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After Combat Stress, Violence Can Show Up At Home

Apr 27, 2016
Originally published on April 29, 2016 2:43 pm

Stacy Bannerman didn't recognize her husband after he returned from his second tour in Iraq.

"The man I had married was not the man that came back from war," she says.

Bannerman's husband, a former National Guardsman, had been in combat and been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He behaved in ways she had never expected, and one day, he tried to strangle her.

"I had been with this man for 11 years at that point, and there had never been anything like this before," Bannerman said. "I was so furious and so afraid."

At first, she thought it was just a problem within her marriage. She called a hotline for military families to ask for help and learned something else she hadn't expected.

"The woman operating the hotline began weeping," Bannerman remembered. "She was getting so many of these calls from military spouses all over the country."

The debate about the relationship between domestic violence and post-traumatic stress disorder has waxed and waned since the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, but has never quite gone away. Headlines periodically reignite it, as when the son of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who is an Iraq vet, faced domestic violence allegations earlier this year.

When Stress Gives Way To Aggression

Veterans' advocates are anxious about the stereotype of combat vets as ticking time bombs, which is contradicted by the vast majority of former troops who live with post-traumatic stress and never hurt anyone.

There is a link, however, between PTSD and violence, said Dr. Casey Taft, a top researcher with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Vets with PTSD are three times more likely to be violent, he said.

"When one is exposed to war-zone trauma and combat trauma, they are going to be more likely to assume the worst and assume people are trying to do harm to them — and more likely to respond to that with aggressions," he said.

For many sufferers of post-traumatic stress, the terror and adrenaline of a life-threatening moment won't go away. When that builds into aggression, the target can often be a wife or girlfriend.

More than a third of women and about a fourth of men surveyed in the U.S. have experienced "intimate partner violence" at some point in their lives, according to public health statistics. Studies commissioned by the VA suggest those levels are about the same among active-duty troops and veterans, but more such research is ongoing.

Bannerman wrote a book about her experience, and says that today she hears from the partners of veterans almost every day. The stories tend to be similar.

"He was shrieking with his eyes open. And I went to shake him. He grabbed my wrist and twisted it. ... I knew my wrist was broken," one woman told NPR. "I took myself to the emergency room."

Another woman described how her husband shoved her down just after her son was born, ripping open the scar from her cesarean section.

A third woman found that her husband would sometimes just "go blank," she said. "You could see that he wasn't there."

The three women, all of whom are full-time caregivers to disabled combat veterans, talked with NPR about their experience after requesting that they not be identified in order to protect their privacy and allow them speak frankly.

They described, among other things, the shock they felt at how different their husbands were after returning home from deployments.

"It really took me by surprise," one said. "It was completely out of his character for the man that I met and fell in love with."

The women described how, initially, they began covering for the men. The woman whose childbirth surgery scar was torn told doctors in the hospital's emergency department that she had tripped over their dog and fell.

"I've never given the ER the correct info," said another woman about her many hospital visits.

Caregiving Burdens

Victims of domestic violence have many reasons for staying in their relationships. In the military, there are more reasons: reporting abuse can end a soldier's career badly, which can mean not only disgrace but no benefits for the family.

Some of the women who talked with NPR also said they thought that their husbands could get better with time and help.

"I wanted to keep my family together," one said. "We had three kids at this time. I didn't want his career to be over because of this — if I could just get him the help that he needs."

Serving as the caregiver for a wounded vet can be its own full-time job, with a stipend from the VA. For women in an abusive situation, leaving can also mean leaving behind that source of income.

"He would still have his pay every month," as one wife told NPR. "He wouldn't have to worry financially. If I were to walk out? I walk out with nothing. No job. I haven't been working since 2012."

All three of the women who spoke with NPR said they wanted to stay, to help their husbands recover from war. They went into their relationships with their eyes open, they said, and felt that caring for their sometimes violent husbands was its own form of service to the country.

"I thought, 'This is my job,' " one said. "He went and did his job, and this is mine. That's a prevalent thought among the wives of wounded soldiers. I see it all the time."

Most veterans with post-traumatic stress are not violent, but the VA is focused on researching those who are. One thing that's clear is that abusing drugs and alcohol makes the problems worse. Taft has set up a pilot program to try to help prevent domestic violence.

One challenge, however, is that the VA is focused on veterans, not their wives. And veterans' groups don't talk much about domestic violence — and most domestic violence groups don't have expertise about veterans and post-traumatic stress.

So even with the commitments and the patriotism that some wives express about riding out rough times with their families, the silence and the lack of support can still break a marriage.

One of the women who talked with NPR eventually left her husband after an incident that she said forced her to have a new perspective about her family.

"He had shoved me down. I looked up and all three of my kids were standing there in tears," the woman told NPR. "I thought, 'If a man ever treats one of my girls like this, or my son ends up like this, I will never forgive myself.' "

Her husband wasn't changing his behavior, she realized — "so I have to be the one who does something. I picked up the phone and I called the police. That was the first time I ever called them."

Another woman interviewed for this story moved with her family to a different state, where her husband found better results with the local VA.

"He's come around," she said. "He's started to become more the man I met and fell in love with. There hasn't been any sort of physical altercation since 2014."

The third woman who talked with NPR left her husband briefly but decided to go back. The problems returned, too, though.

"I haven't regretted anything," she said. "Have there been really hard times since then? Yeah. Have I gotten the s*** kicked out of me since then? Yeah."

The woman helps her husband, a Marine combat vet, get to his VA appointments on time. He has cut down on his drinking and attended a Christian retreat for veterans. Even so, there's no telling when something will come along that can create a potential crisis, as when the GPS navigation device in the car won't work.

He hasn't hit her since last year, the woman said, when he smashed her face in the shower and choked her. It was over something the former Marine acknowledged was "something very stupid. A lot of these things, I can't remember what I was so pissed off about," he said.

The couple was asked whether they felt they'd made it out of the woods.

"No, not even close," the former Marine said.

"And we never will be," his wife said.

The woman acknowledged that people urge her to leave the relationship, but she told NPR that she is staying. She does not blame anyone else who leaves a situation like hers, she said, but she is staying with her husband.

"He is not his post-traumatic stress disorder," she said. "He is not his brain injury. These are things he has gotten from serving his country. And that is what we deal with."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Every time there's a headline about veterans and violence, it reopens a debate. It happened this past winter when Sarah Palin's son who served in Iraq was charged with domestic violence. On one side, you have a stereotype of combat veterans as ticking time bombs, and on the other side are thousands of veterans who live with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and are never violent toward anyone. But does PTSD cause violence? There is a link.

NPR's Quil Lawrence spoke with the caregivers of combat vets. And a warning about this story - it has some very graphic descriptions of violence.

STACEY BANNERMAN: The man that I had married was not the man who came back from war.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Stacey Bannerman's husband joined the National Guard and deployed twice to Iraq. He came back with PTSD, and it changed him in a way she never expected.

BANNERMAN: He'd been triggered pretty severely, and he attempted strangling me. I had never - I had been with this man for, you know, 11 years at that point, and there had never been anything like this before. And I was so furious, and I was so afraid.

LAWRENCE: At first she thought it was just a problem with her marriage. She called a hotline for military families.

BANNERMAN: The woman operating the hotline began weeping because she was getting so many of these calls from military spouses all over the country.

LAWRENCE: PTSD is when the terror and adrenaline from a life-threatening moment won't go away. The vast majority of veterans who suffer from it aren't violent, but it does increase the risk of violence. Dr. Casey Taft with the Department of Veterans Affairs says vets with PTSD are about three times more likely to be violent.

CASEY TAFT: When one is exposed to warzone trauma and combat trauma, they are going to be more likely to assume the worst in situations and assume that other people are trying to do harm to them. And they will respond to that with - are more likely to respond to that with aggression.

LAWRENCE: Most commonly the target of that aggression is a wife or girlfriend. Stacey Bannerman wrote a book about it. She says now wives of veterans reach out to her almost daily. Their stories are pretty similar.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: He was screaming with his eyes open. And I went to shake him, and he grabbed my wrist, twisted it. Before I knew what happened, my wrist was broken, and it took myself to the emergency room.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Right after my son was born, he shoved me down, and it ripped open my C-section incision.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: He just would go blank in his eyes. You could see that he wasn't there.

LAWRENCE: Three women, all full-time caregivers to disabled combat vets, spoke with NPR. They asked not to use their names so they could speak frankly.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: It really took me by surprise because he - it was just completely out of his character for the man that I knew.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The only one that sent me to the ER was when that - when my incision got split open. I just told him I tripped over the dog and fell.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I took them that I fell. I've never given the emergency room correct information.

LAWRENCE: There are reasons that victims of domestic violence don't leave. In the military, there are extra reasons. Reporting the abuse can end a soldier's career badly, which means not benefits for the family.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I wanted to keep my family together, you know? We had three kids at this time. I didn't want his career to be over because of this. I didn't want - I just - same thing - if I could just get him the help that he needs...

LAWRENCE: It's hard to have a career as a military spouse - too many moves and deployments. These three women became caregivers to their wounded vets. That's a full-time job with a stipend from the VA but not if they leave.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: He would still have his pay coming every month. He wouldn't have to worry financially. And if I were to walk out, I walk out with nothing - no job, no - you know, I haven't been working since 2012.

LAWRENCE: And all three women wanted to stay and help their husbands recover from the war.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: He went. He fought. He served. He saw things that nobody should ever have to see. And I married him knowing that. It's not like people don't know about it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: You know, it was supporting my husband. It was supporting a war hero. I thought, well, this is my job, you know? He went and did his job, and this is mine.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: And we feel like it's our duty. That's our duty to give back to our country. You feel like you're letting your country down if you give up.

LAWRENCE: Again, the majority of vets with PTSD are not violent. The VA is researching those who are. It's clear that drugs and alcohol make it worse. Dr. Casey Taft has set up a VA pilot program to prevent violence.

TAFT: Veterans don't want to be having these difficulties. In fact, one of the largest reasons for receiving help at the VA is for problems related to violence and aggression and anger.

LAWRENCE: But VA is for veterans, not their wives. Most veterans groups don't focus on domestic violence. It's taboo. And most domestic violence groups don't have expertise on vets and PTSD. Of those three women you heard, one finally left her husband.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: He had shoved me down. We had gotten into an argument. He had shoved me down, and I looked up, and all three of my kids were standing there in tears. And they were looking at me. And I thought, if a man ever treats one of my girls like this or if my son grows up to be like this, I will never forgive myself because at that point, I realized he's not changing his behavior, so I have to be the one that does something. And I picked up the phone, and I called the police. And that was the first time I ever called them.

LAWRENCE: Another moved with her family to a different state where her husband found the local VA more helpful.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: But he's really started to become more the man that I met and I fell in love with. There hasn't been any type of physical altercations since 2014.

LAWRENCE: And the third woman - she's still in it. She left her husband briefly but decide to go back.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I did make that decision, and I came back. And I haven't regretted anything. Have there been really hard times after that - yeah. Have I gotten the [expletive] kicked out of me since then - yeah.

LAWRENCE: They live in Southern California in a one-bedroom apartment - no kids, but they've got a few dogs.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Stay.

LAWRENCE: She makes sure her husband, a Marine combat vet, gets to his VA appointments on time. He's cut down on drinking, and he says he knows that PTSD is no excuse for violence.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Mind you, it hasn't fixed anything. We have problems every single day. Even this morning, trying to get directions to go somewhere, my GPS wasn't working, and he's screaming at the top of his lungs at me like it's - like I'm the GPS, that it's my fault.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No, I wasn't screaming at her. I was screaming at the GPS.

LAWRENCE: He went to a Christian retreat for veterans. That helped some. He hasn't hit her since last year.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The last time we had a physical problem was when you smashed my face into the shower and choked me out.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No, I put you in the shower.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah and repeated to smash my face repeatedly and tell me you were going to make me bleed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK. That was over something probably very stupid. I - like, a lot of these things, I can't even remember what I was so pissed off about. And it's always something really, really stupid. Apparently...

LAWRENCE: So it doesn't sound like you guys are entirely out of the woods.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Not even close. We're...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: And we never will be.

LAWRENCE: She knows. People tell her all the time that she should leave.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: My husband - no, he is not his post-traumatic stress disorder. He is not his brain injury. These are things that he has gotten from serving our country, and that's what we deal with.

LAWRENCE: She doesn't blame anyone else who does walk away for their own safety or sanity, but she's staying. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.