By Jessica Babb | Lariat Washington Bureau
At the end of a long deployment, Julia Smith said she was stunned to find her father waiting to surprise her in the back of her mother’s car. As a young child, she had no idea when her father would arrive home from his 15-month deployment, and after spending the night at a friend’s house, she was shocked to open the trunk of her mother’s car and see her father sitting right in front of her, still dressed in his uniform. In that moment, she said she immediately hugged him, began crying, and was filled with happiness as the period of separation finally ended.
For Smith’s family and the families of thousands of service men and women who come home with combat related injuries — mental and physical — the next chapter is only beginning. It’s a chapter filled with uncertainties, hurt and abrupt change.
“It makes me sad and sometimes I cry about it because it’s upsetting that the person you got to know as a little kid, that used to laugh with you and carry you around, can no longer do that stuff,” said Smith, who is now 20 and a student at Concordia University’s nursing school. “Like, physically they can but emotionally they are not stable enough to be that person anymore.”
On her father’s second-to-last deployment in Iraq, he was hit by a roadside bomb that killed many of the soldiers he was traveling with. After coming home to recover, he headed back overseas for a deployment in Afghanistan, where he was hit with yet another roadside bomb, which then led to hand-to-hand combat with a group of Afghani soldiers.
Through these experiences, Smith’s father developed PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), which is described as a psychological condition that results in anxiety or depression after some sort of real or perceived trauma, according to Dr. Vladimir Nacev, a board-certified clinical psychologist with the Defense Centers of Excellence. Symptoms of PTSD can include anxiety, depression, hyper vigilance, flashbacks, nightmares, aggression and quick temperament.
Since 2000, more than 52,000 soldiers have been wounded in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, according to data released by the United States Department of Defense. In that same period of time, more than 138,000 soldiers have been diagnosed with PTSD.
“Normally when my dad came home from deployments, he still had this mentality that he was [overseas] so he would drive crazy or be really distant from our family because that’s what he was used to,” Smith said. “When he came back from his last deployment, he was a completely different person. Instead of just aggression, it was like him screaming and throwing things.”
Smith said at times when her father’s PTSD was triggered by events occurring in the world around him, he was unable to control his aggression and sometimes became abusive.
“At first it was just anger and I would be mad at him, and then as I learned more about PTSD and what it was, I would get frustrated when he would lash out at me. In my mind I knew that this was not my dad – this is my dad with PTSD, and he is a completely different person,” Smith said.
Before his numerous deployments, Smith said her father was described as being laid-back, happy-go-lucky and ready to explore the world. Now with PTSD, he is no longer laid-back, angers easily and doesn’t want to engage in large crowds because it makes him fearful and brings back memories of his combat experiences.
“It’s a mental illness he can’t control and nothing is ever going to change it,” Smith said. “He is never proud of how he acts after and it is emotional because I have seen him cry and have suicidal ideations over it.”
While Smith’s father has learned to manage his PTSD over the years, Smith said it is something he still deals with, and likely always will.
“It changes you. You are no longer the same. You are just simply no longer the same,” Dr. Nacev said. “It changes how you perceive the world, how you perceive your place in the world, in a sense, of what was important once before is now not important.”
Audrey Karcher, 20, who is studying to be a nurse at Baylor University, was also a child at the time of her father’s injuries. During her childhood, she welcomed her father home from three deployments.
On her father’s second deployment in Iraq, he was sent home early due to a gunshot wound in his left shoulder. After recovering, he finished the duration of that deployment and was then deployed one last time.
“It’s always hard to send him back to a place where he has been hurt once, and what are the odds he would get hurt twice,” Karcher said. “The thing you think isn’t really possible to happen again, does happen again and is worse than it was before. It was definitely hard to cope with it, and it’s still hard to see him like that.”
After his last deployment, instead of a ceremony, he was welcomed home in the hospital after losing both his legs in combat.
“It is one of those things where it just doesn’t feel like real life. It feels like you are in a dream,” Karcher said. “The reality of it set in when my mom left to go to D.C. to take care of my dad for pretty much the whole summer. That’s when the reality that our whole lives were flipped upside down and that it would never be back the way it was before set in.”
Due to his extensive injuries, Karcher’s father had to seek treatment for months in Washington D.C. During this time, Karcher said she and her two sisters remained back in Texas, living with different relatives, trying to cope and regain some level of stability in their family.
“For physical injuries, the whole family is trying to deal with this medical condition so the children kind of get pushed aside,” said Dr. Ryo Sook Chun, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and director of Operation Building Resilience and Valuing Empowered Families, a program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center that provides educational and psychological support to families of injured service members. “A lot of kids are aware the family is in crisis, so they try and protect themselves and protect their parents by keeping to themselves and by keeping silent. They present a façade, but they are suffering.”
After months of her father being in and out of the Intensive Care Unit, Karcher and her sisters were finally able to see their father for the first time. When they saw him, his weight had dropped from 225 pounds to just 105 pounds, and he still had months of treatment and years of rehabilitation ahead of him.
“It was definitely not the way you would want to see your dad or the way you remembered seeing him as he left for deployment,” Karcher said.
Years later, Karcher’s father has recovered to the point where he can wear prosthetics, function normally, work and take care of his family. However, Karcher said life for her and her family has changed, and they have a new version of what is normal.
“It was the first year that all of this had happened and I had a dance competition,” Karcher said. “The event center actually wasn’t handicap accessible, so my dad couldn’t get in to watch me perform. That was definitely a hard reality. It was one of those times I was just angry because it wasn’t fair and didn’t have to happen.”
It doesn’t matter what combat related injury a parent has, according to Nacev. Whether it is PTSD, losing limbs or something different, it can affect a child the same way depending on how it impacts the relationship between the child and parent.
“It is important not to forget these extended family and kids,” Chun said. “They support the service member to do their mission. It’s a powerful force they have for the service member, so I would like our country not just to look at the service member, but the family as a unit.”
Both Smith and Karcher were impacted similarly from the challenges they faced. They both said they came out stronger after facing adversity from their parents’ respective combat injuries. In addition, both said their experiences influenced their decisions to pursue nursing, as a way to help others who are dealing with similar circumstances.
“It has definitely strengthened my faith and made me into the person I am today,” Karcher said. “I would say with all the past things that have happened, I’ve learned resiliency.”
While Nacev said that a child growing up with a parent who has combat related injuries could impact each child and family differently based on the circumstances, he also echoed that children affected by this are resilient.
For those who may not have any connection to the military, or may not understand what many service men, women and their families experience, Smith and Karcher offered a few words of advice.
“I just want people to be aware that PTSD is a mental illness and there is nothing these people that struggle with it can do about it,” Smith said.
Karcher said she hopes people will be more compassionate to those who are suffering from psychological injuries.
“I would just say be a helpful hand to people,” Karcher said. “PTSD is one of those things you can’t always see from the outside, and since you don’t know someone is struggling with it, just be really compassionate toward others. Also with life changing injuries that you can see on the outside, make it as normal as you can and don’t make them feel like an outsider.”