News Release: Research

Jan. 22,  2010

Iraq Vet Families Must Talk About Injuries, Stress, Study Shows

News Article ImageStudy examines military families.

From Journal of Family Life

Soldiers and their family members need to talk about experiences they had during lengthy combat separations, especially if the service member was injured or has post traumatic stress disorder, according to a recent study published in Emory University's online Journal of Family Life.

The study, "Talking, Love, Time: Two Case Studies of Positive Post-Deployment Coping in Military Families," was done by researchers in Texas, who interviewed patients at a Veterans Administration clinic in San Antonio.

Researchers interviewed 50 men who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 16 family members who had lived through the recent deployment of a spouse, partner, parent or child, during 20 months of fieldwork in San Antonio, Texas, in 2007-2008. Nine couples were among those interviewed, and researchers focused on two who appeared to be coping well with a major injury that affected their life and relationship. One man, in the Army, had a leg amputated. The other, a Marine, had a traumatic brain injury. Both men were diagnosed with PTSD, also known as “the invisible wound of war,” and both couples had children at home.

Families deal with changing family roles, getting to know each other again and changes in personality, because each has had vastly different experiences during their time apart, researchers said.

The amputee, once independent and self-sufficient, now needed his wife to help him bathe and use the toilet. Engaged before his injury, they quickly married when he came home, and he had to adjust to living with his wife’s two young sons. “They went from long-distance fiancés to new spouses facing disability and shared parenting,” the researchers said.

A year after coming home, the Marine still struggled to recover from a brain injury sustained in an explosion during his second deployment. His hearing, speech and memory are affected, as is his sense of balance. His wife now works part-time, handles all the bills and household tasks, deals with his veterans’ disability claims and frequent medical appointments, and takes care of their infant son.

With so many changes, things were rough for a while, and she threatened to leave her husband more than once, researchers said. “Still, they have worked it out, adjusting their lives to the new baby and to the challenges created by [his] injury and what would later be diagnosed as his PTSD.  When he was asked how they got through, his answer was succinct: "Talking. Love. Time." 

The researchers identified six “coping strategies” that the couples used: careful disclosure, acknowledging the other’s experience, relying on family and friends for help, supporting each other, reaffirming their commitment to marriage and family, and accepting that adjusting to change is an ongoing process.

Study authors are Erin Finley, a health research scientist at the University of Texas Health Science Center; Mary Jo Pugh, a research scientist and assistant professor at the South Texas Veterans Healthcare System/ UTHSCSA and Dr. Matthew Jeffreys, medical director and assistant professor, Post Traumatic Stress Disorders Clinical Team, South Texas Veterans Healthcare System.

Finley received a doctorate and master’s in public health from Emory. This research was funded in part by the Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life, which publishes Journal of Family Life, with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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