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DANIEL ZWERDLING, host:

We're going to tell you a story now about a soldier and his family. In most ways they're typical. Leonard Contreras is a sergeant in the National Guard.

He came back from Iraq about a year ago, and he was lucky. He didn't have any limbs blown off. He didn't have traumatic brain injury. But his deployment -and his coming home - have caused terrible problems for his wife and kids. In fact, a few months ago Sylvia told him: get out of here, leave, I've had it.

See, I told you - so far this is a typical story. 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.

Ms. KAREN FU (Therapist): Well, how are you guys doing?

Sergeant LEONARD CONTRERAS (U.S. National Guard): Good.

Ms. SYLVIA CONTRERAS: Better.

Ms. FU: Better?

Ms. CONTRERAS: A little bit better.

ZWERDLING: It's a Monday morning near Fresno, California. Leonard and Sylvia are sitting awkwardly on a nondescript couch in a nondescript therapy office -off-white décor, a few artworks. Their therapist is Karen Fu. She leans toward them.

Ms. FU: Well, you know, we've spent a lot of time working on how you communicate with each other.

Ms. CONTRERAS: Last night, when he was talking, it made me emotional 'cause he said that what really hurt him is when I told him that he's not my best friend no more.

Ms. FU: And how's that feel to you, when you finally just let it out?

Sgt. CONTRERAS: I just felt, you know, when I said it, it just felt like a whole weight was lifted off my back and…

ZWERDLING: Just about everybody's assumed that, as the wars drag on, military families would have a lot of trouble. And mental health specialists say they've seen a lot of military families that urgently need help, but nobody knows how many.

The Pentagon hasn't done any good studies on family problems. Veterans Affairs has hardly studied them. So they can't tell you how many military couples say they're breaking up, 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.

Ms. CONTRERAS: And we had a real big argument, like we're not communicating. That's it. Maybe I should go my separate way, because...

ZWERDLING: But by the end of the session, Sylvia and Leonard are smiling - and they decide to have breakfast together at a diner.

If I had come to you a year ago and said, would you go to therapy, what would you have said?

Sgt. CONTRERAS: Probably not. No, we don't have a problem. It probably won't work.

Ms. CONTRERAS: Not that it won't work but he wouldn't go through with it.

ZWERDLING: The first time I met them, the Contreras family was renting a shabby bungalow near Fresno. There was a flagpole in the front yard with a faded American flag. There was a red, white and blue wreath on the door. I joined them out back while they were lighting charcoal briquettes to make dinner.

Ms. CONTRERAS: We're going to make (unintelligible) chicken and...

ZWERDLING: 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. And three years ago they sent him to guard convoys in Iraq.

There's a popular fantasy about war. A man leaves his love behind, then they pine for each other - just like in the movie "Pearl Harbor."

(Soundbite of movie "Pearl Harbor")

Ms. KATE BECKINSALE (Actor): (as Evelyn Johnson) Dear Rafe, I miss you so much. It's so strange to be half a world away from you.

ZWERDLING: But Sylvia and Leonard's story is probably more common.

Ms. CONTRERAS: He would call me and I'm like, okay, they turned off our cable today. Why did they turn off our cable? 'Cause we owe a thousand dollars. They're going to turn off our electricity. You know? And I kept just hassing(ph) him and hassing him, where to the point where I don't want to talk to you no more, you talk to the kids, and that was it.

ZWERDLING: You would call from Iraq and Sylvia would start shouting at you?

Sgt. CONTRERAS: Yeah, pretty much. To be honest with you, sometimes I would dread to call home. You want to hear something good from back home and to have someone yell at you and, like, curse at you at times. I mean that kind of messes up your head; you're not thinking right.

ZWERDLING: It was a nightmare for the children. The oldest was 15, the youngest was three. And then there was Samantha. Samantha was 13. She has 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.

Ms. SAMANTHA CONTRERAS: She got really stressed. She'll be worried about the bills getting paid, about us having enough food. I would tell her everything's okay. I tried giving her a hug.

ZWERDLING: In fact, Samantha started being the mother.

Ms. SAMANTHA CONTRERAS: 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 be cleaned. Just take care of my brother, and I would make sure that he got bathed, make sure he was clean and had clean clothes on.

ZWERDLING: What was that like to be, you know, have all these very adult and impressive responsibilities?

Ms. SAMANTHA CONTRERAS: Very stressful. I would get backaches, real bad backaches. Like someone stabbing you, probably. Sometimes I wouldn't sleep.

ZWERDLING: And then what would happen when you'd have to get up and go to school?

Ms. SAMANTHA CONTRERAS: I would fall asleep during my history class. Like really, really fall asleep when he was reading. And I drooled all over the history book. And then he slammed the book on my desk and was like, wake up.

ZWERDLING: But then it was April, last year. It was finally time for Leonard Contreras to come home from Iraq. Everybody was all excited. They'd be one big happy family again - that was the fantasy. Today, there's a physical reminder that Leonard's homecoming turned sour. You can see it in the garage - or I should say you can't see it.

(Soundbite of squeaking)

ZWERDLING: The day Leonard came back from Iraq, Sylvia and the kids made a big sign to hang over the door.

Ms. SAMANTHA CONTRERAS: And it said welcome home, Dad, and we miss you and we're proud of you.

ZWERDLING: And I told them, hey, I'd love to see that sign, so they took me into the garage to show me. And they looked.

Ms. SYLVIA CONTRERAS: Check behind that desk thing.

ZWERDLING: And they looked.

Ms. SYLVIA CONTRERAS: I don't think I tossed that sucker.

ZWERDLING: But they couldn't find the welcome home banner. And maybe it's because when Leonard got home, 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.

As Sylvia and Leonard are telling me this story, we're sitting at their dining room table and I suddenly do something I hardly ever do during an interview. I put down the microphone. It just feels too raw. 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.

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.

Ms. MICHELLE JOYNER (National Military Family Association): I believe that the story that you've been describing is very common, unfortunately.

ZWERDLING: Michelle Joyner helps run the National Military Family Association. They've been around since the Vietnam War. They're a private nonprofit. I told her I don't get something. Sylvia Contreras and a lot of other spouses I've talked to say their families have had terrible problems while their husbands or wives have been off at war. But they say nobody in the military ever told them, Hey, you can get help.

Do you believe that?

Ms. JOYNER: Absolutely. I believe that that's a problem that many military families face.

ZWERDLING: You've probably all heard stories about how troops with mental health problems often can't get good help. Well, various studies have warned that their families have really been neglected. 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.

Now, the military says that's changing, there are a lot more programs today, and advocates like Michelle Joyner agree.

Ms. JOYNER: They've come a long way but there's a long way to go. We've been at this war for a long time.

ZWERDLING: So on a scale of zero to 10, 10 is where you would like to be for support for military families. Where are we now in terms of what the Department of Defense is doing?

Ms. JOYNER: I'd say a six.

ZWERDLING: Sylvia and Leonard Contreras are lucky. After she had her panic attack, after she went to the hospital, after she told him to get out of her life, Leonard suddenly remembered something. 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 talked about. And it turned out there was a therapist near Fresno who could see them.

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

Ms. FU: Well, you know, it's hard for a lot of people to come in and seek out counseling, because a lot of people think in their mind, Oh, gosh, am I crazy or what?

Ms. SYLVIA CONTRERAS: You know, at first I was skeptical, but now I'm comfortable and...

ZWERDLING: Sylvia and Leonard say things aren't perfect, far from it, but at least they're working on their marriage.

Ms. SYLVIA CONTRERAS: Just like my birthday, he surprised me with a birthday cake and...

Sgt. CONTRERAS: Yeah, I took her out to a movie, then went to eat, you know, somewhere nice.

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

Ms. FU: You know he's leaving, so focus on that and just notice how you feel in your body.

Ms. SYLVIA CONTRERAS: Sadness.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SYLVIA CONTRERAS: Like scared.

Ms. FU: Okay. Where is that?

Ms. SYLVIA CONTRERAS: In the pit of my stomach.

Ms. FU: Okay. So I want you just to breathe into that scared feeling in the pit of your stomach. And you may want to say something to yourself 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.

(Soundbite of music)

ZWERDLING: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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