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Releasing the caged monster

Soldiers on the issue of talking to spouses about combat

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Army National Guard Sgt. Leigh Flanigan stood rooted to the spot, eyes glued to the screen in the Tactical Operations Center (TOC). She watched as two men were being chain-sawed to death. But this wasn't another grindhouse movie - it was a confiscated DVD recording of two captured Afghanistan insurgents killing their countrymen.

"Those images still haunt me," said Flanigan, a 13-year veteran and former Marine. "But that was only the beginning."

She was injured in an improvised explosive device (IED) attack while on military police (MP) patrol, and also lost friends.

"Insurgents killed an Afghan police chief," she said. "He was a good man and a friend, and he was trying to make a difference."

But it was the loss of a battalion comrade that devastated her.

"He was hit dead-on by a rocket while doing PT," she said. "We lost him two weeks before coming home. He was a sweet kid that used to come for his morning hug when I worked in the TOC."

Flanigan is one of a few who shared her combat experiences with her spouse - a difficult decision many face post-deployment.

"I saw the drastic change in her when she returned," said Flanigan's husband, Daron. "She wasn't the sweet teddy that had left a year earlier."

A large majority of Servicemembers feel their spouses simply wouldn't understand.

"Many Soldiers don't talk to their spouses," Flanigan said. "When you bring the animal out of the cage, you have to deal with it."

However, "if Soldiers give their spouses the opportunity," Daron said, "they might be surprised how well they'll handle it."

Daron knows too of his wife's near death experience with a suicide bomber.

When Flanigan's squadron encountered some children playing too close to camp, she heard yells for them to stop.

"They kept coming closer," she said. "I pointed my rifle and the boy surrendered but the girl backed away. When I grabbed her arm, she yelled, ‘Boom, you're dead.'"

The child suicide bomber had failed her mission. "She yelled, ‘Why didn't you shoot me? I was going to kill you all, now I'm dead,' Flanigan recalled.

Daron's stepson (from an earlier marriage) is also active-duty Army. After three deployments, he suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"It's bad," Daron said. "He shared some pretty graphic stuff that messed him up, and I think that helped me understand what Leigh went through."

Still, Daron sometimes feels helpless and frustrated watching his wife suffer from depression and bouts of angry outbursts; he often goes fishing to de-stress and has been encouraging her to go along.

"We take it day by day," he said. "I let her talk it out and I'm just there. Sometimes, I distract her and make her laugh to get her mind off things."

"I'm sharing my experience, too," Flanigan said, "because I know locking it away isn't dealing with it. It'll gnaw at you until it breaks lose."

Purple Heart recipient and Iraq war veteran Mike (who prefers to withhold his last name), was diagnosed with PTSD and traumatic brain injury by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). He too changed dramatically when he returned. Mike still has nightmares, and at one point, was taking 43 prescription pills daily.

"I told my wife stuff to help her understand my experience," he said. "But before we got married, I told her she was marrying a monster. She didn't judge me or challenge it. She was open-minded and still loved me. That helped a lot."

"It was scary," said his wife, Michelle. "But it made us closer because we were talking. He didn't shut me out."

"I made the conscious decision to share," Mike said, "because she had to know what was there. It's like a trained pit bull - once you let it out and see what it can do, if you let it back in the house with the kids to love and hug again, you gotta trust it - you have to know what's there."

Both veterans are sharing their struggles so others can take that first important step toward recovery and healthier relationships.

"The most important thing to saving our marriage is communication," Mike said. "That's the key."

Flanigan agrees. "If I don't become the voice for others," she said, "then things will not change. I'm sharing to give hope, but it helps me, too."

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