he got back, and as soon as we could—with his deployment and everything.

I think he was ashamed of [what he goes through] at first. When the first IED explosion he was there for went off, he called me and said, “Oh, this just happened.” And I asked, “Are you ok?” And he said, “Yeah. I’m fine.” Then the second time, it was a big one. He called and I could just tell in his voice.

I thought, “Oh my God, something is not right.” He sounded like a whole different person. My friend was there, and I sort of dropped the phone to her and said, “Hold on, I need to get some fresh air.” It was that drastic of a difference. After that, he didn’t go back out—I think they call it ‘field,’ or leaving the gates. We talked about it for a while after it happened, and he was really torn up about it. It was something that I couldn’t understand. You imagine it’s terrifying, but you can’t really wrap your head around the idea of an explosion happening to you.

I just kept saying, “You should probably tell somebody.” He would break down a lot, and his attitude changed. He used to think, “Yeah, I’m kickass—I’ve got these people, we can do this.” Then after, it changed to, “These people [we’re fighting against] are really smart and they know what they’re doing.” They got to him, and ever since then I could tell it was different.

…That it was our first summer together… Ever since then, it’s been different—even seeing him at home. When he came home from deployment, he was always just the coolest guy. But after that, he was just so—I don’t know—reserved. Standoffish.

There were two [explosions]. The first…was just a small one. Nobody got hurt. He didn’t even seem shaken up. He was just telling me, “This happened.” His attitude was the same: kickass Oscar,* we’ve got this. And then after the second one…you just get that feeling in your gut, and you know something is going on. It was pretty scary. There are some days when you’re totally at peace, thinking, “Yeah, I haven’t heard from him in a couple days, but I know it’s fine.” But after that one, I just thought, “Oh my God.” Then I realized it was the second day in a row that he had to go through that, and I don’t know how hard that would be… I wouldn’t want to go through that.

I guess he was defeated, and that was his attitude ever since. We would always talk about him going out there, doing his job, getting it done—and he was really proud. He had it under control. But after that second one, he was traumatized. You could hear it. He said, “These guys. The enemy. They’re smart. They know what they’re doing.” You could tell it shook him up. Before that, it was, “Ah, they’re stupid. They don’t know who they’re messin’ with.” But after that, I think it changed the ways he saw things…a lot, actually.

I talked to my parents about it, and I don’t think they really understood because they didn’t hear his voice right after it happened. You know when you hear somebody’s voice, and it’s cracking and about to break down? That’s how his sounded. And I was honestly waiting for him to say, “I lost my leg,” or something like that. It sounded like, “Babe, I’m gonna have sit you down and tell you something really bad.” And I was expecting worse, but it was the worst. He’s intact and everything, but… Thank God he’s still here—but it takes a toll on him.

He’s been different ever since. I still love him. But sometimes I feel he’s just so disconnected with me. Before, he used to tell me everything that he did that day, anything that he was feeling. After, there was maybe a week when he said, “That was really scary.” And then a wall went up. He didn’t want to talk about it with me. I could tell the difference in him. He seemed drained. It’s been like that ever since. There will be a certain week when I’ll say, “You should just talk to me. What is this about?”

There was a time that was really bad, when he was in Germany. We would sit there for hours on Skype, and he would say a couple words. That’s totally not us. We used to talk and talk and talk. I think 14 hours straight was our record.

It was always, “Hey, I’ve got to call you back—somebody needs this phone.” So he’d be hopping phones, and I’d be hopping cell phones and house phones, trying to keep everything charged and talking the whole time. So going from a record-breaking 14-hour phone call to sitting on Skype—when you can actually see somebody—and him saying, “Yup,” or “Yeah,” to everything…

I’d say, “You should try to talk to somebody, because you’re different.” And he’d say, “Yeah, maybe you’re right.” But then I’d say, “You really should. You might not see it or feel it, but I can tell.” I guess he did, but it took him awhile—and then they just gave him some pills.

They’re not doing anything. It’s like saying, “Well, try somebody else.” But I don’t really know what goes on in there, and my personal thought is that he just needs somebody to talk to. He says he can’t relate to these people. They haven’t been through that, so they can’t grasp anything. They just want to give you pills, get you out of there and back to work. So, I think that was the only time I know of that he went in and tried to get any help. He was discouraged after that.

I still nudged him a little bit: “Well, try it again. Nothing’s going to happen one time.” As for pills, I don’t even know what they have out there now that would fix this. I don’t really think pills would be the answer. I think it would take more than a high dose of something. I don’t really know what his thoughts on that are, but I don’t think he took those pills very much. I think he took pills for nightmares. But I still think after that he was scared to tell me a lot a stuff—thinking I would be worried, which I am.

I don’t hear a lot of this stuff because it scares me. I think that when he goes back [overseas] again, that’s the first thing I’ll resort to. Worrying, and thinking about previous stories and stuff like that. I think that after he stopped having the attitude that he could defeat everybody, he stopped telling me stories the way he used to.

…Until now, it’s always been the same. In Germany, I guess he was busy a lot. He told me he didn’t really have time to [get help]. But the time that I know of, when he did try, just set him back more. I told him he should go there just to talk to somebody. My thought is that even though they haven’t been there—the therapists or the doctors—they’ve still talked to a lot of different guys who have. So I think they can kind of relate through that, but I don’t know.

I think he needs somebody besides me, because I think he feels he’s got to hold it back some. He can’t just pour everything on me because that’s where I get my worrying. So I think he just needs somebody to lay it all out there and not worry. That’s what I told him he should try to do, and then he told me, “Well I went.” And I said, “Well how did it go? Do you feel any better?” And he said, “I got pills.”

[That] was when we went to Germany. I think it was his third deployment… Then they got to leave, and he was in Germany. So that’s when I think he tried to get help…I don’t really know if he tried [in Iraq] or not. I would hope he did. I think that would have been a good time to do it.

But I don’t know—he might have just been taking a break, too. He was really excited that he didn’t have to go [outside the FOB]. I remember one time when he showed me all this candy that he got. He said, “Look at all these candies that they have here!” He was so excited.

…I keep saying that the IED is what changed everything because it was literally just after that. He used to laugh so much, these big belly laughs. He never has those anymore. He used to be playful and fun and everything.

I didn’t really get to see him for awhile. He came home for a little bit and then he had to go to Germany. Then it was just Skype all the time, and when I got to Germany I just thought, “Wow, you’re a totally different person.” He was kind of a jerk. No offense to him or anything—I can understand. But at the same time, as a wife, you feel like, “Ugh.”

…You can only take so much. I promised no matter what I’m always gonna be there for him, and I have been. But it’s crazy sometimes… In Germany, I was really struggling. I felt that even though this happened, this isn’t the guy that I married and want to have to deal with. Because one second he would be chill and happy, and then the next just so aggravated. It doesn’t take anything to turn him that way. It will just—in just a second, he’ll turn.

If you want to sit close to him or cuddle, the affection is just gone in a second. His attitude changes. He just won’t want to talk to you—that’s how I know. You can just tell when you love somebody that much and you’re with him. Well, not really with…but when you Skype with somebody every day for so many hours, you get to know their personality. In Germany, that was the first time being with him for more than 15 days. So I thought maybe that was just how it is. Maybe that’s just him. But at the same time, it’s just not. That’s the main thing that puts a damper on us…being nice, not over-the-top nice, just being him, and then an aggressive jerk the next second. It’s—I don’t really know.

He’s not crazy, not abusive or anything, but it’s just his attitude. When you want affection and he’s in that zone, it hurts to get shut down by your own husband.

You think, “Well, what did I do?” That’s been the hardest part: trying to accept that maybe something really is going wrong in his head and that it’s not something that I’m doing. Still, even to this day, I have to try and weigh out—did I do something wrong, in a second? I don’t really know if I said something or if I changed or if it’s just something that happened in his head.

That’s the most confusing part. I understand that people just wake up in bad moods…but it’s just so weird living with somebody who can one second be laughing and watching a movie, and then you lean over again and he’s just straight-faced.

“I don’t feel like it. No. I don’t want to hold your hand right now. I don’t feel like it. I have a headache.” It’s different to adjust to that.

…I understand how maybe a war movie would send him into that or something. But it is literally just a split second change and he will be a totally different person. It’s weird. It’s one of those things, you just have to see it, and you feel like, “Whoa.” A lot of the time, it’s just to me. Like with drinking—he’s done drinking now, thank God. Because he’d just say, “I’m gonna break your phone.” I was like, “What!?” He was buzzed—not to the point that was crazy or anything, it doesn’t hurt me—but he just wants to break things.

And I’d think, “That’s weird.” I’ve never really been around somebody like that and he wasn’t like that before. I’ve got to guard my breakable stuff because I don’t want him in the electronics. I don’t want him to snap. Just like I said, he just gets in one of those moods. I’ve learned not to cry at it because that just pisses him off even more. So I just act like, “Whatever,” and I just leave. I just leave him alone. Because if you sit there, he just goes further away. The closer you get, the more he goes, “Absolutely not. No.”

It’s like he doesn’t even notice it happens… I turn my head and he’s a totally different person. I’ve asked him, “Do you realize when you’re like that?” He says, “Like what? I’m not like anything.” He’s usually in his angry mode when I have to ask him, and it’s just so aggravating. We’ll have unnecessary fights because of it, or he’ll pick a reason—something so small, like the music was too loud… Just the other day I left the room and came back, and he was a totally different person. I asked, “What happened?” He said, “I don’t know. You did this.” And I was like, “No.”

I guess there are little things that I do that aggravate him. He’ll forget what it was and still be mad hours later. I’ll just say, “Do you even remember why you said you’re mad at me in the first place?” And he says, “Don’t talk to me,” because he doesn’t remember. As much as I want to leave him alone, I just want to shake him and say, “What is wrong with you right now?”

…It’s been like that for a while, too—I noticed it in Germany. That was a couple years ago now. It’s our two-year anniversary coming up this month. I love him to death, but it’s just hard sometimes—that aggravation that he gets from nothing or from the littlest things… You can’t help, but you think, “Well, what am I doing wrong?” The first thing that comes to your mind isn’t, “It’s something that he’s dealing with.” …But 98% of the time I’ll just be sitting there, I’ll turn my head, and then I’ll look back and he’s aggravated.

Usually I am the only one around. I struggle with that, too, because my family is who I go back to so much. This is the first time I’ve been more than a block away from them. Besides Germany, but that was different. That was kind of like vacation, but this is like, “We have a house here and we live here.” And as much as I want to vent to [my family], they say, “That’s not Oscar. Oscar’s a nice, hardworking guy.”

They’ve met him a lot. I think with my dad, of course, he’s gonna be on his best behavior. And they just look at him like he has no flaws. Which is fine with me. I’d rather them think that. But sometimes I’m just like, “Oh my God, I can’t handle them today.” It’s like every other second he wants to be close and then he wants nothing to do with me…

I think it would almost be easier if he could say, “I’m in one of those moods. Can you just go away?” …And everybody’s just says, “Well, it must have been a hard day at work.” I’m like, “Yeah.” I don’t want to say, “No! That’s not it. He didn’t even go to work today!” So, I don’t know. It definitely would be easier if he could see when he’s like that.

[My family] hasn’t seen it firsthand, who only sees Oscar at his absolute best. And I feel like when we’re home he’s a lot better—when he’s away from the Army. Not living on base, and when he doesn’t have to stand up straight, wear a uniform and stuff like that. He’s more laid back, so it happens a lot less.

[But] it still happens. I think I just bring it out in him or something, and that’s what’s so confusing. I’ve seen him talk to other people, and he’s not like that toward them. And his family and his friends—he’s not like that with them. It’s just when we’re alone that he changes. That’s another reason why I think, “Oh, it must be me.” Or else he would do it to his friends. I don’t really know [why] I trigger that in him.

I always did promise him, “No matter what, if you come home with no legs or if you come home and…” I never thought it would be that real. You see on movies when they’re just sitting there and they just start screaming—or whatever from the war. And I’d say, “You know, I’ll still love you if you’re like that.” But never was I actually thinking that it was going to happen. And I still love him, of course. But it’s just a lot harder than I thought it would be to deal with that.

…He told me he has PTSD and mild Traumatic Brain Injury… So I was like, “What is this?” He just had that attitude of, “There’s nothing to worry about.” And of course I Google it. I’ve got to watch myself on Google, though. I get way too into it and then I’ll just freak out. So he’ll just tell me, “It’s fine.” I’m thinking, “Okay, if you say so.” I’ve never really seen any physical health problems with him—except he smokes like crazy.

Editors Note: Nora also testified on what kinds of support she has received from the military. She said she had never had any briefing or training as a military spouse about traumatic injuries.

I don’t like [the FRGs], to be honest. They’re just so organized. You know what I mean? There’s the mandatory ones that I go to. But I can’t really see myself doing that. I don’t know why…just being honest. It just doesn’t seem like something I could get into.

I think his unit had family days or whatever. So that’s the only thing I’m into. And then there was a neighborhood thing that we had to go to. And that was just—oh my Gosh, I couldn’t imagine staying… I love strangers that are down to earth, but I’ve noticed here everybody’s just cheesy.

I was just thinking, “I don’t think I could handle these people.” Because they’re just… Like Stepford people, you know? Maybe I should give it a chance, but just from the little things that I’ve been to, it just seems you’ve got to watch yourself. I showed up here barefoot—that’s the kind of person I am.

I’ve seriously had conversations with three different people on the whole base. Like actual conversations. Tiny small talk here and there, but nothing that I think anybody would actually open up about [PTSD] or anything.

I know my neighbors and stuff, but I feel like I can’t talk to them. I don’t talk to her husband much; her husband and my husband just chill and barbecue. But if I talk to her, I feel like she says, “Ohh. No, I don’t go through those problems. We don’t have those problems.” Almost in a judgmental way. So I just don’t tell her anything that’s going on.

…If Oscar will be ok, I will be fine. Because I’ll have my best friend again, I won’t need any friends on base. I think the main thing is the… ‘bipolar’ thing. I think he needs help for that. That’s just what I can see; I don’t really know what’s going on in there. But if I had to say [what would help], I would just say somebody that can relate to him. Let him know that he’s not crazy, that people go through that.

…My mom was bipolar and they gave her pills. And she was really bad with it. Summertime she’d be fine, wintertime would come and she’d be a totally different person. So I can relate to that in a way. But you’re more prepared for that, because you can tell, “Oh, the weather definitely affects her.” But as for Oscar, it’s just everywhere.

I feel like we have it under control for the most part. I think for young people starting out, we’re good. I think we should do marriage counseling sometimes because it’s something that will just force us to talk to each other… And I want to be able to see what he’s thinking. It’s not really arguments or anything. It’s just like we need help having a conversation, something that will go on. I want to have a conversation with him so bad. And I get nothing. It’s just one word responses. Even if it’s just, “Oh, that commercial was stupid. What did you think of that commercial?” Or, “How was dinner?” So that’s a struggle, too.

Like I said, we used to talk for 14 hours. We definitely talked about the most random stuff. We could talk about it for an hour. We used to talk like that. And now I have to pry a conversation out of him, and I’ve tried every conversation, from just even football. I know nothing about football.

But I just feel, if you have conversation with me, I’ll do my best to keep up with you. Or work. Or whatever. And he’s just blank with it. He just doesn’t want to talk.

But I love him. Because when he’s his normal self, he’s the best guy in the world. But when he’s in one of those moods, it’s just like he’s in a trance. He’s just like a zombie.

Editor’s Note: Nora continued to describe what specific kinds of symptoms her husband goes through. She began by saying that he has both short-term and long-term memory problems.

…It’s just conversations or weird little things, like having five drinks next to you and having to tell him, “Babe, you have five drinks next to you. Why are you getting another one?” And he’s like, “Oh, I didn’t know. My bad.” Just little stuff like that. Or memories that I have from previous dates or our honeymoon that were big. And he says, “I don’t remember doing that.” I didn’t know [trauma] could relate to that. I haven’t really read about it because I scare myself too much…

It’s mainly anxiety, I guess. You’re just like, “Oh God, I don’t want to wake up today.” You just want to throw up for no reason, I guess. I don’t know if I’m the only person who has that.

But sometimes it’s just like you’re so worried about absolutely nothing, you know? Just thinking, “Oh my god, I’m seriously gonna throw up and cry.” And I don’t know why that happens. It’s been since I’ve been [at Fort Hood], for some reason. When I first got here, I thought, “Well, maybe it’s just the stress of moving so far away and having to deal with a lot of stuff.” Getting into housing and the car, the money. We used to be able to blow our money and now we’ve got bills and stuff like that. But now that we’re settled it still happens and I don’t know why. And then pregnancy hormones…

When he was in Germany and when I was in Germany [it was already happening]. It was really bad when I went to Germany and I saw what was happening, and then when I came home. That’s when it was the worst.

And I got put on pills and everything. It mainly happened at night, so the doctor was like, “How about we just put you on sleeping pills?” Because I guess some other pills have risks of suicidal thoughts and stuff like that, and I’m not that kind of person. And I don’t want those thoughts in my head. I don’t really know why that comes up. It’s confusing to me because I’m like, “I’m not worried about anything.” My life can be doing just perfect and then all of a sudden I’m just worried. So worried it makes you nauseous about nothing. I don’t know why. I don’t know what that’s from.

…That’s the weird part about it. It’s mainly when I’m alone. If I feel like if I have a moment to sit down and just think of nothing, I get that feeling.

When he was Germany I thought, “Maybe I’m just lonely.” Because I’m kind of always by myself. Because when he was in Germany…it was just drinking. His friends were a bad influence. So I thought, “Well, maybe I’m worried about that.” Because at night your mind wanders, I guess. So maybe I’m thinking of so much stuff I don’t even realize it. My body’s feeling it. I don’t know why that happens… But I never had that before—it was really just in Germany that it started.

During the day it was less; I would feel worried over nothing. But at night it was really bad. I would just want to sob uncontrollably for some reason. And that’s totally not me. I’m a happy person. So that happening is scary in itself. What made that happen? I don’t know.

…I know Oscar was ashamed to go [get help] because I think he felt people looked at him bad. Like he couldn’t handle it or something. I just think Oscar can’t be the only guy going through this.

…So I just feel that if these guys could just not worry about what people think of them— just go there and…not have that over their head. Feel that they’ll be able to go to work, and nobody will ask questions and just let it be their personal thing. And I know Oscar is worried about his job, too. He’s thinking that this is how he’s supporting me and the baby, and that’s how we have our house right now and stuff. And I think he’s worried that with talking to people, they might do something. I don’t know if he’s worried that they’re gonna kick him out or what’s gonna happen. I don’t know the rules. I don’t know if you can stay in the Army if you have these things. I just feel like they’ve put him this way, why can’t they help him out?

I understand Oscar’s worry about the job thing. That’s scary to think that with just one doctor’s appointment they could just discharge you, if they don’t think you can handle it. That’s not very fair. I’m sure there’s other jobs that they could put you to.

I’d say that’s what Oscar is thinking from what he’s said and the vibes that I get from him. And I’m sure that other people think that, too. A lot of people depend on this. It’s a job. I’ve heard of people going in [to get help] and from stories that Oscar has told me. They’re going just to talk to somebody, and then later they find out that they’re getting discharged. Whether it be medically or whatever, I still don’t think they pay you the full amount.

…I think he would like [civilian help], so that he doesn’t have that weight over him. So that he doesn’t have to watch what he says.

…I like just being able to come here [to Under the Hood] and talk to somebody that’s not paid to do it, I guess. I don’t know. Relaxing. I know Oscar felt a lot better after he left here.

I asked him, “Well, how do you feel?” And he said, “It was nice just being able to talk about it.” And that’s good.

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