The Post-Traumatic Family

War’s complicated effects on spouses and children at Fort Carson

by Simone Phillips, guest writer; illustration by Eleanor Anderson, staff artist

ptsd

Each weeknight, beginning at 5 p.m., the DA’s office at the El Paso County courthouse transforms into a preschool. Toy trucks, board games, and dress-up clothes litter the floor, and the smell of chicken strips and tater-tots fills the air. But instead of teachers or day-care providers to keep things under control, parents arrive to spend time with their children. The Supervised Exchange Parenting Time program (SEPT) gives non-custodial parents the opportunity to retain, or in some cases to develop, relationships with their children. SEPT is one of three programs (along with Domestic Relations and Dependency and Neglect) administered by the Court Appointed Special Advocate Association (CASA) of the Pikes Peak Region, a local nonprofit that works on child advocacy in the court system.

Last summer, I became a regular at the SEPT site. I was used to baby-sitting children, but this was a little different. As a SEPT volunteer, I was assigned the task of watching parents as they interacted with their children. They brought bubbles, played board games, and ate lots of fast food. Problems rarely arose, but when they did they were usually because a visiting parent spoke poorly of a custodial parent or brought up a court case. One night, I had to take a woman aside after I heard her telling her children repeatedly that “Daddy sent Mommy to jail.” Most parents try to forget the stress of their daily lives and enjoy the one- or two-hour-long visit, but frequently feelings of anxiety, anger, and sadness seem to loom just outside the door. Parents often leave in tears.

The contrived playroom is not a place where most people would opt to spend time with their children, but most visiting parents do not choose to see their children in this environment. Families are court ordered to enter the program when judges feel either that one of the parents should not be granted unsupervised visitations with his or her children, or that the exchange of the children between parents should be supervised to avoid direct contact. As a volunteer, I quickly learned that many of the parents enter the program due to issues of estrangement, drug and alcohol abuse, and domestic violence. But military deployment is also a factor for many clients who enter SEPT and other CASA programs. 

Sunni Ball, SEPT client coordinator and the Domestic Relations program manager at CASA of the Pikes Peak region, explained that there has been a substantial rise in the number of cases involving military families.  The Domestic Relations program that Ball supervises advocates for children in highly disputed custody cases. In the 2006-2007 fiscal year, 1.5 percent of domestic relations cases were military-related, compared to 9 percent of these same cases in 2008-2009. The number of military clients in the SEPT program never dropped below 21 percent of families in the military in 2006-2007, but dropped to 17 percent of families in 2008-2009. Regardless of these recent fluctuations, Ball asserts, “Since the second Gulf War there has been an overall increase in the number of military cases we are seeing.” The majority of CASA cases deal with families that are in the middle of divorces or are dealing with the effects of separation, a rising trend among military couples.

Several times a month, Ball leads the Children and Families in Transition Program (C-Fit). Every couple with children (both military and civilian) filing for divorce in El Paso County is required to take the class. But Ball says that in her classes she notices a disproportionately high number of military personnel. Since 2006 the percentage has fluctuated between 15 and 19 percent of the total attendees. When I asked Ball why she thought so many attendees were military personnel, she referred to communication issues, saying, “I’m familiar with Vietnam because my husband was in Vietnam. I was lucky to get a letter, and now they can talk on the phone and exchange emails.” Today troops deployed in Iraq can use technologies that enable them to speak to their families through a computer monitor, but regardless, separation rates remain high. Even with the help of video monitors, phone conversations are a poor substitute for family time spent apart.

According to Ball, several patterns frequently emerge relating to military deployment that impact the family. Ball explains, “When Dad leaves, Mom often finds a new boyfriend and doesn’t want Dad to see the kids when he comes home.” In cases like these, a child custody petition enters the court. Another common case, according to Ball, occurs when the parents separate and the mother has a new baby during the father’s deployment. Often the mother will request, as part of the custody petition, that the father receive supervised visitations with the child because of his lack of previous contact.

One possible explanation for the frequency of spousal separations during and after military deployment could be the long terms of deployment in the Iraq war.  Sarah Hautzinger, an anthropology professor at Colorado College who has done research on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the military, explains that it is not uncommon for soldiers to be deployed three times. Often the military moves soldiers directly from one overseas base to another, without bringing them home between tours. While the tour of duty in Iraq is typically 12-15 months, soldiers can be deployed at other overseas bases preceding or following their tour of duty in Iraq; as a result, the total time spent away from home can be over two years.

Many of the negative effects on families that occur following deployment can be attributed to long-term separation and estrangement. Especially for young children who do not remember their parents before their deployment, a parent’s return can be a difficult adjustment. Often the return of one parent and the process of reintegration back into family life is exacerbated by emotional distress and trauma. Gina James, who manages the Dependency and Neglect program at CASA (a program that advocates for children in the court system in cases of child abuse and neglect) says, “We are seeing more [military clients] compared to prewar, pre-PTSD issues.”

James draws a connection between the number of soldiers coming home with PTSD and a rise in family violence. “They are coming back with PTSD, which manifests itself in family violence . . .Physical abuse is up on children and spouses,” James explains. But rather than isolating these soldiers as criminals, Ball describes the importance of viewing the issue holistically: “It’s important not just to say he is a batterer, but to look at the cause. We are trying to be sensitive to the needs of the family.”

Traumatic experiences of war separate soldiers from their families whether or not it is manifested in domestic violence. One Fort Carson colonel reports that 60 percent of military suicides are connected with relationship loss and divorce. “Soldiers come back and the only people they can relate to are people they served with,” Hautzinger says. Ball has often witnessed families of soldiers detect a change in soldiers’ personalities. Frequently, problems are manifested in the soldier’s difficulty with impulse control and anger. “We are asking, what’s the possibility they have PTSD? What’s the possibility they have a traumatic brain injury?” says Ball. “It’s a very sad situation.” While the effects of PTSD can be difficult to escape, the military and the surrounding community are trying to change their attitudes.

 

“In Vietnam, PTSD was viewed as a weakness, not as a mental disorder,” Ball asserts. “But now it is seen more as a consequence of war. Still, this doesn’t prevent it from happening.” According to Hautzinger, who has researched the shift in the military’s attitude towards PTSD, Fort Carson has been ground-breaking in its effort to confront challenges of behavioral health among soldiers. The military now offers extensive counseling services for soldiers, and there are people trained throughout the brigades to deal with issues of behavioral health and emotional trauma.

The services offered at Fort Carson go beyond treatment for soldiers. The Fort Carson military base offers a range of soldier and family readiness programs. Among the services offered by the military are a family advocacy or domestic violence prevention program, marriage enrichment classes that teach communication, and negotiation and conflict resolution programs. Parenting services are also available and offer a class called Boot Camp for New Dads. 

The question remains whether military culture discourages access to these programs. “The emphasis has been about lowering stigma so soldiers avail themselves to resources,” explains Hautzinger. But an article by Dave Phillips published in the Colorado Springs Gazette in July suggests that soldiers often deny psychological problems to avoid further screening.

The issue of PTSD and other emotional effects of trauma clearly goes beyond the individual to influence the lives of their family members. While programs like SEPT and Boot Camp for New Dads help to counteract the negative effects of deployment on family life, they are limited in that they provide treatment, not prevention, for the problem. Despite the military’s effort to treat PTSD and its consequences, ultimately the only cure is to stop the deployment of soldiers. ~

 

For those interested in volunteering at CASA: please contact Lona Mayfield at 719-447-9898 ext 1020 or RoseMary Jaramillo at ext 1008.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Post-Traumatic Family

  1. Jason

    “Despite the military’s effort to treat PTSD and its consequences, ultimately the only cure is to stop the deployment of soldiers.”

    What a weak cop-out to an otherwise good article.

  2. I don’t know If I said it already but …Cool site, love the info. I do a lot of research online on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂

    A definite great read..Jim Bean

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