Guest column: Wife set on holding together husband damaged by war
Published: September 13, 2012
The night started off well enough.
The young couple ate, mingled with friends and posed for pictures at the Marine Corps Ball in Hilton Head, S.C. Then the videos began. They showed the heroic actions of Marines overseas. They were meant to honor them, to remember them, because they had died there.
Melinda, a 26-year-old registered nurse, noticed the change in her husband immediately. She could see that the videos bothered him. He’d avert his eyes from the screen and stare at the wall for minutes at a time. She suggested they leave and he quickly obliged.
The tears came as soon as he reached the car. All he wanted to do, he told Melinda, is call the wives of his dead comrades and say he was sorry. He screamed that he couldn’t take it anymore.
At home, he threw himself onto the kitchen floor and tucked his knees into his chest. The tears were still coming. He babbled aimlessly about guilt and lost comrades.
He reached for a Brillo pad and began to scrub his knuckles raw.
“Completely separated from reality,” Melinda said.
But the message was clear. He felt he had their blood on his hands.
Melinda watched the scene unfold, frightened and unsure what to do. When a servicemember returns home from war damaged — mentally or physically, sometimes both — the spouse is so often called upon to be the backbone of the family, to be the strong one. Melinda had become a victim of the war, too.
Melinda tried to pry the scouring pad away, but she couldn’t do it. Eventually, as the blood pooled on his hands, he let it drop to the floor. All Melinda could do was console him. She assured him that everything was OK, that he was alive for a reason and that his friends’ deaths were not his fault.
Her words brought him back to reality. She laid him in bed, where he cried himself to sleep.
Melinda’s husband deployed again in 2010, to Afghanistan, and he came home with a traumatic brain injury after a rocket-propelled grenade exploded 10 feet away, knocking him unconscious. It affected his balance, his memory, his speech and his mood.
A homecoming celebration, a night on the town with friends, began with laughing and swapping stories at a local bar. After closing time, at an all-night diner, his mood changed suddenly. Overcome with tears, he bolted for the door. She followed.
Like before, he sat in the passenger seat sobbing uncontrollably. She wanted to console him but words were not enough. He told her he just wanted the memories to go away. He told her that he wished he had a shotgun to make the pain go away.
Melinda was stunned. He had never before mentioned suicide. She considered putting him in a hospital.
After that night, at her suggestion, her husband finally began therapy. There was no immediate fix.
He still came home and lied on the couch, sullen and distant. He paid little attention to Melinda or their young daughter.
But slowly he came along, little by little until he began to feel something close to normal and to recognize the heartache he’d put Melinda through.
“I feel like I’ve almost got my husband back,” Melinda said.
Melinda is my wife. I am the broken man in this story.
Therapy is challenging and dragging my wife and daughter through the process is distressing, but their love and support keeps me going. I am trying to find my new self, a new self that is a better husband and father.
I resented my wife for hanging around, for not abandoning me when all I wanted was to be left alone. I was numb. Her commitment has turned into a debt that I strive to repay. We are finally growing closer again and are redefining our relationship.
For a long time, I felt nothing. Now, the love I have for my wife and daughter is something I can feel. Desiring daily solitude is a thing of the past, and I am finally becoming the husband and father I once was and that they deserve.
Thomas James Brennan is a sergeant in the Marine Corps. He deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan with 1st Battalion, 8th Marines. Now, 27 and still on active duty, he is stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C. He is a member of The Military Order of the Purple Heart and a graduate of The Veterans Writing Project.