With all eyes on the troops in Iraq, their families—a huge and growing segment of the population—are suffering largely in media silence

by Peter Gorman

Lynn Jeffries is a single mother from Lubbock, Texas, whose son Nathan was deployed to Iraq in late 2003. A registered nurse who worked for years in an emergency room at a Lubbock hospital, Jeffries says that shortly after her son was deployed, she found herself unable to take care of trauma patients and left the emergency room for work as a hospice nurse. "I just started crying at everything," she says. "I was so angry about this war, but at the same time I felt like I couldn’t fight against it without betraying my son. It just ate at me every day, more and more."

Jeffries’ depression grew until, she says "at one point I thought of taking my own life in order to get my son home. It’s just made me a little crazy. I’ve never felt so helpless in my life–there are days I could not even leave the house."

Jeffries’ son was home on leave when she spoke with this reporter, and she said she was feeling a little better–but having difficulty facing that her son is scheduled for redeployment to Iraq early in 2005. "What will happen the day I have to put him back on the plane to go back? I would do anything to have him go to Canada, but he says his friends need him and he can’t leave them."

Teri Wills Allison of Austin, is a mother of two boys–one of whom is deployed in Iraq. She says that the depressions she began to have after her son left for Iraq got so bad that "though I’d never taken pills before I’ve needed Xanax just to get through the day since my son’s deployment."

Jeffries and Wills Allison are not unique. They are part of a growing number of military families who find themselves dealing with what psychologists are beginning to recognize as Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder. Like the better-known Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Secondary TSD can clearly be debilitating.

Says Wills Allison: "We, the mothers and fathers of the boys in Iraq–we’re getting by, but barely. Some of them tell me they need a six-pack before bed to fall asleep. Others can’t leave the house for fear they’ll come home to have that call from the military waiting on the machine. Some families are just torn apart by this."

Some more than others. In late November, Marine Lance Cpl. Charles Hanson Jr., was killed in a roadside bombing of his convoy in Iraq. One week later, on Nov. 30, his stepdad, 39-year-old Mike Barwick, entertained guests at his Crawfordville, FL, home with stories of the stepson he loved so much. Three days later, just hours before guests were coming for a viewing at the home Barwick shared with Hanson’s mother, Dana Hanson, Barwick shot and killed himself. Family members were quoted in the local newspapers as saying it was clear he simply couldn’t live with the pain.

Misha ben-David, a drug and trauma counsellor in Austin, says he remembers his family being torn apart when his father went to Vietnam, and is beginning to fear the same thing will happen now that his son is being deployed to Iraq. "The stress on the family is unbearable," he says. "I can already hear my ex-wife starting to freak out, retreating into a ‘rah-rah, do you love your son or not?’ frame of mind. We’ve got so much pressure on us from people like the Fox network to see this as a black-and-white issue–either you’re for the war and a patriot or you’re a no good, liberal, anti-American. Add to that stress that it’s your child that might be killed, or wounded, or permanently maimed and you’ve got a lot of family members going crazy out there."

"Every member of every family who has ever sent a loved one to war has suffered," says Nancy Lessin from Massachusetts, whose stepson, Joe Richardson, served in Iraq during the invasion and is expected to be called back for a second deployment there any day. "But this one is different. The stresses are different."

Lesson is a co-founder, with her husband, Charlie Richardson and a friend, Jeffrey McKenzie, of an organization called Military Families Speak Out. MFSO was started in November, 2002, after Joe Richardson and Jeffrey McKenzie’s son–who is scheduled for a second tour in Iraq in 2005–was initially deployed to Iraq. "We realized we had no place to turn, no one to talk to about our anger at this war, about the feeling of helplessness we had, about our outrage over our sons being used in this unjust war. So we started our own organization." Since its inception, MFSO has grown to over 2,000 members, most of whom are against the war in Iraq.

Lesson was asked why she thinks the suffering of families is different in this war than in other wars. "Because this is a war that didn’t have to happen. This is a war built on lies. We were told that this war was about weapons of mass destruction, about Iraq’s ties to al-Qaeda and the Twin Towers horror. But there were no weapons of mass destruction, no ties to al-Qaeda. We were told ‘Mission Accomplished’ when Saddam Hussein fell, but there was no mission accomplished.”

Lesson portrays a betrayal of the government’s most fundamental commitment to its soldiers. "All of our loved ones signed up to protect our country and our country’s constitution. They took a vow to give their lives, if necessary. But the assumption was that they would be fighting for a just cause. And if this were a just war–while Charlie and I would still have been terrified of that knock on the door or that telephone message telling us that Joe had died–we would have been able to move on. But in this war, a war for oil markets and corporate interests, a war in which every reason given for fighting it has proven to have been a lie, I don’t know that we would ever be able to move on if that knock on the door came. And what that has done to the families of the men and women fighting this war is horrible.”

There is also the added stress–not just on the soldiers, but on the family members as well–of involuntary tour extensions, multiple deployments, shortages of both body and vehicle armor. "Put it all together, and what you’ve created is an emotionally explosive situation," says ben-David.

This is also the first war in which soldiers have access to the internet, intended by the military to keep morale up by giving soldiers regular contact with their families. But there have been unintended consequences to such regular contact as well. Says Lessin: "It’s not a letter every couple of weeks, where parents can try to imagine that everything is OK. With the internet we’re learning that our loved ones don’t have enough food or water or weapon replacements or armored vests, things that leave us feeling helpless."

"Don’t even get me started on that," says Sharon Allen, a single mother from Fort Worth, whose son is in Germany preparing for a second deployment to Iraq. "While he was in Iraq the first time, my son wrote me that the Halliburton people who were hired to bring things like mail and water and parts for the troops said it was too dangerous to go where my son was, and that the company would have to send people to a safer place to get what they needed. They were in the middle of a war, and they couldn’t. My son said the only way he kept his tank going was to steal parts from another tank. Can you imagine giving that choice to a 22-year-old? I’m a wreck knowing he’s going back."

Wills Allison eloquently described her feelings of helplessness in an essay she wrote titled "A Mother’s View”, that initially appeared on the internet. "A just war there may be, but there is no such thing as a good war. And the burdens of an unjust war are insufferable. I know something about the costs of an unjust war, for my son, Nick–an infantryman in the US Army–is fighting one in Iraq… First, the minor stuff: my constant feelings of dread and despair; the sweeping rage that alternates with petrifying fear; the torrents of tears that accompany a maddening sense of helplessness and vulnerability… I feel like a mother lion in a cage, my grown cub in danger, and all I can do is throw myself furiously against the bars, impotent to protect him."

One of the worst aspects of this war, wrote Wills Allison, is the wedge it’s driven between her and much of her family. "They don’t see this war as one based on lies. They’ve become evangelical believers in a false faith, swallowing Bush’s fear-mongering, his chicken-hawk posturing and strutting, and cheering his ‘bring ’em on’ attitude as a sign of strength and resoluteness… These are the same people who have known my son since he was a baby, who have held him and loved him and played with him, who have bought him birthday presents and taken him fishing. I don’t know them anymore."

The military offers social services and family counseling for husbands, wives and children of servicemen and women deployed overseas. But the services are only available to those who live on base. As few parents do, they have almost nowhere to turn for support.

There are a couple of exceptions. In August, 2003, under the watch of Lt Col Anthony Baker, Sr., the National Guard began working with Guard families in crisis situations, sometimes in a one-to-one setting. The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS)–a non-profit with strong ties to the Department of Defense and the Dept. of Veterans’Affairs–primarily provides services to those who have lost a loved one while serving in the armed forces. But director Bonnie Carroll says the people who staff the 24-hour hotline (1-800-959-8277) will try to help anyone in a crisis situation resulting from the stress of a loved one deployed in Iraq.

"We’ll try the best we can," Carroll says. But for most families, and a few other internet forums are the only places filling the void. "It’s the only place I can go at 4 AM when I can’t sleep, even with the Xanax, to talk with people who feel like I do," says Wills Allison. "One of my friends has a son who returned home with such PTSD that he had flashbacks of the smell of burning flesh, of the sight of dead people torn to bits on the side of the road." While home on leave, Allison says, he crawled to his mother’s bed every night to cry and fall asleep. "And then he was redeployed. His mother is barely holding on. There’s no-one in the military there for her."

Cathy Wiblemo, deputy director for health care at the American Legion, the veterans’ organization that serves as a watchdog on the Veteran’s Administration, says there is simply no funding to provide services for the families of deployed or returning soldiers. "We do have a hotline [1-800-5040-4098] referral service for family members where we try to find them the services they need in their local community, but in terms of paying for those, they’re on their own.

She takes a stark view of the situation. "The truth is that the VA is not ready to supply the services that are going to be needed for the returning vets. And if we can’t even provide those services for soldiers, how could they possibly be available to family members?"

Unfortunately, because the phenomenon of Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder is just beginning to be recognized, there are no studies on the numbers of people severely affected to the point where they are functioning less well than normal. It might be thousands; it might be tens of thousands. It’s also unknown how long the stress will last even after the family members return home.

"We’ll find out as we go along," says ben-David. Until we do, they’re on their own–just incidental collateral damage.


Military Families Speak Out

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors


Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Jan. 17, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution