When a soldier returns home wounded–grappling with PTS and plagued by nightmares–he may struggle to feel connected to his wife. Married couples who have been close for years, even decades, who are used to trading secrets and sharing life-altering experiences, suddenly feel like they are from different planets. Even like they're living on different planets. The space seems vast, and the silence seems deafening. Finding a way to reconnect is essential. Therapy and sharing, bonding over the struggles of a new way of life, and working through difficulties by talking them out are all helpful practices. But sometimes it takes something more–something unexpected and drastically different–to forge a new bond.
This was the case for Jane.
Jane met her husband Kyle while working as a park ranger at Vail mountain , Colorado. He was a big guy, bald and blue-eyed, with an appealingly athletic build and personality to match. Jane was an outdoorsy person herself, and they fell in love hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter together. They were engaged six months after they met and married six months later in October 1990. Kyle was in the Navy reserves then, doing his duty on weekends and two weeks a year. After they were married nearly 20 years, Kyle was put on active duty and was required to leave for longer periods. Eventually he was deployed overseas.
In Afghanistan, Kyle's Humvee was hit by an IED explosion, and both of his legs had to be amputated. He was lucky to be medevaced out within an first hour or it could have been much worse. After bilateral amputations to the knees, he was fitted with new legs and had to go through intense physical therapy.
Once he was back on his feet, Jane thought their life together would be easier. She didn’t notice the aftershocks of PTS and traumatic brain injury until after Kyle was discharged and had been home for quite some time. He often got dizzy and had ringing in his ears; his eyes became light sensitive which forced him to wear dark glasses all the time; he was very distressed by noise and could not be around crowds. Jane believed they had a strong marriage – they had been married for over 20 years -- but his injuries changed how they treated each other.
“We're still very close and love each other very much,” she said. “But I feel I have to leave the room at times because of something he says or does.”
One of the changes that is most noticeable to Jane is Kyle’s temper. Whenever he became angry he had no filter when he spoke.
“He's emotionally regressed,” Jane confided. “He’s not the man he used to be. Sometimes I feel like I’m dealing with a two-year-old throwing a temper tantrum.”
Jane found that her husband’s PTS took a psychological toll on her as well. She would get depressed because she couldn’t always do the things she wanted to do. What bothered her the most was having to make excuses to their friends and family for their absences. Sometimes she would cope in unhealthy ways such as eating more or not going to the gym. Self-care can fall to the wayside when all of your time and energy get used up caring for someone else. It's natural, but frustrating.
She still puts time, energy, and effort into her relationship with Kyle, though, and focuses on cultivating patience.
“When I was younger I was a bit of a hot head myself, but age has mellowed me, so I can go with the flow better in certain situations.”
Jane has taken it upon herself to study up on PTS to get a better understanding of what triggers Kyle’s outbursts. She also formulates strategies for heading it off by removing him from situations that cause him anxiety or stress.
Jane was grateful that she'd had the chance to travel when she was younger, because when her life changed and she was convinced her globe-trotting days were over, she felt content to stay home and care for her husband and grandkids. But just when Jane had resigned herself to letting go of traveling and adventures, Kyle told her about the Vail Veterans' Program.
And in the blink of an eye, they were packing their bags to go to Vail.
The Vail Veterans’ Program was founded in 2004 to provide rehabilitation sports training to severely wounded warriors and their wives. Jane was excited about this organization because although it was focused on helping her husband heal, she got to participate too.
As you might expect of a program based in Vail, this one was all about skiing. Kyle’s instructors at the Vail Veterans Program strapped him into a monoski and put him on Golden Peak’s bunny hill, while Jane skied along with him. She watched him open up and transform before her eyes. This program got him out of his shell and added a new dimension to their life through their shared love of the outdoors.
“Gliding through the snow on ‘wings of wood’ is the closest thing to flying,” Jane explains. “We felt a sense of thrill and joy soaring over the shining crystalline whiteness.”
The healing process is a journey that lasts a lifetime—for wounded warriors and their caregivers. The four days Jane spent with Kyle in Vail skiing and sharing meals with other Wounded Warriors and their wives was a turning point in both of their lives. They met skiing, and it was skiing that brought them back together again. Now these two are healing their wounded souls through sharing new positive experiences, and gently forcing a world that can feel small and suffocating to expand and unfold.
As a physical therapist working with patients in rehabilitation, I have seen how most patients can’t wait to get out into the great outdoors after being in a hospital for months. I’ve taken patients skiing, fishing, hiking and horseback riding, and have watched their eyes light up as they experience the world beyond the hospital room.
For the caregiver, getting away from the hospital was as beneficial to her as it was to her husband. The desire to escape can be irresponsible, but at times it’s essential. Wives of wounded warriors can’t “suit up and show up” day after day without ever taking a break. There are times when she must face her responsibilities and dodging them is not the answer. But every once in a while she needs to break free.
Sometimes I think the very best thing couples can do is run like hell — as fast and as far away as they can possibly go. Because there are circumstances in which a change of scenery can change their minds. There are times when spending time away from the hospital, away from the city, away from the stress, can be just the balm their wounded soul needs to recover. And when you feel trapped in the stifling space of a home filled with angry outbursts, flashbacks, and night terrors, leaving home together can be the key to unlocking a whole new level of recovery and reconciliation.
Taking a running leap can, at times, gives you a better chance of learning to fly. Leaping together can help you reunite in flight.