There’s been a great deal of buzz recently about Ken Burns’ recent documentary chronicling the history and context of the Vietnam War. During the time of the War, I was a young woman with a small child. My husband, Larry, had recently deployed to Vietnam, and was killed when his plane was shot down while on a combat mission over Laos. All these years later, I’m still reminded that, whether I like it or not, my life has been forever intertwined with this historic event that also shaped the lives of so many others.
It’s been fascinating to watch how the merits of America’s decision to get involved militarily in Vietnam were presented at the time and to witness the conflict unfold again through the clarifying lens of history. I’m struck by how familiar these same Gordian knots of arguments seem in today’s political discourse about Afghanistan or other regions of the world where conflict continues.
I recently read an article offering tips to military families for navigating the trauma that comes with a deployment. It brought home to me the memories of my life as a military spouse. While I was proud to be connected to a man so courageous and committed to his country that he volunteered for military service, I also remembered vividly how overwhelmed I became–drowning in waves of depression and malaise–upon his deployment. I constantly lived in fear that he would never return, and struggled with the day-to-day responsibilities of managing money, paying the bills, attending college and taking care of our daughter.
Three months after his deployment, I made the decision to deploy as well. However, unlike others who were headed to Vietnam, my deployment was to the Menninger Clinic, where my mission was to fight for my own personal mental health and recovery through in-patient treatment.
While I was being treated at Menninger, there were two other individuals also undergoing treatment who were sponsored by the Veterans Administration. One was the spouse of a soldier on deployment and another was a retired veteran. We were the fortunate ones.
Nearly 10 years after Larry was killed, I volunteered, along with other recovering alcoholics, on the addiction unit at the local VA Hospital. We attended support meetings for hospitalized veterans and their families. These families were struggling with the challenges of trying to mend broken marriages, raising children who exhibited problems in school and the emotional upheavals that come with a service member’s reintegration into the family unit upon his or her return.
Some spouses reacted with overwhelming depression and anxiety. Others were diagnosed with PTSD and struggled with raising children and managing household activities. They, too, were in need of mental health support services.
I came to learn from this experience. and from the war itself, that life is unpredictable. That we live in an uncertain and dangerous world, and yet our work must be to prevail as individuals.
As we think about the thousands of men and women who dedicate their lives every day to protecting our country through military service, we should never forget the toll that service takes on their families, and what an important role we can play in supporting them, and helping them wherever possible.
Consider the military families you know, and make sure that they understand how much their entire family’s contribution is appreciated. The increased operational tempo associated with current deployments to Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) is placing considerable strain on military families. Among other sequelae of OIF and OEF deployment, findings from recent studies suggest high rates of depression in spouses of service members. This review presents a rationale for targeting depression among military spouses. It examines how stressors relating to the deployment cycle may contribute to depression in spouses, and outlines the effects of spousal depression on the mental health of service members and their children. Mental health services currently available to military spouses as well as barriers to their care are also described. Considerations for the adaptation of treatment to their unique circumstances and needs are discussed.