Spouse Describes Impact of Post-traumatic Stress
By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service
BETHESDA, Dec. 11, 2009 Sheri Hall knew her husband, Army Maj. Jeff Hall, was having emotional issues after two tours in Iraq, but she didn’t grasp just how bad it was until one day when he went for a run.
Sheri Hall talks about the impact her husband’s post-traumatic stress disorder had on her family at the Trauma Spectrum Disorders Conference at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., Dec. 10, 2009. DoD photo by Elaine Wilson
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
He was about 10 miles away when he called and asked for a ride home, Sheri recalled. He said he had started running and his chest had begun to hurt. “I thought if I just keep running it will explode, and I will die right here,” he told his wife.
That moment was a turning point, she said, that would set her husband and family on a long-awaited road to recovery.
The mother of two described her husband’s battle with post-traumatic stress disorder and the impact on their family at the Trauma Spectrum Disorders Conference at the National Institutes of Health here yesterday.
The major’s first tour in Iraq followed 9/11. “He was ready to go; he was committed to victory,” she said.
At the tail end of his deployment, the major’s prior commander was shot by a sniper on a rooftop. He was about a foot and a half away.
“When he came back, he was already in command, and I had about 50 wives to keep in touch with,” Sheri said, referring to her role as a commander’s wife. They hoped for a 12-month “dwell time” at home between deployments, but her husband was on a plane back to Iraq within 10 months, Sheri said. “Out of that 10 months, we were probably only together for about three” due to training, she added.
The major left in February 2005, and the soldiers did their mission, Sheri said. “Although Jeff says to this day, ‘I don’t know what that mission was, other than riding around and getting blown up and shot at.’ This really wore on him a lot while deployed, she said.
Sheri said her husband would write letters and send e-mails describing his unhappiness. “I’d say, ‘This is just Jeff, he’s just complaining, he’s just not happy,’” she said.
In October 2005, her husband left command due to a foot injury, Sheri said. A month later, the platoon that had been attached to her husband’s battery while he was in command was hit by a roadside bomb, killing two soldiers and seriously wounding another.
“Jeff was very heartbroken by this,” she said, near tears herself. “At the same time, we had a family tragedy. So Jeff had that to deal with, on top of feeling like he had lost two of his soldiers.”
Jeff returned home in December 2005, two days after Christmas. Sheri recalled her first sight of him at the homecoming ceremony.
“In walks my husband first,” she said, “and as they come in and they stand in front of us, I can see in his eyes a very lost person, and I knew at that moment that something had changed. My husband wasn’t my husband any more.”
Sheri encouraged her husband to seek help. “He went and talked to a counselor,” she said. The counselor said, “You’ll get over it, you’ll be fine.”
But, “I knew it was more than that,” she said.
Jeff’s next job was at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., training soldiers to go back to Iraq or Afghanistan. “Basically it was from the battlefield right back to the battlefield,” Sheri said. “Jeff wasn’t happy with his job, but knew he had to suck it up and drive on.”
But by April 2008, that wasn’t working.
“Jeff hit a brick wall going about a thousand miles an hour,” Sheri said. “He couldn’t put his uniform on any more, couldn’t put his boots on any more. He didn’t want to go to work. He didn’t want to live, and told me that.
“He didn’t want his family around him any more,” she continued. “He told me to just leave, take the girls and go away. I couldn’t do this; I had known him for over 20 years, and I knew that wasn’t the Jeff I had grown to love.”
Sheri lived in fear of losing her husband, afraid to sleep or leave him for even a few minutes.
“I’d pick the kids up from school and come home and rush into the house before they did, because I was afraid in the 30 minutes that I was gone, he would take his life,” she said. “I never, ever thought in my wildest dreams that my husband would put a gun to his head and shoot himself, but that’s what he wanted to do.”
Sheri persuaded her husband it was time to seek help. His former commander, Army Col. Daniel Pinnell, helped him find a doctor at Fort Polk. That doctor recommended a three-week mental-health program at the Deployment Health Clinical Center at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
The major first went through a week of intense preliminary psychological and medical care. He told his wife that if he got accepted into the program, he wanted her to join him.
“For the first time in two and a half years, I felt a glimmer of hope,” she said.
He was accepted, and the couple went through the program together, which helped Sheri gain insight into what her husband had experienced in Iraq, she said. But she also knew there was no quick fix for his problems.
“It took two and a half years to get help,” she said. “I knew it would take a whole heck of a lot longer to get over this.”
The family moved to Fort Riley, Kan. Jeff was slated to deploy again, but a degenerative back problem prevented that.
“He has mixed feelings; I don’t,” Sheri said. “I’ve seen my friends send their husbands off for the third or fourth time, and I really feel for them, because a lot of those husbands have not dealt with their issues, either.”
Sheri said recovery will be a long process, but they’re on the right path. “We have a hope for much better days,” she said. “But we’re much better able to cope with the stress, cope with the anger issues.”
A while back, Sheri said, she sifted through the letters that her husband had sent while downrange. “I told Jeff there are warning signs in these letters,” she said. “Knowing what I know now, you were in trouble then, and had I been smart enough to understand that, we could have dealt with this so much better.”
Her quest now is to help equip others with that knowledge.
“We’ve made it our mission in the last year to advocate for better care for soldiers and families,” she said. “I know now the resources that I didn’t know then. There are a ton of resources.”