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The war brought home: veterans and spouses fight together

(Courtesy photo)

(Courtesy photo)

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- When troops return home from a combat zone, for some, the fight isn't over. According to the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Foundation of America, one in three troops returning from combat will be diagnosed with PTSD. Many have difficulty understanding and processing the experiences of combat, leading to a number of different issues.

Spouses are on the front lines of having to help and care for these returning service members. For them, their spouse's combat experiences can seep into their relationship, bringing the war into the household.

"I think it's hard for the spouses because they often don't know there is help out there," said Kerrie Bowers, spouse of Senior Master Sgt. Colby Bowers, 460th Medical Group superintendent. "They might be afraid to talk to anyone about it and that makes them feel alone, which is so difficult.  This is a hard thing to deal with and there, unfortunately, is such a stigma attached to post traumatic stress."

Senior Master Sgt. Bowers has spent more than a thousand days down range as a medic since September 11, 2001. As a medic, he experienced first-hand the horrors of war.

"Four hundred ninety three outside the wire missions and seven mass casualty events," Bowers said. "I did four mass casualties in one deployment."

When Bowers returned home, at first, he wasn't aware he was dealing with any ill effects of his time down range.

"Honestly, it sneaks up on you, you don't know, you think you're fine," Bowers said.

He became aware he was dealing with issues from his experiences in combat when he began self-medicating and dealing with anger.

Bowers explained that when troops deal with multiple deployments and continued combat, they don't have the luxury of immediately processing traumatic events that happened because they need to stay sharp for the next day. Without the time to properly process combat experiences, they begin to weigh heavily on the individual.

He self-identified himself with PTSD in 2005 but continued dealing with symptoms.

Several years went by and, while stationed at McGuire Air Force Base, Bowers began dealing with more residual effects from his time in combat.

"I started having issues," he said. "I couldn't remember conversations, I couldn't remember where I put my shoes, balance, all sorts of things."

Bowers sought out help once again in April 2012. 

"I finally went to the National Intrepid Center of Excellence and spent a month there," he said. "That's where my road to recovery started."

The road ahead isn't all roses for Bowers and his wife just yet. Continued treatment and different avenues for recovery are still a part of their life.

For his wife Kerrie, dealing with compassion fatigue and issues associated with his PTSD can be difficult.

"Sometimes it's really hard," Kerrie Bowers said. "The only way I have of coping is to just push through it. I have yet to really find a way to cope with the emotional part. I just have to take a moment and remind myself that this is how it is and I have to find a way to help him express how he is feeling, good or bad."

Bowers understands the strain that PTSD can have on spouses, especially when a veteran isn't having a particularly good day.

"Spouses take the brunt," he said. "They are the unsung heroes."

Colby and Kerrie Bowers continue to work on effective ways of communication and dealing with the different obstacles of PTSD.

"Our most effective method is a time out and regroup," she said. "When the frustration gets to be too much, we both take a time-out to calm down so that we can try to communicate without the anger.  As for the emotional part, I have to tell him how I am feeling and what I need from him."

The Bowers have used resources like Challenge Aspen Military Opportunities, which, according to challengeaspen.org, "provides adaptive and therapeutic recreation" with other military families to help better understand how they can continue to improve their relationship by learning from others experiences.

Resources like Challenge Aspen are becoming more available to veterans and their families. Couples therapy, apps and trips designed to bring veterans together are helpful in providing service members the care they need.

Sergeant Bowers and his wife understand PTSD is something they will both have to live with. It is one of the effects of the sacrifices made by Bowers in his service to his country. With continued time and effort, they move forward, growing and strengthening their relationship.

"There has been improvement, and I have faith that, eventually, we will both be where we need and want to be," Kerrie Bowers said. "I hope the mindset changes soon and people are more willing to get the help they need for themselves and their families."
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