Confession: I recognize my husband’s PTS symptoms… because I have suffered them, too.
I have been with my military husband for 15 years, which included 5 combat deployments. But I never understood PTS (Post-Traumatic Stress) until it happened to me.
In 2011, I gave birth to my son during a Category 3 Hurricane. The birth itself was healthy and normal, but the recovery was not. I was alone at the hospital, because my husband was deployed. I watched the giant pine trees around the hospital swaying and falling in the howling storm. While I was in the recovery room, the hospital lost power. Nurses gave me a flashlight and a box of granola bars for my post-birth meal.
I spent the night sheltering in a hallway clutching the baby during a tornado warning. I felt helpless and alone since I couldn’t reach my husband or even my parents, who were watching my other children. The next day, I was “released,” but the base and roads were still closed because of downed trees and wires. So I moved to another floor of the hospital where I had to care for my baby alone, and walk outside to a food truck to get myself a meal. When I finally made it home, I thought the trauma was behind me.
Until one year later. We moved to Spain, where there are no hurricanes. The first week there, I saw the wind blowing palm tree branches, and my heart started racing. All I could think was, HURRICANE! I felt a pang in my abdomen, like labor pain, even though I wasn’t pregnant. I felt like I needed to get to shelter and protect my children. For a few minutes I couldn’t think clearly.
When I had calmed down, I tried to reassure myself with facts: “There aren’t any hurricanes in Spain. This is just wind. You are not having a baby.”
But there was some part of my brain that had connected the stress and fear of the hospital with the image of TV weather reporters standing near Florida palm trees during a hurricane. I never understood why I had such an irrational panicked reaction to those palm trees.
Recently, I attended a presentation by a military chaplain who served in multiple combat deployments. He spoke to military spouses about the difference between PTSD and PTS. The most extreme version of post-traumatic stress is called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The disorder takes over some veteran’s lives, making it difficult for them to sleep, be in large crowds or sometimes even have a normal conversation. PTSD only affects a small percentage of veterans.
Yet many military service members suffer the less-serious version of combat stress, known as PTS (Post-Traumatic Stress.) PTS can be temporary, and limited to specific locations. The chaplain described how he had PTS for a short time after deployment, and had a hard time during a public fireworks show. He had to excuse himself and get into his car and play music to calm down. Nevertheless, his reaction gradually went away, and now he is able to go to fireworks shows and function normally in everyday life. He did not suffer from PTSD, just a brief episode of PTS.
When he described his experience, I realized that was exactly what happened to me with the palm trees. They were an unexpected trigger of a traumatic event in my past. And suddenly, some of my husband’s strange episodes after combat deployment made a lot more sense.
My husband does NOT have PTSD. He does not get headaches, have bursts of anger, have trouble sleeping or any of the other classic symptoms. He has been screened after every deployment, and never been diagnosed with anything. However, there are numerous times he displayed signs of PTS:
- After his first deployment, we were driving overnight to visit family. There was a thunderstorm ahead. The lightning flashes in the dark sky sent him into a terrified frenzy. He huddled in the corner of the car mumbling that he wished he had his gun.
- After his second Middle East deployment, we went to a Renaissance Festival together. Many people wore Medieval costumes and robes. After he had been drinking for a while, he started to see people in costumes as a threat, and was acting paranoid. He described cities and scenes from the deployment. His friend and I had to escort him home before he threatened anyone.
- After his third deployment, a car backfired loudly at a gas station. He immediately dropped to the ground and yelled for me to “get down!” A moment later, he realized it was not a gunshot, and he felt silly.
- After 15 years in the military, he hadn’t been in combat for a few years. We were on a family vacation in a historic western town, and he wanted to tour a preserved gold mine. But as soon as we got a few feet underground, he said he had to get out of there. His heart was racing and he felt claustrophobic (even though he had never felt that way before in caves). Afterward, we decided it was the one-way aspect of the tunnel, and the fact that he had no control over the situation that triggered him.
- At Disneyland, “the happiest place on Earth,” our family went into the castle. When he reached the top of the stairs, he had an attack of claustrophobia or paranoia. Similar to the cave, he felt trapped in a one-way tunnel. Once he found the steps to exit and knew there was a way out, he could relax and laugh about it.