War Stories: Unhappy Holidays

Sonja Burris of Kansas is like most military wives. She gets down sometimes, especially around the holidays, about her husband being so far away for so long. But she muddles through. She thought she was doing pretty well, even considered herself lucky. Terry, an Army reservist from the 129th Transport serving in Iraq since January, was able to come home for the birth of their daughter, Brooke, a few months ago.

But then Sonja went to her gynecologist for a postpartum visit. She was talking with her doctor about her husband when the doctor said: "If you need any antidepressants, give us a call any time." Burris was shocked. She didn't feel depressed enough to take medication. "There was no mention of counseling or anything. Just a prescription offered anytime," she says.

The psychological toll of war doesn't get all the attention it deserves. Some 10 to 15 percent of soldiers treated for injuries at Walter Reed hospital also suffer psychological wounds. However, no one keeps track of the emotional impact on families.

Stress, anxiety and depression peak this time of year. Burris says several women in her husband's unit have gone on antidepressants. In some cases, people really need chemical help. But it often seems like it is easier to get a prescription than good counseling. Now, the military has started a new 24/7 hotline called Army One Source (800-464-8107) for everything from coping problems to plumber referrals. The service provides six face-to-face sessions with a therapist for those whose medical insurance doesn't cover family counseling.

A lot of families have also banded together to form support groups. The Army organizes "family readiness groups" and family assistance centers. For reservists, there are National Guard family-assistance centers. But some families, especially those who don't live on bases, have taken to creating their own morale boosters.

The women of the 129th, which spans five states, have a very active online support group. At the local level, in places like Osage, Kans., for example, the wives get together all the time for dinner, window shopping and what they call "our moments." "We're there for each other when it feels like the sky is falling," says Amanda Bellew, 20, who was married just a few weeks before her husband, Jason, was deployed to Iraq.

Together the women have already sent out more than 100 care packages to their husbands. For Christmas, they sent a fake tree and stockings stuffed with things like beef jerky, nuts, ornaments and fun stuff like slingshots and gliders. They try not to dwell on their situations when they are together. "We're trying to get our minds off it," Bellew says.

Before her husband's deployment, Bellew was a student and he was a certified welder in Osage. He now makes about $20,000--some 30 percent of his former salary. They don't have big house or car payments, but still she quit school and went to work as a waitress. They needed the money and, besides, she couldn't concentrate on classes. "I think about him 23 hours and 59 minutes a day," Bellew says.

Financial woes only add to an already stressful situation. In a Department of Defense survey a few years ago, soldiers who were deploying said their No. 1 concern was not getting killed, but their family finances. A broken-down car, a house repair, anything they might have done themselves, now have to come out of their paycheck. And childcare falls to just one parent.

Shauna Hanson of Wisconsin was juggling two disabled kids, working and missing her husband, Jamie, when the pressure finally proved too much. She had a nervous breakdown. Because she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Army insurance covered a counselor and he insisted that she take a medical leave from her job. But there was no disability insurance. Suddenly, she was relying only on her husband's paycheck.

When the eviction notices started coming, Hanson turned to Army Emergency Relief (703-325-0184). This private nonprofit charity helps struggling military families with food, rent and other emergencies. Thanks to AER, Hanson is scraping by financially, month to month. But she still can't sleep at night. "This has been the worst year of my life," she says. The psychological debt for Hanson and all military families this holiday season is high.

War Stories Mail Call

Last week, T. Trent Gegax wrote about how court rulings, political changes and the self-outing of retired Army general officers are ratcheting up pressure on the military to change its "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward homosexuals. But soldiers wrote in to say that civilians don't understand how the military works. About 60 percent of our writers were against allowing openly gay service members into the armed forces, emphasizing that only the military knows what's best for the military. A sampling:

Matt Kaufman of Palatine, Ill., wrote:

It's all very nice for the officers and for the "enlightened" journalists to speak approvingly of allowing gays to serve openly in the military, but as a former soldier who had served with two barely closeted gays with the (all-male) Field Artillery, I can say that their presence was tolerated admirably by my fellow soldiers, but that their presence was indeed disruptive. As a soldier who has also served in a unit with males and females, I can state with absolute confidence that there was sexual tension, gossip and disruption that would not have existed in an all-male unit. Allowing gays to serve is great for the gays, but from what I've seen--the distractions, the disruptions, the gossip, the tensions that would occur--I'm not so sure it's good for the guys on the line, nor for combat efficiency.

Jose Andres "Andy" Chacon (USMA '51), of Albuquerque, N.M., wrote:

It is obvious that you still look at race and racism on a black-white nexus. I am the first Chicano to graduate from West Point. We are always the forgotten ones. Even the gays come before we do.

Eugene Nichol of Miami wrote:

I was an openly gay law-enforcement sergeant in a state police department in Miami, Fla., for 20 years. I finally left because of the difficulty from the administration I experienced by being out and because of the lack of any opportunity for upward mobility in the department. The new job I took was as a United Nations peacekeeper. Even under the auspices of the U.N., I found that I had to go "undercover" again for two years as the climate toward homosexuals in a 100 percent Albanian community in Kosovo precluded any chance for forthright integrity. When I returned to the States after two years of police service, I found that I was blackballed by the police administration from resuming my former career. I have sworn to myself and to my friends that if the U.S. Congress passes a constitutional amendment to prevent same-sex marriage, I will not return to the U.S. How can one live in a country where civil inequality for a minority of its citizens is codified into the federal constitution?

Dennis J. Murphy of New York City wrote:

Our solders have enough to worry about. The "don't ask, don't tell" policy is a reasonable one. This article is one-sided and filled with homosexual-agenda talking points that are mighty stale. Shame on you.

Debra Moon of Yokota, Japan, wrote:

Gay or straight, what does it matter? A person's sexual orientation doesn't affect their ability to perform a job. Nor should they have to hide their orientation to be considered for a job. In a society that claims to support equal-opportunity employment and abhors discrimination, it is obscene that we still deny people the right to serve their country because they are gay. It's this person's opinion that it's time for Uncle Sam to wise up.