The Department of Veterans Affairs is now offering couples retreats to help former service members communicate with their spouses through PTSD and other life stressors. Veterans are more than 60% more likely to separate or divorce than non-veterans.
Inside a windowless hotel conference room near San Antonio’s famed Riverwalk, 27 couples seated themselves around tables, speaking nervously to one another.
They’d been booked for a free overnight hotel stay as part of Warrior2Soulmate, a VA program that has, since 2012, taught intimacy-building skills in group settings. While different from couples therapy, it’s tailored to the needs of veterans and their spouses — and reaches about 1,200 to 1,400 people per year nationwide.
Some of the oldest attendees sported hats touting their veteran status and era of war: Korea, Vietnam, World War II. The younger couples were quieter, thumbing through packets of information laid out before them, or fixing their gazes on a projector screen at the front of the room.
They seemed to have little in common. But when a microphone got passed around the room, they shared similar stories of pain.
“I have PTSD. I have anger issues. I have trouble, a lot of times, controlling my emotions,” said John Browning, a Marine Corps veteran from Alice, Texas, who saw combat in Vietnam.
John and his wife Barbara have been married more than 50 years — and have survived a long list of surgeries and mental health setbacks.
“I hope to improve my communication skills with my wife,” he continued, “and maybe to get more understanding of how to be a better husband.”
Barbara dabbed her face with a Kleenex as she took the microphone.
“I’m a very emotional person. I've always been one to help others and I feel for them when they have problems... He never told me what he went through in Vietnam. ‘Til he went to pieces,” she said.
John previously received mental health counseling, Barbara explained. But after he retired, his symptoms became more acute, making him hard to live with. Barbara also shared that she has early-stage Alzheimer’s and doesn’t know how they’ll get by as a couple once it progresses.
“We just want to be close together always,” she said, her voice tight. “But it is hard right now because he’s agitated all the time and I don't know which way to do things… Just need help so that we can survive.”
Increased Focus On Family Services
Earlier this year, the VA announced plans to make more interventions available to veteran couples and families. As part of that, the VA is now training additional psychology staff, chaplains, social workers and other providers to perform couples counseling — and lead programs like Warrior2Soulmate.
Nationwide, the VA saw more than 30,000 veterans for family and couples therapy in 2019, an increase of over 3,000 from the year before.
“There's an exceptionally high rate of divorce among active military and veterans due to the symptoms they've experienced during their service,” said Faith Lane, a VA clinical social worker and Warrior2Soulmate facilitator.
Post-traumatic stress, the strain of repeated deployments, injuries and medication issues can be challenging for military-affiliated couples. A veteran’s spouse might even become his/her caregiver, changing the dynamics of their relationship.
Lane noted the behaviors that veterans learn in the military can make it harder for them to communicate with their partners later on. She said she often sees veterans shut down or explode because they’ve held their emotions in for long periods.
"One of the skills we're trying to teach [in Warrior2Soulmate] is to broaden the range of emotion when communicating with a partner,” said Lane. “A lot of times — with people coming out of the military — what I've found is that they have learned to suppress a lot of emotions.’”
“Embrace the suck, you know?” added Randy Holloway, a VA chaplain and Air Force reservist. “You just get the job done. Mission comes first. So there’s a disconnect a lot of times in the home.”
For some couples, that disconnect can be made worse if the veteran is experiencing guilt and shame due to moral injuries sustained in service.
"Maybe it's something they did in their past that they're not proud of, something they're ashamed of,” said Holloway. “'If my husband or wife finds out about this, they'll never look at me the same.' They’re keeping that part closed off, and that spills into other parts of their life.”
Army veteran Abraham Cruz and his wife Maria of San Antonio said they came to Warrior2Soulmate to start finding their way back to one another following a period of back-to-back losses — and Abraham’s retirement after years of deployment.
But there’s one area that’s off limits: his combat experiences.
“I decided not to bring whatever happened there — to bring it to the house,” said Abraham. “I talk to other soldiers. They understand the complexities of making certain decisions in combat and what it means to take a human life. It changes you.”
Abraham carries with him the violence of his past, but doesn’t share details in Maria’s presence. The couple seemed to have agreed that, with certain topics, you can’t un-ring the bell.
“There are boundaries,” Maria explained. “There's stuff I don't need to know, and I don't want to know. Because then I might look at him differently… and I don't want to look at him differently.”
“What she needs to know is that she's loved,” Abraham replied.“That that scenario didn't affect me to the point that she can't love me. Or that I can't love her.”
Maria and Abraham said they’ve taken the lessons of Warrior2Soulmate to heart and connected more during the retreat than they had in years.
Carson Frame can be reached at Carson@TPR.org and on Twitter at @carson_frame.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.