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Chattanooga Vet Center expands counseling

Combat veterans can face unique challenges in their marriages and parenting that are not a part of the average person's life experience.

Those who have faced enemy bullets, war stress or sexual assault while in the military can carry those traumatic events into their relationships.

Now the Chattanooga Vet Center has a person whose job is to help those who served and their families.

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The center has had counselors, many veterans themselves, for years. But the staff recently added licensed marriage and family therapist Carol O'Bryan to the staff as part of a nationwide initiative to reach out to combat veterans and their families.

O'Bryan, a self-described Army brat, understands the stoic mentality and military culture, having lived it with her father's military service that took her all over the country.

Twenty percent of military marriages end in divorce within two years of a combat deployment, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Combat service increases the likelihood of divorce by 62 percent, according to a 2007 National Healthy Marriage Resource Center study.

Following World War II and the Korean War, 43 percent of veterans were still married to their pre-war spouse, according to the center's study.

The divorce rate of 9 percent for military women is three times that of military men, according to the VA.

Centers of Disease Control and Prevention statistics estimate the average annual divorce rate among the total civilian population at 3.5 per 1,000 in 2009.

In 2001, the military divorce rate was 2.6 per 1,000, but it rose to 3.7 per 1,000 by 2011.

Vet Centers counsel combat veterans and veterans who have experienced sexual trauma or need bereavement counseling.

Center Team Leader Taz Randles said O'Bryan brings a set of skills that can help families of veterans already being counseled and also open doors to veterans who may not recognize their own military-related trauma, except through family troubles.

"The greatest pain for our veterans is relational pain," Randles said. "There's no pain like that."

O'Bryan said her background with family counseling and mental health helps her use practical approaches for working with the children, spouses and veterans.

One past patient had post-traumatic stress disorder and jumped every time his toddler slammed a door. It's hard to reason with a child, so the couple padded doors with towels to dampen the sound.

Some of her work is simply helping veterans and their families readjust to the "new normal" of life after a combat deployment. While away the veteran's spouse may have taken on all the responsibilities and is reluctant to let those go immediately.

The veteran can be left wondering what his or her role is after being gone for a long period, she said.

Often, she said, the spouses need recognition, too. Recent efforts by military branches to honor spouses after deployment has achieved a lot in looking at how the entire military family serves when troops deploy.

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