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By Personnel Specialist 1st Class Kitara Byerly
My husband was my hero, my veteran, my partner, the father of our children and my greatest supporter. He was also a troubled-soul sometimes. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and military family stress go hand-in-hand. My husband was wonderful and, on the rare occasion, nightmarish. The transition between loving devotion and out of control rage was rare, quick and terrifying.
I like to say that I am not a domestic violence victim — I am an enabler of domestic violence. I chose to stay. The difference between John’s bad days and his good days was so large, that, viewed through the perspective of other military families, I felt we had a pretty good veteran/military marriage. Over the years, his PTSD would bubble up about once a month resulting in him screaming verbal blame around the home, mostly directed at me, but sometimes at our oldest son.
Despite his monthly outbursts, the rest of the month was good. We cooked. We built. We cleaned. We worked together. Once a year, John’s screaming would escalate, resulting in me getting shoved into the wall, pushed down a stair or two, or having my phone crushed when I threatened to call the police. This revelation would later stun his command, my Navy command, our community and our church. John was the quintessential great service member and community veteran leader. I know that he was truly one of those personas as well. That’s part of why I chose to stay — PTSD is baffling.
During John’s frightening, out of control moments, I believed my only option was to have him arrested — a choice which, I knew, could hurt his record, endanger my career, and undermine his position in the military, not to mention his civilian service career. Our finances were always tight, our debt was high — I knew that if I called the police, I should be prepared for a divorce, but financially we needed each other. We were each other’s family care plan. I believed we could not serve without each other. I also believed that the balance between the bad days was far outweighed by the good days. We were a strong veteran and military family.
We were too strong to call for help.
I was rising in rank and earning academic degrees with his help. Yes, there were outbursts, but on the flip side, for most of the month he was my biggest supporter. I needed his help when I was called away to serve, and he needed mine. Together we took care of our children and our home, we were saving for retirement and owning a home. How could I call a line for domestic violence when it popped up so infrequently? How could I reveal to my command that my husband was troubled, but that he wouldn’t go for help?
I was too strong to be saved.
I am a highly educated female Sailor with advanced degrees. I’ve been to countless hours of training on abuse, PTSD, suicide and domestic violence. It’s not that I didn’t consider or try to reach out to hotlines, but solutions were not easy to connect. That has improved.
PTSD and its family repercussions exist side by side in a loving marriage. It’s not that I lived in an abusive home sometimes and had a loving, devoted husband sometimes. It was both. The abuse was present, but the family ideal was also there. For families in conflict, like mine, it’s not one or the other. It’s both.
Love and PTSD can coexist in military families.
The morning of Nov. 15, we had an argument. It devolved into John hitting me with a couch pillow. I reached for my phone. I was not going to be struck. I was not going to be hit — no one deserves to be hit. He took my phone and crushed it on the ground. I picked it up and called the police, ready to stop the out of control escalation. I was ready for the worst that day, I believed.
When the county sheriff arrived, John was arrested. We later bailed him out from the county jail and took him home.
I assured him that we loved him, we wanted the best for him, and that we were ready for counseling. He was just sad and quiet. The next morning he told me he loved me, that he was sorry and that he would see me after work. He sent our son out of the home on an early morning errand. Twenty minutes later he took his father’s Winchester double-barrel shotgun to the backyard and killed himself.
There were plenty of locks on the ammo and the weapon that day. Plenty of barriers that he had to overcome to walk outside and choose to pull the trigger.
I know that John felt he was doing the only thing that could help him.
But he was too strong to save.
Our son found John about 20 minutes after he’d shot himself. We know this because the neighbors heard the shot. My son had to call 911 to report the death of his own father. My son has that image of his dad laying in the backyard with the shotgun. My son now needs saving. This was the worst outcome that I could imagine from reaching out to the police, but now I know that there are better options available. Hotlines and help has transformed over the years for families in crisis. I didn’t know that on that morning in November, but I do now.
It was a four years earlier in October, 2016 when I hung up the line from the VA Suicide Hotline. I was shaking. I was mad. I had called to report that I was worried about my husband, a veteran. He was angry, reactive, moody, and on the rare occasion, physically violent. I was worried that he would attempt suicide.
After looking up the number online, I reached out on his behalf. I was connected after a five minute wait — something that seemed comically wrong, to have to wait that long for a human to speak to when you’re in crisis. The woman who finally answered let me know that she could not help me. The hotline was only for the veterans to call for help, if he would not speak to the hotline, then there was nothing they could do.
I felt abandoned by the system at that moment. I didn’t reach out again until after John’s death. When I called to research what had changed in the past four years, I was heartened to learn that the VA Suicide Hotline now offered veteran spousal support. The hotline would now call my veteran back, offer counseling on the phone to spouses, offer solutions, and send out people to support the family in-person. I didn’t know this level of support existed, it was too late for John, but it’s not to late for you. The hotline is there and can help other veterans — and their spouses — who are in crisis.
If you are a military family in need of support, please reach out. Do not try to be the strong face for your unit, do not protect household violence.
Please, do not be too strong to save.
Editor’s note: If you, your friend, your shipmate or a loved one are having trouble navigating stress or experiencing a crisis, help is always available. Reach out to your local Fleet and Family Support Center, Deployed Resilience Counselor or any of the following free resources:
VA MILITARY CRISIS LINE — Connects with qualified and caring Veterans Affairs responders through a confidential, toll-free hotline, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Support is available via telephone, mobile text or online. https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/ Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255, Option 1), text 838255
MILITARY ONESOURCE — Free and confidential non-medical counseling via phone and live chat, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. https://www.militaryonesource.mil/ Call 1-800-342-9647
Psychological Health Outreach Program — PHOP counselors provide counseling support at all Navy Operational Support Centers and over 29 Reserve units across the country. Call 1-866-578-PHOP (7467)
Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Navy Reserve 24/7 Chaplain Hotline: (757) 322-5650
National Hope Line Network: 1-800-784-2433
Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741 (24/7)
Substance Abuse/Mental Health Services: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
Navy 24/7 Civilian Employee Assistance Hotline: 1-844-366-2327