The “secondary” victims of PTSD: the children of veterans

TOWSON, MD. Mark Trépanier enjoys spending time with the chickens he keeps in the backyard.

“It’s a barometer of my stress level,” he said. They relax.

Trépanier, a former military intelligence analyst, once made six figures working for a defense contractor, but he can no longer hold down a job. Her life now revolves around doing simple chores in her home in suburban Baltimore.

“He needs a to-do list to remember to feed the dogs, take care of the pets, take out the trash,” his wife Gayle said.

Trepanier was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in the first Gulf War, Bosnia and North Africa. When he returned home in 2007, he was different as a husband and father, his wife said.

“He was very depressed,” she said. “He was sometimes very angry. He had flashbacks where he thought he was somewhere else when we were in the front yard.

Genna, 14, the eldest of the Trépaniers’ four children, remembers what her father was like – and how he changed after his service.

“We were still playing games and stuff, and so he wasn’t doing that as much,” she said. “And he sometimes seemed more separate. And he was getting really emotional.

Gayle Trepanier said their kids were on an emotional roller coaster, each reacting differently to dad’s condition.

“Kendrick, for example, will act at school to the point where they thought he had ADHD, but it was the emotional distress that was causing his outbursts and just not being able to relax,” she said.

Like the Trépaniers, there are approximately 4 million military-related children in the United States. With the end of the longest wars in American history, these children have been affected by war like no previous generation, especially in families where the veteran suffers from PTSD. The whole Trépanier family is in consultation to learn how to manage a very different father.

The Veterans Administration reported that 21% of post-9/11 soldiers who sought help from the VA from 2004 to 2009 had PTSD, 2% had traumatic brain injury, and 5% had both. Now that these veterans are home, their lives – and those of their families – are forever changed as young children deal with the stresses of living with someone who, in many ways, is a new parent at times. unpredictable.

Some call it secondary PTSD.

A “contagious disease”

“Kids have this expectation, this vision of ‘Oh, Daddy is coming home. It’s going to be awesome,’ and they have these memories, maybe if they’re older, of the fun they had with Daddy” said psychologist Bob Motta, “But the person who comes back is a dark, negative, machine-like being. That clash of your expectations versus what’s coming back is really hard to take.”

Motta was drafted into the army during the Vietnam War, serving in the 1st Calvary Division, often working in helicopters as a door gunner or helping deliver medical supplies. When he returned home, he decided to study how PTSD affected the families of Vietnam veterans.

“The original medical conceptualization of PTSD is that it’s a disorder of an individual, but what research has consistently shown is that’s not true,” he said. . “It is a disorder that spreads to others, especially those who have close and prolonged contact with the person, much like the flu would. It is a contagious disease. »

This disease that can spread not only to a caring spouse, but also to children. Motta calls it secondary trauma.

Several studies in different countries have shown that children are affected by having a parent who is a veteran with PTSD. For example, a 2008 study in Bosnia and Herzegovina of children of war veterans with PTSD found that father’s PTSD can have “long-term and lasting consequences on the personality of the child”.

Usually, children are spontaneously happy and love to play and have fun, but traumatized children behave radically differently.

“They are dark. They are in a bad mood. They are removed. They are irritable. If they were doing well in school, their grades have now dropped,” Motta said. “They can’t concentrate. Their memory is very bad. And that’s because they’re so wrapped up in their parents’ problems that they can’t really concentrate in school.

“He was close to a bomb…like 3 feet or 2, and the sound wave kinda messed up his brain. He can’t remember a lot of words. He can’t remember a lot how to spell. But he’s working very hard to relearn all that. I’m proud of my dad for working on it, even though it’s really hard.

Laney Vines, 8

daughter of veteran Caleb Vines, who has PTSD

Families help each other

Caleb and Brannan vines

Caleb Vines made two tours in Iraq, the second in Ramadi where exchanges of fire were daily. After he returned home with his wife, Brannan, and baby daughter, Laney, their family life began to deteriorate quite quickly.

“I was angry more times than I would care to admit, saying things I wouldn’t care to admit,” he said.

Vines is suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injury after more than two dozen close calls with improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

Frustrated with Veterans Administrations’ lack of support for families, Brannan Vines founded the nonprofit Family of a Vet in 2007, hoping that families could at least help each other.

She thought it would be a modest website, but the volunteer network now reaches 48 states and five countries, filling what she calls a crucial void.

“For the most part, the VA largely ignores our children,” she said.

Many of these children, including his own daughter Laney, exhibit childhood versions of PTSD, Brannan Vines said. The 8-year-old girl is very worried about her family’s safety.

“I’m pretty much a detective for my family,” Laney said. “I want to make sure they’re okay. I want to make sure nothing happens.”

Many children think they have to protect the people around them, his mother said. It’s the same kind of hyper vigilance – always on the lookout for potential threats – that Brannan Vines sees in her husband.

The Vines haven’t told their daughter much about what her father went through in Iraq, but she knows how he behaves.

Brannan Vines has a name for what his daughter is going through. She calls this “Secondary PTSD” – PTSD of PTSD. But you won’t find secondary PTSD – or secondary trauma – in any textbook.

“I think that would help because it would justify treating these families,” Motta said. “Right now, the medical community and VAs might be saying, ‘Well, that’s not a real disorder. It’s not really a problem. So why should we treat this thing that’s not a problem ? “

Brannan Vines says it’s a problem, something she and others like Gayle Trepanier face every day.

“I do my best, the best that I can… to make the kids realize that the emotions Dad is dealing with have nothing to do with who they are,” she said. “Dad loves you. He cares about you, but when Dad is like this, it’s because he has deep wounds.

Brannan Vines thinks his daughter has “secondary PTSD”, as exposure to someone with PTSD can lead to stress and trauma.
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His daughter Genna was 8 years old when her father returned from the war. She thought his anger meant he was mad at her.

“As I got older, I could tell that wasn’t the case,” she said. “I want him to get better, not like all these drugs and emotional and mental issues.”

His sister Mari, now 8, is also learning to cope with dad’s condition.

“The other day, Mari came up to me and she was like, ‘I know daddy’s mad, but I know it’s just PTSD,'” her mom said. an 8-year-old child has this awareness…”

This kind of awareness seems to have fostered a level of empathy in the children of PTSD veterans like Laney Vines, also 8.

“He was close to a bomb… like 3 feet or 2, and the sound wave kinda messed up his brain,” she said. “He doesn’t remember many words. He doesn’t remember the spelling too well. But he works very hard to relearn all that. I’m proud of my dad for working on it, even though it’s really hard.

His father, Caleb Vines, was an engineering student and got A’s and B’s in college, but on 9/11 he decided to join the army. Now he is unable to hold down a job.

A symptom of his PTSD is that he dislikes crowds. Vines tries to find ways to bond with her daughter through quieter activities like fishing. We asked Laney what she says to her friends when her dad doesn’t come to events like school plays.

“‘He’s at home. He’s in pain at the moment’, and sometimes I’m a little sad but I try to think of other things that make me happy even though he couldn’t come,” said she declared.

With editing by Dave Gustafson

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