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Last Updated: Sunday, 17 July, 2005, 20:55 GMT 21:55 UK
The effect on families
Sonya Burgess
Sonya Burgess, whose husband's condition also affected her life
When Sonya Burgess went with her husband to the Ty Gwyn independent hospital in North Wales, she had expected to encounter veterans mentally broken by war.

Since her husband's return from Iraq, Sonya was well versed in the trauma of memories that will not leave soldiers' minds. What she was not prepared for however, was to see it in their partners.

Glancing around the clinic at the other women there, she was shocked to see her own self reflected back at her;

"They were absolutely worn out. Haunted, they were all on the edge."

When her husband returned from Iraq in 2003, Sonya's life was turned upside down.

He was paranoid, withdrawn and depressed, unable to stem the fears and guilt that had mushroomed from his experiences in Iraq. He was shocked by the impact of the conflict on civilians - particularly children. Back home, he began to frighten her and their own kids with an obsession for their safety. Convinced that unknown threats lurked round every corner, each trip out of the house turned into an exercise of military preparation.

"Everything to him became dangerous: if you walked up the stairs the wrong way, if you didn't close the door properly. Walking down the road was a nightmare. He would be absolutely sure that the car or the tractor he was seeing was going to change direction and mow the children down. We had to be a tight group. That was the worst thing - it was like we couldn't breathe."

Keep up the contact

Sonya felt very unprepared and alone in caring for her husband. Surprised by how cut off she felt from the Armed Forces welfare services, with hindsight Sonya thinks far more could have been done to ease the returning troops transition from war zone to home. The good rapport built up with service families through their deployment could also have been prolonged to help prepare for the homecoming experience;

"When they were in the Gulf, the RAF started doing welfare meetings once a week where we could all go up and meet in the NAFFI. They would tell us all about what the squadrons were up to and how they were doing, but the moment they came back that was it, there was nothing."

Part of the problem was the rapidity with which many of the serving partners had transferred from war zone to home. Sonya found it hard to believe that after four months of harrowing experiences, her husband was back so quickly; "The attitude was 'they're home now - go and play happy families.' That morning he'd woken up in Iraq, and that night he was going to bed at home! In twelve hours - It was just too much for them."

The impact of her husband's developing mental illness on their relationship was huge, and it was only when Sonya told him that she was going to leave that he finally agreed to seek help - outside of the armed forces. Without doing so, Sonya is not sure that they could have stayed together - for her children's sake as well as their own.

Caring for the partners

Last year the Ty Gwyn independent hospital set up a support group for the partners of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) sufferers. One of the senior carers - Wyn Boyce explained why:

"People assume that it's just the servicemen that suffer as a result of PTSD - it isn't. Partners and children will also suffer if the person that comes home from combat is not the same person that left. It's a vicious circle."

The symptoms associated with PTSD such as withdrawal, nightmares, flashbacks and sometimes verbal or physical aggression can be very distressing to deal with for the families of sufferers.

The stigmas attached to mental illness in general - particularly within military communities where the expectation of a 'hardened attitude' is strong -can be a barrier to confiding in others. The effect of alcohol or drug dependence can add to the burden. According to Wyn Boyce

"Some partners have had beatings, and the screaming, shouting and nightmares are very hard to deal with but who cares for the carers?"

The sense of isolation that many partners of PTSD sufferers feel may be overwhelming - particularly if a military family is abroad and separated from family and friends.

In these circumstances, depression may develop. As Sonya Burgess describes it, her own problems developed at the same time as her husband's illness, and a year later as he sought help - and she herself began a course of anti-depressants.

Being able to talk to others who understand the illness therefore can be a crucial support.

The National Gulf Veterans and Families Association (NGVFA) and the leading ex-services mental welfare charity, Combat Stress, both provide support groups and advice for partners and families. The Combat Stress group - called 'Just For Us' has been running for over a year, and now plans to develop a similar support group for the children of PTSD sufferers.

Unchecked, the consequences can be extreme

If what begins as a stress reaction or adjustment difficulty develops further and is left unchecked, the consequences can be extreme according to Heather Saunders, who runs the Army Widows Association.

Several of the Association's members have lost partners to suicide, and some of these are suspected cases of undiagnosed PTSD. One such widow - Donna Mahoney - has begun campaigning herself for an increase in communication and resources on PTSD for Armed Forces families since her husband's death.

Donna claims that as a TA wife she had been particularly isolated from information and support. Her husband had been given leaflets about PTSD and adjustment problems - but had hidden them from her. She knew nothing of PTSD and of who to contact for help with her husband's problems.

'I'm a qualified nurse and I know that there is life after depression - you can get over it. But if you don't know anything then you can't help someone."

Don't be afraid to speak up

Heather Saunders believes that, as well as inadequate follow-up after troops return from deployment, another problem is that many concerned families of serving members of the armed forces may not speak up until it is too late. This is often because they are worried about jeopardising their loved ones' career. The fear that their concerns will not remain confidential, and a 'black mark' will be put against the individual's name means that there may be a reluctance to approach official sources of help.

Last year the Army Families Federation (AFF) published a survey of army families from Operation Telic 2003-2004, which voiced the views of partners and relatives about the levels of support they received before, during and after deployment to Iraq. The report showed that most families expressed a 'powerful need' for information from the army system, and a strong desire to share the experience with others going through the same - sometimes tense - reunion with their loved ones.

These needs were especially pronounced amongst younger age groups and those living apart form other army families, and were particularly acute for TA and Reservist families and partners - some of whom felt cut off from Amy Welfare Services.

The AFF is a point of contact between the army, the army welfare services and the partners and families of serving men and women. This year, in response to the survey findings, the AFF appointed a TA/Reservist representative to highlight the needs and opinions of a growing number of Reservist families whose partners are deployed abroad - sometimes with little warning.

'Their nightmares become yours'

Isolation from support can be a crucial factor in family breakdown. If a partner attempts to help counsel their loved one themselves by sharing their memories for example, a vicious circle can be created - as Sonya Burgess explains;

"When they share with you - which is what you want them to do - their nightmares then become your nightmares."

This situation can spiral without professional help. Fortunately for Sonya and her husband they have now begun to receive psychiatric support and relations at home are also improving.

"You just don't seem to be getting out of it, that's why we needed help. We can talk about it - but talking about it is only going to be a small part of being healed. We still need to be shown a way out."

Seeking further help

For serving personnel in the UK and Germany, professional welfare support is provided by the Army Welfare Service (AWS) through its network of Army Welfare Workers. It provides community and personal support to servicemen and women and their families. The Army Welfare Service is a professionally based and confidential welfare support service responsive to the needs of the individual, families and the chain of command in order to maximise the operational effectiveness of servicemen and women.

Further help and advice is also available from numerous organisations created to provide help or charitable assistance to service personnel, Army families and dependants. Details are available on the Ministry of Defence website.

Further sources of help and advice

The Army Families Federation

Combat Stress

Ty Gwyn
Telephone: 01492 544 081

The Army Widows Association


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