MOBILE, Ala. – Sgt. Milton Caples made it home safely to his wife and daughter after a year in Iraq, but thoughts of suicide bombers, mortar attacks and rapid pops of gunfire haunted him.
The security convoy driver would lapse into soldier mode while driving on rural roads back home in Mobile, speeding up and driving evasively as he flashed back to the streets of Balad and Tikrit, and the dangers that lurked on every rooftoop and around around every corner.
“I would know I was doing crazy stuff. It would seem like I was driving but I wasn’t there. I was looking at myself doing stuff in a video game or something,” he said. “In some cases, I’m glad the police didn’t see me because they would have taken my license away.”
He did nightly security patrols of the family home – checking doors and windows and looking for prowlers.
Eventually, his anger and inability to lose the images of war ate away at his relationship with his wife and daughter, who struggled to reach the fun-loving man they once knew.
Three years into the Iraq war and almost five years after the invasion of Afghanistan, American families like the Capleses are increasingly becoming part of its collateral damage. Learning from the mistakes of Vietnam, the military has long encouraged returning soldiers to seek counseling. Now its leaders are trying something different – reaching out to the soldiers’ families.
Although treatment and medication have evolved since Vietnam, the warrior mentality still prevents most returning soldiers from getting the help they need, said Rick Weidman of Vietnam Veterans of America.
“Real men don’t eat quiche and they don’t have problems like this – hooah,” he said, giving the shout soldiers make.
Milton Caples began working with a psychiatrist at Pensacola Naval Hospital after his wife demanded he get help. He started taking antidepressants and the couple began marriage counseling.
The Naval hospital placed advertisements in civilian newspapers this fall to make families aware of its counseling programs. Navy hospitals are also reaching families through a series of online videos about post traumatic stress syndrome.
In the videos, a Navy psychiatrist interviews a Marine medic, his family, a Marine commander and others about the problems of returning from combat.
The medic tells of gunbattles, his helpless attempt to save a child run over by a Humvee and the surprise of opening a body bag and realizing the body inside is a friend.
A lieutenant colonel encourages Marines to enter counseling. By seeking treatment Marines can avoid problems including domestic violence and DUIs, the videos say.
The videos were designed not for service members, but their families.
“The goal was to bring in the family in hopes that if the individual wouldn’t come in on their own, we would reach them through the family. We made thousands of copies and distributed them to all kinds of places,” said retired Navy Capt. Jennifer Morse, the San Diego Naval Hospital psychiatrist featured on the videos. The Navy began producing the videos in 2004 and is releasing a re-edited version of the project in the coming months.
“The intent is to get people help, not to fix them over the Internet. (To tell them that) they shouldn’t be ashamed of their feelings after they have served in these situations,” said Bill Hendrix the Navy’s Pentagon-based coordinator of the Lifelines video project.
The videos have been so successful that the Air Force and the Army are also using them to encourage families to seek counseling for veterans of both Iraq and Afghanistan, Hendrix said.
Weidman, of the Washington-based Vietnam veterans group, applauded the efforts to reach troops by reaching out to families.
“The military, under significant pressure, has made some significant efforts,” he said.
Vietnam Veterans of America has long pushed the Department of Defense to develop such programs, he said.
But Capt. Jeffrey Weyeneth, a psychiatrist at Pensacola Naval Hospital, estimates continued counseling programs still reach only 10 percent of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“A lot of guys, they see it as a nick in their armor, ‘If I want to do 20 (years) or more, I don’t want to be seen as a nut case’. And confidentiality is difficult with the military because mental health can affect your ability to function in the military so confidentiality is not as absolute as it is in the civilian world,” he said.
Returning soldiers who go without treatment often hide their stress from co-workers to avoid ruining their careers and instead take their problems out on their families, Weyeneth said.
“A lot of these guys come back from war but never get out of the combat, the enemy just changes. They direct their anger at other people,” he said.
Many of the 1.28 million servicemen and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 are getting at least some mental health treatment.
A Pentagon study released this year found that more than a third of U.S. soldiers received psychological counseling soon after returning from Iraq. The study, done by doctors at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, found that 35 percent of Iraq veterans received mental health care during their first year home. In addition, 12 percent of the more than 222,000 returning Army soldiers and Marines in the study were diagnosed with a mental problem.
Milton Caples said his time at the Army’s Camp Anaconda near Balad, Iraq, was life-altering.
“They got mortared 10 or 12 time a day and every time there was a mortar attack you’d have to get in the … bunkers. It was safer going out on the missions than it was living there. I was glad to go out because there were more people dying at Anaconda,” he said.
His wife, Michelle, struggled to understand her husband when he returned home.
She changed her nursing shifts at an area hospital to avoid leaving him alone with their 14-year-old daughter because the father and daughter argued so often.
“Milton couldn’t relax and that meant no one could relax,” she said.
He credits counseling and medication with saving his marriage and helping him to start to rebuild his life.
“If I hadn’t gotten counseling and stuff I don’t know where