Two years ago, my son, who is now 14, erupted in anger and stormed off to his bedroom. He’d been having frequent fits of rage and anxiety, yelling and throwing things around the house or simply breaking down in tears. During his latest one, I was startled by how his tantrum abruptly fell silent. His bedroom was eerily quiet. I listened at his door knowing that he couldn’t have calmed himself so quickly. I was terrified to walk into the room and find my son dead.
Life after the Marine Corps wasn’t supposed to be like this. As a gunnery sergeant, my husband, Chuck, served as assistant kennel master and chief trainer for the military working-dog platoon. He served on active duty in the Marine Corps for 12 years, followed by two more in the reserve at Quantico in Virginia. We were high-school sweethearts who married after he enlisted and I graduated from college. In addition to our oldest son, we have twin 11-year-old daughters and a 7-year-old son, who was born just two weeks after Chuck returned home from his final deployment. Our family moved 11 times during Chuck’s time in the service. When deploying and relocating got tough, I always thought we just had to hang on until retirement, when life would be simpler and more predictable. I knew that every combat deployment could end in an injury or worse. I never imagined that our lives, and the lives of our children, would be so torn apart by the damage we couldn’t see.
On March 29, 2011, a bomb blast struck him while he was on patrol in Afghanistan. While on a mission with a canine unit, one of Chuck’s Marines stepped on an I.E.D. that left him with catastrophic wounds and threw my husband 20 feet from where he was standing. When he regained consciousness, Chuck provided medical support to his Marine, cleared a landing zone for a medevac and then came under heavy fire for the next six hours. He did not realize that the blood on his uniform was his own. His injuries — shrapnel wounds to his neck and back, hearing loss and a severe concussion — were bad enough that I received a call from the Marine Corps, but not so bad that he would have to leave the theater. They packed his shrapnel wounds and gave him the standard treatment for his pain and disorientation: two weeks off, with a generous prescription of sleep medication.
While still deployed, Chuck immediately began having spells of confusion and memory loss. These symptoms only grew worse, accompanied by wild mood swings when he returned home. Chuck realized something was very wrong and decided to get out of the military. That was in 2012. The adrenaline and adventure of our Marine Corps life ended suddenly. We were separated from the love and support of our fellow military families. Chuck, who had always been on the move, was now at home every hour of every day, struggling with anger, depression, memory loss and fatigue. After a few years of dealing with these symptoms, the V.A. told us that Chuck had a traumatic brain injury, and doctors also diagnosed him with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. His ability to love, teach and care for our kids was deteriorating. I took on the full responsibility of watching over our family. Every task, from cooking dinner and paying bills to managing my husband’s health care and our kids’ schedules, falls on me. I am still a wife and mother, but often feel like a physician, pharmacist and social worker, too.
Chuck Rotenberry in Afghanistan in 2011.CreditCourtesy photo
In December 2011, a therapist asked our daughters, who were suffering from debilitating separation anxiety, to draw a picture of how they thought their dad was injured. We had always spared them specifics in hopes of protecting them. Now we learned they had filled in their own dramatic and disturbing details. I nearly broke down as my sweet little girls colored scenes of violence, blood and gore. It was no wonder they brimmed with stress. But our oldest son felt the impact the most. When he reached his teenage years, I leaned on him to watch his three younger siblings, so I could leave the house for errands. I quickly realized the responsibility was too much for him to handle. Our son grew hypersensitive to Chuck’s moods, desperately trying to keep the younger kids quiet so they didn’t trigger their father. If Chuck became agitated, our son would do his best to distract his siblings or move them to another part of the house. Even if my husband had a good day, our son couldn’t shake the anxiety that the mood in the house might swing at any moment. The kids couldn’t simply leave the house; Chuck occasionally struggles with the simplest daily tasks, such as remembering to eat and preparing his food. My son was terrified his dad would get lost or hurt himself while he was on caregiver duty.
I watched as secondary post-traumatic stress overtook our son. He began to display many of the same symptoms as Chuck, becoming irritable, sullen and quick to anger. He was chronically late to school because panic attacks would keep him locked in the bathroom. Like his father, he complained of headaches and fatigue and wanted to stay in bed all day. When I told him he had to go to school, he resented it. He didn’t understand why he was being forced to power through things.
At 12 years old, our son reached a dangerous phase. I’d find him sitting quietly with the chilling thousand-yard stare that I recognized from my husband. He began to see how close he could get to committing suicide without actually doing it. He stood near balconies and ledges, looking over the edge in a trance. I remember grabbing him by the shoulders once, pleading with him to let go of the responsibility he felt to help me care for his dad. I begged him to have fun and enjoy all the good times and mischief that come with being a teenager. But he couldn’t shake the chronic nervousness and dread. The afternoon that I listened outside my son’s bedroom door, I waited to hear any signs of the anger he’d just shown, but there was only silence. I forced my way in and found him semiconscious on the floor — a dog leash that he had wrapped around his neck was still hanging from the top bunk. The feeling of suffocating and knowing that he was about to die saved his life. He had the strength to break free from the noose, but collapsed afterward.
Some people are surprised that Chuck’s injuries would cause such problems for our family, particularly because his wounds aren’t as apparent as severe burns or lost limbs. At parties, friends will casually say, “He seems fine to me,” not knowing that the exhaustion of socializing will keep him in bed for the next two days. Loved ones get angry when we arrive late for dinner, calling us inconsiderate rather than understanding how hard it is to get a family of six out the door when your husband constantly battles dizzy spells and struggles to keep track of time. Teachers are quick to label our kids’ outbursts at school as poor behavior, not knowing how nervous they were that their dad had to go to the neurologist again to figure out why he was losing consciousness during conversations. In many ways, Chuck’s injuries are even harder on our children than on him. Our kids don’t understand why their mom and dad don’t have a typical husband-wife relationship. They become frustrated when family outings are canceled at the last minute, or when their dad misses another event. And because they can’t see their father’s injuries, the details of what happened to him are supplied by their imaginations.
We have now learned to avoid the types of situations that trigger Chuck’s dark moods. Navigation apps and our shared Google calendar help me manage his daily schedule while giving him some independence. We’re looking into promising alternative therapies for his PTSD, and we never lose hope that he can improve and heal. And for all the problems that don’t come with solutions, we rely on our faith.
Since our son’s suicide attempt, we have become even more determined to restore some sense of normalcy and balance in our lives. Our kids attend regular appointments with psychiatrists, and we have seen a dramatic improvement in their behavior. My son and I have learned to talk more openly about when he can help at home and when he needs a break. I tell him not to be afraid of where life takes him; it will work out the way it is supposed to. He now wants to follow in his dad’s footsteps by joining the military. Despite Chuck’s injury and the way it affects our family, I know the experience will serve to make my son a better, more compassionate service member.