USA — Women Learn to Fight Stress from Home Front

WASHINGTON — Dur­ing a week in which the White House pledged a vig­or­ous, whole-of-gov­ern­ment approach to sup­port­ing mil­i­tary fam­i­lies, 11 women worked dili­gent­ly a few miles away to learn to cope with the stress­es of their hus­bands’ mul­ti­ple deploy­ments and the post-trau­mat­ic stress that affects many of them when they return home.

Ten mil­i­tary wives and a fiancée met in a qui­et place the week of Jan. 24 with­out the dis­trac­tions from ring­ing phones, kids’ sched­ules and work projects. They learned cop­ing skills through resilience train­ing. They learned med­i­ta­tion, tried acupunc­ture, talked, laughed and cried.

The “sig­nif­i­cant oth­ers,” who found out first-hand that post-trau­mat­ic stress affects entire fam­i­lies, came to the sup­port group with more ques­tions than answers. But they left armed with a bat­tery of tools to cope with the every­day stress­es of mil­i­tary life in a time of war.

The Sig­nif­i­cant Oth­ers Sup­port Group is an off­shoot of the Spe­cial­ized Care Pro­gram their hus­bands com­plet­ed fol­low­ing a diag­no­sis of com­bat stress or post-trau­mat­ic stress, or because they had dif­fi­cul­ty read­just­ing to home life after war. Both pro­grams are based on resilience and strength-build­ing edu­ca­tion con­duct­ed by the Defense Health Clin­i­cal Cen­ter at Wal­ter Reed Army Med­ical Cen­ter here.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, Chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has called post-trau­mat­ic stress “the mil­i­tary health issue of our era.” He and his wife, Deb­o­rah, are well-known advo­cates of tak­ing care of the mil­i­tary fam­i­ly, tak­ing every oppor­tu­ni­ty to make it known they want war vet­er­ans and their fam­i­lies to get all the help they need to cope with war’s invis­i­ble scars.

For five days, the Sig­nif­i­cant Oth­ers Sup­port Group char­ter class stud­ied fam­i­ly roles and rela­tion­ships, how com­bat affects ser­vice mem­bers, how to raise chil­dren dur­ing a stress­ful time in a lengthy war, and how to com­mu­ni­cate about and deal with con­trol issues when the deploy­ment is over. They also learned the how to take care of them­selves, an often-over­looked need.

“We don’t ‘cure’ peo­ple here,” said Dan Bullis, direc­tor of admin­is­tra­tion and oper­a­tions at the clin­i­cal cen­ter. “It’s the start of their jour­ney to cope with symp­toms.” Because it affects the entire fam­i­ly, efforts to con­front post-trau­mat­ic stress must be include a fam­i­ly care plan, he said.

“[It’s] is not a lev­el play­ing field for them,” Bullis said, adding that he believes the sup­port group will become even more suc­cess­ful as word spreads to new atten­dees and spon­sors.

“In a weeks’ time,” he said, “12 to 14 [sig­nif­i­cant oth­ers] are equipped with tools to cope with life. It’s their les­son plan to take home so they can deal with the chron­ic symp­toms. They’re so over­whelmed.”

The idea, Bullis said, was spawned from the hus­bands in the Spe­cial­ized Care Pro­gram who began say­ing, “If only my sig­nif­i­cant oth­er could get this sup­port.” A pilot pro­gram that launched with five or six women pro­gressed to the char­ter class of 11 last month, he added.

Thanks to a $35,000 dona­tion by the non­prof­it Wal­ter Reed Soci­ety, the 11 women were brought to Wal­ter Reed on per diem trav­el, housed in a near­by hotel, and attend­ed the train­ing and edu­ca­tion, all expens­es paid.

Design­ing the sup­port group for women came from a tried-and-true approach.

“We had a lot of input through the years from ser­vice mem­bers to help their fam­i­lies and sig­nif­i­cant oth­ers,” said Vic­to­ria Bruner, the center’s direc­tor of clin­i­cal edu­ca­tion and train­ing, who also is a social work­er and expert in trau­mat­ic stress, with a back­ground as a reg­is­tered nurse. “Whether it’s a moth­er, broth­er, sis­ter or adult child, we built the group on the basics of what helps peo­ple heal.”

A holis­tic approach, Bruner said, is impor­tant in an envi­ron­ment that pro­motes com­fort, heal­ing and peace­ful­ness.

“The [sig­nif­i­cant oth­ers] need a sense of safe­ty to feel com­fort­able to tell a sto­ry, and to con­nect to oth­er peo­ple so they know they’re not alone,” she said. “It’s impor­tant to be in a safe envi­ron­ment, where peo­ple are assured their sto­ries are hon­ored and respect­ed, so they can go as far as they want about their sit­u­a­tion, or not.”

Late in the morn­ing on their final day togeth­er, Bruner con­duct­ed a ses­sion with the women, seat­ed in a cir­cle in a com­fort­able room adorned with plants, a wall quilt and sub­dued light­ing.

“What has this week been like for you?” she asked. Answers cir­cu­lat­ed in a flur­ry of opti­mism from the par­tic­i­pants, whose iden­ti­ties are not includ­ed in this arti­cle to pro­tect their pri­va­cy.

“I feel less iso­lat­ed, I made close friends,” one of the women said. “We under­stand each oth­er.” “I feel empow­ered, refreshed — a part­ner with my part­ner,” anoth­er said. “I’m inspired to work as a team.”

“It’s refresh­ing,” said a third. “I learned skills to regain my ener­gy. I feel whole again.”

Bruner said the women in the sup­port group see signs of strength in them­selves to keep going — to bounce back and real­ize they’re not “crazy.” They learn how to prac­tice patience, be more tol­er­ant and sup­port­ive of their mil­i­tary fam­i­ly in a bal­anced man­ner, she added.

Bruner, who lost her hus­band in Viet­nam, said it’s crit­i­cal for the women “to get the sup­port they need, to reduce the cost of war.”

Post-trau­mat­ic stress is not new –- it’s just anoth­er name for a phe­nom­e­non that’s been rec­og­nized since the Civ­il War. “Melan­choly,” “shell shock” and “bat­tle fatigue” are among the names it’s had when it’s been observed in ser­vice mem­bers in past con­flicts.

Bullis, a for­mer Army medic who served in Viet­nam, said that dur­ing and after the Gulf War deploy­ment in 1990 and 1991, 100,000 ser­vice mem­bers com­plained of what became known as “Gulf War syn­drome.”

“It came from out of nowhere, and they had symp­toms sim­i­lar to chron­ic fatigue syn­drome,” he said. Even­tu­al­ly, with no real med­ical cause found, it was called “med­ical­ly unex­plained phys­i­cal symp­toms.” And ser­vice in the Gulf War, he added, was nev­er linked to it.

Bullis added that 20 per­cent to 30 per­cent of those deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan can devel­op symp­toms of post-trau­mat­ic stress, but treat­ment can be suc­cess­ful if it is caught in its ear­ly stages. And med­ical staff mem­bers at mil­i­tary clin­ics world­wide are catch­ing signs of the dis­or­der at a rapid pace through rou­tine screen­ing, he added. Yet, the aver­age time it takes a ser­vice mem­ber to seek help after the onset of symp­toms is a stag­ger­ing 12 years, Bullis not­ed.

“It’s an invis­i­ble wound,” he said, “and it’s always a part of war.”

The Sig­nif­i­cant Oth­ers Sup­port Group pro­vides ses­sions on top­ics such as “Deal­ing with Adren­a­line Over­load,” “Under­stand­ing Trig­gers” and “Deal­ing with Things You Can’t Con­trol.” It also pro­vides relax­ation and focus class­es fea­tur­ing Yoga Nidra, QiGong and acupunc­ture, as well as a mas­sage donat­ed by a local spa.

Robin Carnes — a local mind and body skills instruc­tor who teach­es relax­ation tools to the Sig­nif­i­cant Oth­ers Sup­port Group — said the tech­niques can be used at home in five min­utes a day. Her meth­ods teach the women to relax and refo­cus by “putting back life ener­gy and stor­ing it,” she said.

“If you want to change your life,” she added, “change your prac­tice. It’s a healthy addic­tion if done every day.”

The char­ter class of 11 sig­nif­i­cant oth­ers gath­ered one last time on the final day in a small cer­e­mo­ny. As they received cer­tifi­cates of com­ple­tion, some qui­et­ly said, “Thank you.” But one Army wife, also a vet­er­an, dropped to her knees, tear­ful­ly ges­tur­ing to the group, thank­ing every­one for the sup­port she now has, and for her husband’s suc­cess in the Spe­cial­ized Care Pro­gram.

“This pro­gram,” she said, “gave me my hus­band back.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

More news and arti­cles can be found on Face­book and Twit­ter.

Fol­low on Face­book and/or on Twit­ter