Fort Hood deaths rekindle concern over deployment stress on families

By JEREMY SCHWARTZ | Austin American-Statesman | Published: January 24, 2014

As investigators search for answers in Tuesday’s suspected murder-suicide inside a Fort Hood home, which left a 43-year-old military husband and two young daughters dead, experts and advocates say the incident raises questions about whether, even after 13 years of war, the military is paying enough attention to the psychological stress on families during troops’ overseas deployments.

The mental health problems facing male military spouses, in particular, have received scant attention from officials or researchers, even though women have been entering the armed forces in ever-greater numbers.

Details remain scarce in the Fort Hood killings. Army investigators said only that murder-suicide is the likely explanation for the discovery of the three bodies — identified as Rouhad Ahamd Ezzeddine, 43, and daughters Leila Rouhad Ezzeddine, 9, and Zeinab Rouhad Ezzeddine, 4 — on Tuesday morning at a home on the sprawling Army post. The man’s wife, who apparently escaped harm and was identified as Pfc. Carla Santisteban, had recently returned from a deployment to Afghanistan.

It wasn’t clear how many deployments the soldier had made or whether her husband had ever served in the military.

Suicides among soldiers and veterans have been studied extensively, but much less is known about the mental health of military families.

No entity tracks suicides among military family members, though Congress has directed the secretary of defense to report by Feb. 1 on the feasibility of conducting such a study.

Karen Ruedisueli, the deputy director of government relations for the National Military Family Association, said such a study will be vital. “Anecdotally we have heard that suicide rates among military families have increased,” she said. “As deployments decrease … people may think that behavioral health resources for families are no longer needed. The residual effects will be long-lasting.”

Ami Neiberger-Miller, spokeswoman for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, said the Fort Hood incident was more evidence of the need for additional resources for, and research into, military families.

“Military families tend to be very resilient, and they tend to pride themselves on being resilient,” she said. “That culture can sometimes create the sense that they shouldn’t ask for help. … The question is, how do we put in good support around people so they can say, ‘Hey, I’m struggling.’”

Most studies on military family mental health have focused on children. Recent reports have found that children of deployed military personnel were more likely to experience sadness, hopelessness, depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts than their counterparts, and they scored lower on school tests the longer a parent was deployed.

Fewer studies have looked at the impacts on spouses. One found that Army wives whose husbands have deployed receive more mental health diagnoses than wives whose husbands weren’t deployed.

But that study, like most, made no examination of military husbands, even though many male military spouses say feelings of isolation and exclusion are common on military installations, where they say family support groups are targeted primarily to wives.

“Most men don’t reach out to other men to talk about emotions or feelings,” said Chris Pape, a 43-year-old husband of an Air Force major at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio. “And you don’t feel 100 percent welcome in typical (family readiness group) meetings. Female spouses don’t like to hang out with male spouses.”

Pape, who founded the website machospouse.com to bring together other male military spouses, said the mixing of genders in such groups can get complicated, in part because of fears of deployed soldiers about their spouses cheating. “I’ve heard stories of guys being told not to show up at meetings because they make the women feel uncomfortable,” Pape said.

And some military husbands say their role can lead to issues of masculinity.

“After awhile it makes you start questioning your manhood,” wrote one anonymous poster on a website for military spouses. “You joke to others about wearing an apron but you can’t avoid the embarrassment. Who can you call for support? An Army wife? No … not a good idea.”

Pape said that while it’s hard to draw definitive conclusions about Tuesday’s incident until Army officials release more information, the Fort Hood killings are an opportunity to start a conversation about mental health services for military husbands. “It’s proof that not enough people even know we exist to offer help,” he said.

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