Military Family Taps Into Key Resource: Therapy

Correction Aug. 11, 2009

A previous Web version of this story incorrectly said that Leonard Contreras fought in the Gulf War in 1993. The correct year was 1991.

Leonard and Sylvia Contreras stand in the front yard of their former rental house in Fresno, Calif. i i

hide captionLeonard and Sylvia Contreras, who live in Fresno, Calif., have tapped into therapy to mend their marriage. When Leornard was deployed in Iraq, their daughter Samantha, now 15, helped take care of the family, including "Little Leonard."

Daniel Zwerdling/NPR
Leonard and Sylvia Contreras stand in the front yard of their former rental house in Fresno, Calif.

Leonard and Sylvia Contreras, who live in Fresno, Calif., have tapped into therapy to mend their marriage. When Leornard was deployed in Iraq, their daughter Samantha, now 15, helped take care of the family, including "Little Leonard."

Daniel Zwerdling/NPR

In most ways, National Guard Sgt. Leonard Contreras and his family are typical.

A year ago, Contreras came back from Iraq. He was lucky: He didn't have any limbs blown off. He didn't have traumatic brain injury. But his deployment — and coming home — has caused terrible problems for his wife and kids.

A few months ago, Contreras' wife, Sylvia, said to him: "Get out of here. Leave. I've had it."

But Leonard and Sylvia are unusual in one big way. They learned just before they split up that soldiers' families can get help. They're going to therapy.

Just about everybody has assumed that as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars drag on, military families would have a lot of trouble. And mental health specialists say they've seen a lot of military families urgently in need help. But nobody knows how many.

The Pentagon hasn't done any good studies on family problems. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has hardly studied it. So they can't tell you how many military couples say they're breaking up, or how many military children are depressed or acting out. And nobody knows how many couples like Sylvia and Leonard are getting therapy or other help.

Working On Communication

On a Monday morning, Leonard and Sylvia are sitting awkwardly on the nondescript couch in a nondescript therapy office near Fresno, Calif. Their therapist, Karen Fu, leans toward them.

"Well you know we've spent a lot of time working on how you communicate with each other," Fu says.

"Last night when he was talking it made me emotional because he said that what hurt him was when I said [he's] not my best friend no more," Sylvia says.

"How did that feel to you when you finally just let it out?" Fu says.

"It just felt like a whole weight was lifted off my back," Leonard replies.

But by the end of their therapy session, Sylvia and Leonard are smiling — and they decide to have breakfast together at a diner.

And a year ago, the couple says, they probably wouldn't have followed through.

Shouting Matches Across The World

Leonard used to be a Marine. He's shaped like a block of cement, with tattoos. He fought in the first Gulf War in 1991. Then he got out and joined the National Guard. Three years ago, the military sent him to guard convoys in Iraq. While movies like Pearl Harbor romanticize a man leaving his love behind for war — and how they pine for each other — Sylvia and Leonard's story is probably more common.

Leonard would call Sylvia from Iraq, and Sylvia would start shouting at him about the cable company turning off the service, and the electricity being in danger of getting shut down.

"And I kept hassling and hassling him to the point where 'I don't want to talk to you no more,'" Sylvia says. "You talk to the kids and that was it."

"Sometimes I would dread to call back home, like why did I call?" Leonard says. "You wanna hear something good from back home and to have someone yell at you and cursing at you at times, it kinda messes up your head. You're not thinking right."

It was a nightmare for the children. The oldest was 15 years old, the youngest was 3. And then, there was Samantha. Samantha, who was 13 at the time, had a shy smile and a black ponytail. And she felt that she had to keep the family together. Her mom lost her job, because she was always leaving work to pick up the kids or take care of them. Samantha would walk in and find her crying.

"She got really stressed," Samantha says. "She'll be worried about the bills being paid, about us having the food, I'd try telling her that everything was OK. I'd try giving her a hug."

In fact, Samantha started acting as the mother.

"I would wash the dishes all the time — make food, make sure the house was clean before my Mom came home. I would clean the bathroom when the bathroom needed to get cleaned, just take care of my brother, to make sure he was bathed and had clean clothes on."

But Samantha says it was very stressful.

"I would get backaches," she says. "Really bad backaches. Like someone stabbing you probably. Sometimes I wouldn't get any sleep.

"I would fall asleep during my history class. Like really, really fall asleep when he was reading and drool all over my history book. And then he slammed the book on my desk and was like, 'Wake Up!'"

A Homecoming Gone Awry

Then in April 2008, it was finally time for Leonard to come home from Iraq. Everybody was all excited that they would be one big happy family again. That was the fantasy.

But Leonard's homecoming was more complicated. The day Leonard came back from Iraq, Sylvia and the kids made a big sign to hang over the door that said: "Welcome home, Dad. We miss you. We're proud of you."

The sign has gone missing since then. And maybe it's because Leonard's homecoming turned sour. He seemed remote. He got angry easily. One day he almost slugged his son.

And then early this year, Sylvia caught him having an affair. Leonard says he started surfing porn sites on the Internet in Iraq. And after he came home, he got together with one of the women from a chat room.

They say the day after Leonard confessed his affair, Sylvia found herself holding a vial of sleeping pills. Then her heart started racing, she couldn't breathe, she thought she was having a heart attack. So a friend raced her to the emergency room, and they put her on the psych ward for 10 hours. When she got over her panic attack, she told Leonard she wanted a divorce.

"I believe that the story you've been describing is very common unfortunately," says Michelle Joyner, who helps run the National Military Family Association, a nonprofit that has been around since the Vietnam War.

Joyner says a problem that many military families face is that nobody tells them they can get help.

Come A Long Way, A Long Way To Go

For instance, the American Psychological Association looked all over the country a few years ago, to see how many programs help the troops' spouses and children and parents.

And they found that some communities had good ones, but most did not. The military says that's changing — there are a lot more programs today. And advocates like Michelle Joyner agree.

"They've come a long way but there's a long way to go," Joyner says. "We've been at this war for a long time."

On a scale of 1 to 10, Joyner gives the Department of Defense a 6 in its support for military families.

Gaining Comfort With Therapy

Sylvia and Leonard Contreras are lucky. After Sylvia had her panic attack, went to the hospital and told Leonard to get out of her life, Leonard suddenly remembered that the National Guard had given a briefing where they said families in some communities could get free therapy.

So he called the toll-free number they'd talked about, and it turned out there was a therapist near Fresno who could see them

During their recent session, Fu tells them they're brave for coming in.

"Well, you know it's hard for a lot of people to come in and seek out counseling because a lot of people think, 'Am I crazy or what?'" Fu says.

Sylvia says she was skeptical at first, but now she's comfortable with therapy.

Sylvia and Leonard say things aren't perfect — far from it. But at least they're working on their marriage. For Sylvia's birthday, Leonard surprised her with a birthday cake, dinner and a movie.

And they're going to need all the skills they've learned because Leonard's going to Afghanistan in the next couple of months. And he'll be gone at least another year.

When Fu asks Sylvia what she feels about his upcoming deployment, Sylvia says, "sadness.

"Scared," she says, "like in the pit of my stomach."

The therapist talks her through the feeling: "I want you to breathe into that scared feeling in the pit of your stomach, just breath into there, and you might just want to say to yourself something like, 'Even though he's going to be away for a while, I can handle it. I can handle it. He's my best friend. We're a great pair."

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