The military’s hidden mental health crisis: spousal trauma
Army wife Melissa Bourgeois hit her breaking point five years ago when she was living at a U.S. military base in Vicenza, Italy, with her husband, Eric, an infantryman. Eric was just back from a harrowing second deployment to Afghanistan marked by frequent firefights. Filled with an uncontrollable rage, he spent his nights self-medicating at bars with his war buddies.
Eric’s anger toward his family had become explosive, and he regularly punched doors, furniture and even a concrete wall that left his hand injured. Melissa, 25 at the time, with their two small children, felt isolated in a new country where she barely spoke the language. She needed to talk to someone about her situation, but she said each time she sought mental-health care on the base, she was given Valium and sent away.
In October 2008, Eric backed Melissa into a corner and started shouting at her in front of the children, the smell of alcohol heavy on his breath. “I was hysterical, screaming,” she said. Desperate, she called a friend, who reported him to the military police for domestic abuse. The commanding officer of Eric’s company held him in the barracks for 72 hours before releasing him. When Melissa went to her husband’s platoon sergeant for help, he told her that if she was so unhappy, maybe he should just send her back home. Soon after that, Eric said, the platoon sergeant told him, “Keep your wife in line.”
In a U.S. military psychologically ravaged by 12 years of continuous war, troops’ family members, like Melissa, are the victims of a hidden mental-health crisis, missing from the public calculus of the social costs of combat and systematically denied by the institution that placed their partners — and them — in harm’s way. Interviews with military doctors, psychologists, social workers and counselors and with service members and spouses suggest that this problem is ubiquitous yet invisible.
“The military just doesn’t want to deal with wives,” Melissa said.