KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Every time there's a headline about veterans and violence, it reopens a debate. It happened this past winter when Sarah Palin's son who served in Iraq was charged with domestic violence. On one side, you have a stereotype of combat veterans as ticking time bombs, and on the other side are thousands of veterans who live with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and are never violent toward anyone. But does PTSD cause violence? There is a link.
NPR's Quil Lawrence spoke with the caregivers of combat vets. And a warning about this story - it has some very graphic descriptions of violence.
STACEY BANNERMAN: The man that I had married was not the man who came back from war.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Stacey Bannerman's husband joined the National Guard and deployed twice to Iraq. He came back with PTSD, and it changed him in a way she never expected.
BANNERMAN: He'd been triggered pretty severely, and he attempted strangling me. I had never - I had been with this man for, you know, 11 years at that point, and there had never been anything like this before. And I was so furious, and I was so afraid.
LAWRENCE: At first she thought it was just a problem with her marriage. She called a hotline for military families.
BANNERMAN: The woman operating the hotline began weeping because she was getting so many of these calls from military spouses all over the country.
LAWRENCE: PTSD is when the terror and adrenaline from a life-threatening moment won't go away. The vast majority of veterans who suffer from it aren't violent, but it does increase the risk of violence. Dr. Casey Taft with the Department of Veterans Affairs says vets with PTSD are about three times more likely to be violent.
CASEY TAFT: When one is exposed to warzone trauma and combat trauma, they are going to be more likely to assume the worst in situations and assume that other people are trying to do harm to them. And they will respond to that with - are more likely to respond to that with aggression.
LAWRENCE: Most commonly the target of that aggression is a wife or girlfriend. Stacey Bannerman wrote a book about it. She says now wives of veterans reach out to her almost daily. Their stories are pretty similar.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: He was screaming with his eyes open. And I went to shake him, and he grabbed my wrist, twisted it. Before I knew what happened, my wrist was broken, and it took myself to the emergency room.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Right after my son was born, he shoved me down, and it ripped open my C-section incision.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: He just would go blank in his eyes. You could see that he wasn't there.
LAWRENCE: Three women, all full-time caregivers to disabled combat vets, spoke with NPR. They asked not to use their names so they could speak frankly.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: It really took me by surprise because he - it was just completely out of his character for the man that I knew.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The only one that sent me to the ER was when that - when my incision got split open. I just told him I tripped over the dog and fell.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I took them that I fell. I've never given the emergency room correct information.
LAWRENCE: There are reasons that victims of domestic violence don't leave. In the military, there are extra reasons. Reporting the abuse can end a soldier's career badly, which means not benefits for the family.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I wanted to keep my family together, you know? We had three kids at this time. I didn't want his career to be over because of this. I didn't want - I just - same thing - if I could just get him the help that he needs...
LAWRENCE: It's hard to have a career as a military spouse - too many moves and deployments. These three women became caregivers to their wounded vets. That's a full-time job with a stipend from the VA but not if they leave.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: He would still have his pay coming every month. He wouldn't have to worry financially. And if I were to walk out, I walk out with nothing - no job, no - you know, I haven't been working since 2012.
LAWRENCE: And all three women wanted to stay and help their husbands recover from the war.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: He went. He fought. He served. He saw things that nobody should ever have to see. And I married him knowing that. It's not like people don't know about it.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: You know, it was supporting my husband. It was supporting a war hero. I thought, well, this is my job, you know? He went and did his job, and this is mine.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: And we feel like it's our duty. That's our duty to give back to our country. You feel like you're letting your country down if you give up.
LAWRENCE: Again, the majority of vets with PTSD are not violent. The VA is researching those who are. It's clear that drugs and alcohol make it worse. Dr. Casey Taft has set up a VA pilot program to prevent violence.
TAFT: Veterans don't want to be having these difficulties. In fact, one of the largest reasons for receiving help at the VA is for problems related to violence and aggression and anger.
LAWRENCE: But VA is for veterans, not their wives. Most veterans groups don't focus on domestic violence. It's taboo. And most domestic violence groups don't have expertise on vets and PTSD. Of those three women you heard, one finally left her husband.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: He had shoved me down. We had gotten into an argument. He had shoved me down, and I looked up, and all three of my kids were standing there in tears. And they were looking at me. And I thought, if a man ever treats one of my girls like this or if my son grows up to be like this, I will never forgive myself because at that point, I realized he's not changing his behavior, so I have to be the one that does something. And I picked up the phone, and I called the police. And that was the first time I ever called them.
LAWRENCE: Another moved with her family to a different state where her husband found the local VA more helpful.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: But he's really started to become more the man that I met and I fell in love with. There hasn't been any type of physical altercations since 2014.
LAWRENCE: And the third woman - she's still in it. She left her husband briefly but decide to go back.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I did make that decision, and I came back. And I haven't regretted anything. Have there been really hard times after that - yeah. Have I gotten the [expletive] kicked out of me since then - yeah.
LAWRENCE: They live in Southern California in a one-bedroom apartment - no kids, but they've got a few dogs.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Stay.
LAWRENCE: She makes sure her husband, a Marine combat vet, gets to his VA appointments on time. He's cut down on drinking, and he says he knows that PTSD is no excuse for violence.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Mind you, it hasn't fixed anything. We have problems every single day. Even this morning, trying to get directions to go somewhere, my GPS wasn't working, and he's screaming at the top of his lungs at me like it's - like I'm the GPS, that it's my fault.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No, I wasn't screaming at her. I was screaming at the GPS.
LAWRENCE: He went to a Christian retreat for veterans. That helped some. He hasn't hit her since last year.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The last time we had a physical problem was when you smashed my face into the shower and choked me out.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No, I put you in the shower.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah and repeated to smash my face repeatedly and tell me you were going to make me bleed.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK. That was over something probably very stupid. I - like, a lot of these things, I can't even remember what I was so pissed off about. And it's always something really, really stupid. Apparently...
LAWRENCE: So it doesn't sound like you guys are entirely out of the woods.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: No.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Not even close. We're...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: And we never will be.
LAWRENCE: She knows. People tell her all the time that she should leave.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: My husband - no, he is not his post-traumatic stress disorder. He is not his brain injury. These are things that he has gotten from serving our country, and that's what we deal with.
LAWRENCE: She doesn't blame anyone else who does walk away for their own safety or sanity, but she's staying. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
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