Olympia Yarger suffered when her husband went to war just 10 days after her daughter was born. War is her burden to bare too.
Olympia Yarger suffered when her husband went to war just 10 days after her daughter was born. War is her burden to bare too. Ginger Gorman

The untold suffering of military spouses

TWO weeks after the birth of Olympia Yarger's daughter, Charlotte, in Jacksonville, North Carolina, her thoughts were suffocating and dark.

"I just would love to have died," Olympia says, "I was exhausted and emotional but my husband was gone."

The birth was an easy one but afterwards, Olympia - an Australian - haemorrhaged. Even after her discharge from hospital she was weak and unwell.

At the time her husband, Eric, was a US Marine fighting in an elite unit. He deployed to Afghanistan on his sixth combat tour just 10 days after his tiny daughter came into the world.

"The thought of having to go another seven months thinking about whether or not he died…," Olympia says, trailing off.

Numerous friends had been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Would Eric be next? Olympia found herself alone and in ill health parenting two young children. She was consumed with worry.

"As a military spouse you've got the unwritten law that you don't complain. But I was so angry with him."

The way Olympia sees it, this resentment is at the heart of the distress experienced by military caregivers - and also why they stay silent.

"If my husband is a hero and he goes vigorously into battle to fight on my nation's behalf, how do I get to tell people that it's horrible? Does America or Australia really want to talk about that?

"I'm not proud of my sacrifice, I made my sacrifice unwillingly and I would un-sacrifice it in a f***ing heartbeat," Olympia says.

Olympia Yarger suffered when her husband went to war just 10 days after her daughter was born. War is her burden to bare too.
Olympia Yarger suffered when her husband went to war just 10 days after her daughter was born. War is her burden to bare too. Ginger Gorman

Like so many military spouses, Olympia pays the price of war - although she's never been on a battlefield.

As a community, we've started to turn our thoughts towards veterans who die by suicide. But who is paying attention to the silent distress of military families?

Psychologist Dr Gail MacDonell is an expert on the mental health of military partners. During one of our lengthy phone conversations, she tells me the harrowing story of a veteran's daughter who recently died by suicide.

Then she says: "We don't know how many partners or children are dying by suicide or attempting suicide because nobody is keeping that data. It appears that no one wants to keep that information."

After 12 years Eric Yarger left the military but he still bears the scars - and so does his family. According to Olympia, his PTSD leads Eric to suffer "incredible night sweats" and to thrash in his sleep.

"You've met my husband. He's an absolutely beautiful man but war changed him, making it very hard for him to come back to [his family]," she says through a stream of tears that despite her best intentions just keep coming.

She describes the feeling of having your partner deployed into a combat zone as a kind of "rising panic".

"It's literally the feeling you have when your kid goes missing at Woolworths and you can't find them," she says, "I know I'll find them but what if I don't?"

With a partner on a combat tour, ordinary things - like missing a phone call because the mobile is in the bottom of your bag - become steeped in terror.

"You don't know if it's the last time you'll ever speak to them," Olympia says.

Relatives of dead soldiers are informed their loved one is deceased by a so-called casualty notification officer. This happens at specific times of the day.

On the days Eric was meant to call but didn't or couldn't, Olympia would wait at home at the time she knew the casualty notifications took place.

Her experience of being a military spouse is one that translates to Australian families too.

Donna Reggett, 54, says she's "been to hell and back" as a result of her husband's psychological injuries. He suffers from severe PTSD after serving with Australian troops in Somalia in the 1990s.

"That was before anyone really knew what PTSD was," she says, adding that: "Since my husband was medically discharged from the military, I can't tell you how much time I've spent in the psychiatric wards of hospitals."

Donna Reggett with her husband, who served in Somalia in the 1990s.
Donna Reggett with her husband, who served in Somalia in the 1990s. Supplied

After realising how little support was available for the partners of veterans, Donna started a secret Facebook group in 2011. She matter-of-factly estimates that 80 per cent of the group's 350 members "would currently be on or have taken antidepressants at one time."

"I know we have members who have died by suicide or attempted suicide, some of our members' children have also suffered with depression and anxiety and had breakdowns."

"Eating disorders and self-harm, such as cutting, are also really common among our members. One lady has pulled out all her own hair at the back of her head. And that's not the worst of it," Donna tells me.

Although careful not to blame it on PTSD, she goes on to explain some veterans can be violent and controlling towards their partners. (This is a sentiment that Olympia also echoes through the stories she's heard in her role as a family readiness adviser.)

Among her numerous other qualifications, Dr MacDonell, OAM (who we've already heard from above) is executive director of the Australian Families of the Military Research and Support Foundation. She's the wife of a veteran and over the last 20 years has worked with approximately 3000 partners.

Her body of research clearly lays out the detrimental impacts of military service on the mental and physical health of partners. In one eye-opening paper investigating the wellbeing of partners of Vietnam veterans, the 76 participants list an astounding array of negative behaviours in their wives including: hypersensitivity to physical stimuli like noise, anger, aggression, temper outbursts and mood swings, withdrawal and long periods of silence, manipulation, possessiveness and jealousy, nightmares, insomnia and verbal abuse.

In turn, the women go on to cite numerous mental and physical health issues they are suffering, seemingly as a consequence of their husband's erratic and disturbing conduct - everything from gastrointestinal problems to cardiovascular disease, cancer and asthma.

Dr Stephanie Hodson, National Manager for Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service (VVCS), says she's concerned no one is counting those who die by suicide.

Dr Hodson says VVCS has some data and is starting to undertake this work.

"We are one of the few services that would actually be in a position to start to monitor this because we see so many families," she says.

As a veteran and military wife herself, Dr Hodson knows only too well why partners may be reticent to seek support.

"Sometimes the best thing that the partner could do is to look after themselves," she says, adding that: "the impact of living with someone with PTSD can cause its own mental health condition, whether it be anxiety or depression."

In response to criticisms VVCS had strict eligibility criteria that some family members and partners of veterans don't meet, Dr Hodson urges struggling family members to "just call us."

"We can offer a period of counselling in order to help the family get through the current crisis," she says.

On a more positive note, Dr Hodson says, "two thirds of people that we treat for PTSD get better."

Mick and his partner Bek, pictured in 2009, during his military service.
Mick and his partner Bek, pictured in 2009, during his military service. Supplied

Towards the end of 2010, Mick, now 30, was sent home from Afghanistan because he'd suffered a severe psychological injury. During a contact with the enemy, his mate Jared "was killed probably about 20 metres to my left."

In that moment, Mick couldn't afford to stop and reflect. He had a job to do. But it wasn't long until the impact hit him.

"A week later, I started to notice that I was getting involuntary muscular twitches and they gradually got worse to the point that I couldn't really light a cigarette," he says, "if I was drinking out of my water bottle I'd twitch and spill water all over myself. At the mess, holding my meal tray I'd spill my food.

"When you're twitching that much they don't want you carrying a machine gun anymore," he explains.

Although his partner Bek was thrilled he was back, it didn't take long to realise something was terribly wrong. (As an aside, Bek tells me both of them have punched the walls and now the house "is riddled with holes.")

"Within the next six to 12 months the alcohol increased and he became majorly dependent upon it," she says, "I'd get home from work and he'd already be half drunk on the couch."

With the help of a psychologist, Mick undertook cognitive behavioural therapy and exposure therapy and his twitches reduced. However, a catalogue of other problems arose.

"When he was drunk, he would either become very, very upset or quite angry and either way, he would let out quite graphic details of things [that] happened overseas.

"They're just blurted and it's like I'm just a brick wall with paint being thrown onto it. I didn't sign up to be to be in the army. I'd never been exposed to anything remotely like that," she says, "I was dealing with nights where I'd be on the ground with him on the floor and I'd be just rocking with him as he was just melting down."

Bek wasn't sleeping or eating properly. She couldn't concentrate at work.

"I completely withdrew from friends and my support group, I left my full-time career in order to care for Michael more. I lost my confidence, I put on an enormous amount of weight, my physical health declined so much I couldn't get out of bed. I had chronic pain.

"I'd experienced depression and mental illness before but nothing like this. Just the loneliness, the isolation. I just felt like we were the only ones going through it," she says, "I felt suicidal more times than what I can remember."

Bek and Mick turned to alternative therapies to help with their recovery.
Bek and Mick turned to alternative therapies to help with their recovery. Supplied

Gradually Bek and Mick turned towards alternative therapies like yoga, exercise physiology, using flotation tanks, cannabis and eating a plant-based, wholefood diet.

For Bek, these lifestyle choices are "100 per cent" responsible for their combined recovery.

She's highly critical of the one-size-fits-all approach that the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) takes to the families of veterans and questions why they won't fund alternatives to psychiatric care and medication, like yoga.

In a statement from DVA responding to these concerns, the Department acknowledges, "all families are different" and says it "is taking steps to identify policy gaps and support initiatives."

"DVA has a duty of care to clients to ensure that funded treatment is evidence-based, thereby providing the best opportunity for recovery," the statement reads.

Meanwhile Olympia urges the Australian military to follow the US lead and work harder to include families in the conversation. She also applauds the notion of peer-to-peer support among military spouses. Her rallying cry is for a grassroots movement by families to force change in the Australian military's culture.

"We do actually have to do it for ourselves," she says.

WHERE TO GET HELP

In an emergency, call 000

To get support contact the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service via their website or call 1800 011 046 (24 hours)

You can also call Lifeline on 13 11 14

If you wish to join the secret support group for the partners of veterans, please message via the Operation PTSD Support Facebook page.

Ginger Gorman is an award-winning print and radio journalist, and a 2016 TEDx Canberra speaker. Follow her on Twitter @GingerGorman

News Corp Australia


WAR VETERAN: He never really came home from France

WAR VETERAN: He never really came home from France

He buried his nose in books and hands in earth to deal post war

Guru's journey from Afghanistan front line to Rocky rugby

Guru's journey from Afghanistan front line to Rocky rugby

Benj Focas has travelled the world coaching some of the sport's best

Honour for the dead

Honour for the dead

The Bully looks back at the call for Rocky's first Anzac memorial.

Local Partners