My wedding day was the first best day of my life. I could not have ordered a more perfect day if I had had a menu of choices in front of me. The marriage to my best friend was what I was really looking forward to. I wanted to settle down and start a family and that’s what we did. Our ideal world was lost on Sept. 6th, 2003. My husband, a member of the National Guard, was activated two days before our second son was born. Two weeks later he went to Iraq on what ended up being almost a year-and-a-half journey where he fought for his country and I fought to maintain our home.
For years after his deployment, I watched him struggle. I scratched and clawed to get him resources that were difficult to coordinate. I begged for tests; I fought to be the voice he did not have; I fought to be heard. He would tell his health-care providers one thing, but I would witness another. They experimented with a string of antipsychotic drugs, leaving me to deal with the potential dangerous side effects without any heads up. I put up with way more than I should have, but I held tight to our “for better or worse” vows and the unbending belief that if the tables were turned he would do the same for me. He would take care of me, right? After years of working through the system, we finally got the diagnoses of traumatic brain injury (TBI) on top of post-traumatic stress disorder. His care team fought hard to make sure his needs were met. We even started a nonprofit geared toward helping veterans and their families.
As time went by, two more babies came. My husband had moments of happiness, but generally was deep in depression, struggling with severe migraines and issues with TBI. Suffice it to say that certain lines were crossed, and I felt I could no longer remain married to him. I asked him to leave and, on Friday, our divorce became final. He let me go without hesitation. For him, there was apparently no reason to fight to keep me. I don’t want to come across as a bitter ex-wife. But I am angry that our happy life, our loving relationship was destroyed in combat.
After all I had been through with him, I was now faced with another reality. Once you are divorced from a veteran, resources such as counseling go away. I even asked for help to tell him to leave the house but was told no, even though I worried for my safety. I was told their services were to provide a safe place for the veteran.
After all the hard work, devotion and advocacy, I felt demoted, unloved.
Veterans need to learn how to reintegrate into their families and how to take care of those families again; how to trust their spouses again. As a caregiver, you are put in a position of authority over your spouse, doling out daily “what to do’s,” managing the finances. What toll does that take on a marriage that is supposed to be built on equal partnership? At the same time, the caregiver feels forgotten, berated and belittled because his or her complaints pale in comparison to the pain, emotional or otherwise, of the veteran. What happens when we get sick? Surely we do not want to be told, as some spouses are, “It’s not like you’re dying! I know guys whose legs have been blown off.”
As it turns out, I am lucky. I have a job with benefits. But there are so many other military spouses who gave up careers and education to take care of their wounded partners, only to see their marriages disintegrate and find themselves emotionally devastated and without money. At that point, they no longer have access to the multitude of resources available to veterans and their families, such as Department of Veterans Affairs individual or group counseling or educational benefits. Many women who were dependent on their spouses’ incomes also find themselves financially in shambles after divorce. Such women, unless they were fiduciaries of their husbands’ veterans benefits, might have no access to that money during, or after, marriage.
So, now I am asking myself, what are those spouses supposed to do when they too serve their country and work so hard to help veterans and their families, but are not eligible for their services anymore because they are not family anymore. Many of us feel angry, like we were left holding the empty bag. I really wanted what my parents had, that 50 years together, growing old together thing. I wanted to be worth fighting for, too.
Jackie McMichael is from Durham, N.C., where she currently works as a professional development manager in the software industry. She was married for 15 years to an officer in the North Carolina National Guard and currently works in her spare time with veteran spouses and organizations.