War-torn marriage: Family shattered by TBI, PTSD picks up pieces

Gunnery Sgt. Felix Rivera with his son, Christian, and his wife, Sandra, at a White House event for caregivers of wounded servicemembers this summer. Felix has traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder from getting blown up in Afghanistan in 2009. It took the last two and half years for the family to find their footing again.


By MEGAN MCCLOSKEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 20, 2011

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — The breaking point came when Sandra Rivera found their 9-year-old son backed against a wall with his arms over his face, shielding himself from her husband’s screaming.

Desperate, she did what is unfathomable for a Marine wife: She called her husband’s commander.

It was a Friday in fall 2010, about a year and a half after Gunnery Sgt. Felix Rivera emerged as the sole survivor of a car bomb in Afghanistan. By the following Monday, he was checked into a mental hospital.

His struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury were ravaging their marriage. Husband and wife had been relegated to patient and caregiver.

Sandra wishes she could say it was love that kept her from leaving when things were so bad that she regularly hid in a closet to cry.

“But I’d be lying,” she said. “I didn’t love the man who came back from war.”

With TBI and PTSD, the war comes home but the husband doesn’t, not in the way he was before. The family is upended. A wife has to embrace a new role and create a new family identity. And, often, she must try to forge a new love for the man her husband has become.

When Sandra ran into the room that night, she was scared enough by what she saw to confront the truth they had been avoiding for months: Felix was getting worse, not better.

“When I looked at him, he was there, but his eyes were cold,” she said.

It had gone on long enough, she thought. If he stayed on this downward spiral he was going to hurt her, their son or himself.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Sandra said. “I was going to leave. Pack my bags and go.”

She pushed past her guilt about breaking the unwritten code for military spouses and talked to Felix’s command at the Wounded Warrior Battalion.

His commander told her they had been asking him to go to an in-patient facility for months. This time, they made the choice for him.

Watching Felix leave for a 30-day stay in a mental hospital an hour and a half away, Sandra and their son, Christian, sat on the front step and cried.

Felix was certain he didn’t belong. Left to fume at the check-in desk, he thought, “I should walk out and leave.”

The staff stripped him of his cellphone, his iPad and everything he had with him, including his belt and his shoelaces.

Every day he called Sandra from the phone in the hallway and told her he hated her.

After nearly two weeks of those disturbing calls, she turned to his unit’s chaplain for help. He drove out to the hospital in Virginia, and when he confronted Felix, the Marine fell to his knees in tears.

‘I just vanished’

In 2009, Felix was on his third deployment. He had gone to Iraq twice, and this time he was a platoon sergeant with a weapons company in Afghanistan.

Five months into his tour in March, Felix was manning a checkpoint with several Afghan counterparts and a young Marine he often held up as one of the best in the unit. Before they deployed, Lance Cpl. Daniel Geary’s mother had told Felix, “I’m putting my son’s life in your hands.”

At the checkpoint, a stolen Afghan police car rolled up and exploded, killing everyone but Felix.

Geary, just 19, died in Felix’s arms.

Felix was treated locally for facial wounds, but after returning to his unit for a few weeks, the true severity of his injuries became apparent and he was medevaced to Germany. For the nearly a month he was there before transferring to the Naval hospital in Bethesda, Md., Felix refused to let his family come visit him. He didn’t want them to see him that way.

Once out of the hospital in July — four months after the explosion — Felix joined Camp Lejeune’s Wounded Warrior Battalion.

The damage to Felix’s body was extensive and long-lasting: three destroyed vertebrae, a burst ear vestibule that affects his balance, hearing loss, severe PTSD and TBI that robbed him of short-term memory.

Over the course of the first year after his injuries, Sandra dropped everything to take care of her husband.

“I just vanished,” she said. “I lost my identity when everything happened.”

Her $100,000-a-year job, her pursuit of a college degree, the many hours she volunteered at Christian’s school each week — all gone.

Sandra, now 39, had tried to hold onto her job as a technology manual editor, which provided the bulk of their income. When she and Felix first started dating she was working at a large bank in New York City, and she never let go of her career ambition despite the constant upheaval that comes with being a military spouse.

She telecommuted from home with her tech job, but the workload and deadlines became too much to balance with the demands of caregiving. A little more than a year after Felix was hurt, Sandra’s company declined to renew her contract.

“I cried for a week,” she said. “But after he got hurt I always wondered, ‘how am I going to do it all?’ I tried to do so much.”

She was overwhelmed and exhausted, barely holding it together.

Her husband, who is now 38, had trouble recalling the details of conversations that had happened a few hours earlier or remembering what he ate for dinner the night before. He could sleep only with a heavy dose of medication. Emotionally, he was a zombie.

Their relationship had devolved into little more than that of roommates. Sandra was his caregiver, house cleaner and cook, but not his wife.

Wasting away

Felix was detached in so many ways, moribund on the couch with a wall between him and his family. The shrapnel embedded in his face was the least of what he had carried home from war. When he first got back, he would stay awake for days to avoid the nightmares.

Felix was surviving on 14 medications a day, which Sandra portioned out in morning, afternoon, evening and nighttime doses, terrified she would give him the wrong amount.

“They had me in a real big stupor. I was numb,” Felix said.

He wasn’t even motivated enough to take care of their lawn. Sandra had to hire a landscaper.

“You’re wasting away,” she told him.

He was too angry at everyone to hear her or to care.

Their son, Christian, retreated into a bubble. He was talking back, sleeping restlessly and wetting his pants. About the same time Felix went to the mental hospital, Christian started counseling.

Sandra’s doctor wanted to put her on an anti-depressant, but she refused, not wanting to rely on medication.

“We were existing, not living,” Sandra said.

She tried to hold onto the man Felix used to be and the love she once had for him. They had known each other since they were kids in New York and had been married for more than a decade.

When they started dating in their mid-20s, Sandra’s mother teased that they were like teenagers, they were so in love. But now she encouraged her daughter to end the marriage. Her sisters told her: “No, you took vows. You have to stay.”

Anytime Sandra teetered toward leaving, she’d think of how Christian would look at her later in life if she abandoned his father.

After about six months of trying to cope by herself — of thinking she was supposed to be able to do it on her own — she went to the base’s monthly support group for spouses of wounded Marines. The first three times she didn’t speak, she just bawled.

Sandra felt comfortable sharing her own complicated feelings once she realized that every one of the women there was talking about “the same things I was going through,” she said. “It felt so good to get it all off my chest. Holding it in was rough.”

She had been leaning on her family, but, really, they didn’t know what her life was like. Now she had found an outlet where she could say anything without the fear of judgment.

At home during the moments she was by herself, sometimes locked in the closet, she prayed for strength. She had faith in what her mother had always told her, that God doesn’t put anything in your way that you can’t handle.

Sandra wanted to stay with Felix. She told herself: “He’s not a bad guy. He never mistreated me.”

Still, she warned him if he didn’t get help for his PTSD she was going to walk out, that she wouldn’t wait around forever.

“I would have just let it happen. I was in such a dark place,” Felix said. He often told her, “I would understand if you wanted to leave.”

Sleep medication became an addiction.

Sandra would beg him to not take the Ambien just for one night, and Felix always refused. But the drug made him sleepwalk, and he’d wake up with piles of leftover food on the nightstand that he didn’t recall eating.

Felix and Sandra hadn’t had sex since before his injury.

“Can you remember the last time we kissed?” she asked him. “Do you want me tell you? Over a year ago.”

She longed for her husband. She tried to entice him with sexy lingerie and pornography. “But it would make me more depressed because he wasn’t reacting. It would end in tears, and I would feel selfish for wanting it,” Sandra said.

She thought it was her. So she started to diet, thinking maybe if she were thinner he would want her.

Sometimes in frustration, “I would ask my husband, ‘Do you want me to cheat on you?’ ”

Felix often told Sandra that he didn’t know how he could love her if he couldn’t feel anything.

“The man I married is telling me, ‘I can’t love you,’ and you start doubting,” Sandra said.

She wondered whether their marriage could be saved.

Leaving would be so much easier.

Starting again

When Felix came back from the mental hospital, he had a new attitude.

He finally admitted that the PTSD was bigger than him, and he was willing to get the help he needed.

He told Sandra, “Whatever you need me to do, I’ll do.”

That was enough for Sandra to hold onto their marriage. She became a power advocate, on a first-name basis with Felix’s commander.

She found a TBI in-patient facility at the VA in Tampa, Fla., and Felix went for a month in January 2011.

Then Sandra heard of a new in-patient treatment for TBI and PTSD at the National Intrepid Center for Excellence in Bethesda, and she crusaded to get Felix accepted as one of the first 27 patients.

It was there last spring, two years after Felix’s injury, that the family had what Sandra calls a breakthrough.

During the family therapy week, Christian revealed to his parents that he believed his father no longer bonded with him. Sandra started crying at the realization of just how detached Felix had become from their son and how much it had affected the boy.

Christian said he never told his mom how he was feeling because he’d heard her crying and didn’t want to make the situation worse.

“That broke my heart,” Sandra said. “He’s had to grow up so fast.”

Then, with Sandra and Christian in tears, they saw Felix cry for the first time. He was ashamed at what had become of his relationships with the two most important people in his life. Felix began to let them in, and they started talking as a family.

The treatment at Bethesda focused on holistic healing, offering Felix a way back from his injuries that didn’t rely solely on medication.

He had become so reliant on some that he said he “felt like a drug addict,” and he had physical withdrawal symptoms as the doctors cut his medications in half to seven.

Felix began to relinquish the sleep aids.

“I could still use them, but I don’t want to be so dependent on something [that] I can’t function without it,” he said.

Felix learned breathing techniques and started doing yoga.

Afterward, Sandra pleaded with Felix until he agreed to go on a spring break cruise to the Bahamas with her and Christian.

She was surprised when Felix made the vacation all about her, telling her often that he loved her.

Earlier that year, Felix had finally admitted to Sandra that he wanted to have sex with her, but physically, he couldn’t. Before the cruise he asked his doctor for Viagra and, after two years, he and Sandra were intimate again.

“He made me feel so special,” she said. “It took all these bad memories away.”

‘New normal’

Two and a half years after Felix got hurt, he and Sandra have found their way back to a stable marriage, but it’s not a fairy-tale ending. The reality of their life together now is completely different — and much harder — than what they had before Felix’s fateful third deployment.

Sandra said she is in love with Felix again, as madly as she was before, and couldn’t be happier that she is still by his side.

“I would have left a really, really good guy.”

But they will never be the couple they once were.

“You have to come to terms with your new normal,” Sandra said. “You’re not going to be like everybody else.”

The power dynamic of their marriage has forever shifted.

Sandra is less pushy than she was before the injury, but Felix said he finds that trait more aggravating than he used to. She is no longer just his loud, bossy Puerto Rican wife, being the woman he fell in love with. Now she is his caregiver telling him what to do.

He needs her for the basic tasks of the day.

“I feel like his mother,” Sandra said. “I know it bothers him, because it bothers me.”

Each night she asks him what he has to do the next day. And after that? And after that?

Then she makes him repeat his to-do list back to her.

There’s a whiteboard on the fridge, where she and Christian leave him instructions, and she programs his phone and iPad to prompt him with alarms. Sandra has learned to speak slower, and she doesn’t talk to Felix about more than one thing at a time.

“She takes care of both her kids, my son and me,” Felix said.

Sandra’s day revolves around everyone else. Even if she’s sick, “I can’t just say, ‘I’m not going to get up.’ ”

She has been able to go back to school at night, which has helped her reclaim some of her old identity. But before she leaves, she cleans the house, helps Christian with his homework, prepares dinner and does anything else that needs to be done, so the only task Felix has to worry about is ensuring his son showers at night.

“There’s so much on my shoulders,” Sandra said, revealing that she struggles with burnout. “I have my days, my husband can tell you.”

Ultimately, though, to find contentment, she had to decide to accept their new life.

“You have to,” she said “because if not it will drive you apart or lead to you being miserable. I hear a lot of wives say ‘I’m outta here.’ You have to really, really know you’re in it for the long haul.”

She understands the husband she married nearly 14 years ago is gone for good.

Felix is reserved, quiet now.

At home he isn’t often without a small, fluffy white dog called Gizmo that he holds like a baby and lets lick his face.

“I make fun of it and tell people he’s my therapy dog,” Felix said. “And in a way he really is, but I don’t go bragging about it because he’s so small.”

Felix spends his days going from one appointment to the next — speech therapy, physical therapy and mental health counseling.

He has come a long way, but he gets terrible migraines and is always a little dizzy.

Sometimes if his balance is particularly off, he looks a little drunk as he walks.

“I’ve been saved by walls a few times,” he said.

There are times when a blank stare comes over him during a conversation, because “I’ve lost what we’re talking about,” he said.

The Marine often self-consciously touches the shrapnel in his face, and he doesn’t like to be in public. He also refuses to wear his hearing aids most of the time because it marks him as having a disability.

So the couple doesn’t go to the movies or on dinner dates.

“I’d love to go out, but I don’t nag him about it,” Sandra said.

She wrestled with accepting that, but she’s finally content to let go of their old life, when they threw big parties or would just hop in the car on a weekend and spend the day in nearby Wilmington, N.C.

Felix said he doesn’t know how or why Sandra stayed, but he thanks his wife nearly every day for her persistence in pushing him to get better and sends her “I love you” texts.

Those gestures makes Sandra feel good about their marriage and confident again about Felix’s love for her, though she admits, “I’m afraid it’s going to stop one day.”

Once a month a therapist sits with them at their kitchen table for marriage counseling.

Felix tends to keep his emotions to himself.

“In a sense that’s taking it out on my wife because she doesn’t know what’s happening,” he said.

When it comes to his PTSD, Felix doesn’t want to talk about what haunts him, because he doesn’t want her to have the same nightmares. He still gets them a few nights a week, sometimes kicking Sandra in his sleep.

But with the relationship issues, at least, he’s learning to communicate more, “even if he thinks I’m going to be disappointed,” Sandra said.

He and Christian have been working on their relationship as well, capitalizing on the time they have alone when Sandra is in school. They make up their own games to play together.

After Felix leaves the Marine Corps soon with a medical retirement, they’ll stay in the Camp Lejeuene area, but he isn’t sure what he’ll do.

“We talk endless nights about the future,” Sandra said.

He isn’t quite convinced he should leave the Corps, but the idea of accepting a limited-duty position behind a desk is unappealing.

“I went from being on the run constantly with deployments to almost a standstill,” he said. “I see my peers moving on, and I’m stuck in one place.”

Felix had planned to serve at least 20 years and then perhaps become a history teacher. Now, almost 40, he’s struggling to find a place where he can start over.

Sandra is eager to get back to work, and once she graduates with a degree in health care administration in December, she hopes to get a job with the Wounded Warrior Battalion to help other spouses in their new roles.

“You have to learn and get prepared. You’re his voice,” Sandra said.

“If you’re married to this [injured] person, this is your life.”


Twitter: @MegMcCloskey

Sandra and Felix Rivera outside their Hubert, N.C., home in September. Felix holds his dog, Gizmo, who the Marine jokes is like his therapy dog. The couple struggled to hold onto their marriage after Felix was injured in 2009 and came home suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.