PTSD and war's effects on veterans can take a heavy toll on families

When Hutchinson DuBosque Jr. returned from the Vietnam War, his post-traumatic stress disorder-related social problems were so bad some of his siblings abandoned him and his first and second marriages collapsed. On April 1, 2014, along with his third wife, Carol, they talk about his PTSD manifestations and his recovery. (Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.)

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The family tension that divided his sisters and tore through two of his marriages began the day Hutchinson DuBosque Jr. returned home in 1968 -- Vietnam War demons close behind.

With the celebratory aroma of a roast beef and Yorkshire pudding dinner wafting through his parents' Laurel Hollow house that day, and his three siblings chirping excitedly all around him, DuBosque settled into a living room armchair, lit a marijuana cigarette and blew a pungent plume amid the gathering.

"People in my family thought he was a real jerk," recalled his sister Ann DuBosque of Warrenton, Va., who was there that day.

Battlefield experiences had shaken the former Army medic, said those who knew him best.

Though family members were relieved he had made it back, the DuBosque who came home was distant or dismissive, his sister said, and often antagonistic.

"There was a lot of tiptoeing around him. He was sarcastic all the time. He was crazy, especially when he drank, and he alienated everyone but me."

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The conflicted and resentful reactions his family had after DuBosque came home are like those of millions of American families struggling to help loved ones cope with battle stress, drinking, fits of rage or other war-related behavioral issues.

Although veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder or other emotional problems can get psychotherapy or mood-altering drug treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs, families troubled by a loved one's war-related problems often don't know where to turn.

"It is well-established in the trauma field that when someone suffers PTSD, the entire family system is afflicted and can develop secondary PTSD," said Edward Tick, author of "War and the Soul -- Healing Our Nation's Veterans from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder." "So the whole family shows symptoms. "

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Families can agonize over whether to overlook a loved one's outbursts of combat-related anger or force a confrontation. Whether to prohibit a troubled veteran from self-medicating with illegal drugs, or allow it and risk tempting younger siblings. Whether to accommodate an edgy veteran's desire to keep guns in the house, or banish him out of concern that weapons could spell disaster.

 

Hard to pinpointYet, even as these dilemmas have stirred deep conflict among the families of soldiers and 140,000 veterans living on Long Island, many affected are blind to what troubles them.

They can be slow to recognize combat trauma as the root of a loved one's drinking problem, hair-trigger temper, or plunge into drug addiction, family advocates say, or that their own emotional turmoil -- the secondary PTSD -- can be a byproduct.

"Every time I lecture or teach, family members come to me and say 'I never understood why my soldier father was acting that way,' " Tick said.

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Although the VA offers free psychological care to most veterans struggling with combat-related anxieties, funding laws prevent the giant federal agency from providing services to family members in almost all cases, said Northport VA spokesman Joe Sledge.

The agency helps direct struggling family members to organizations in the private sector, such as the Veterans Health Alliance of Long Island, the Rosen Center in Manhasset, or the Soldiers Project, a Long Island consortium of some 80 volunteer psychologists and psychiatrists who offer their services for free.

Working in tandem two years ago, the VA and the North Shore/LIJ hospital system opened the Unified Behavioral Health Center for Military Veterans and Their Families in Bay Shore. The joint center provides VA care in one half of the building and care for the families and significant others of veterans by North Shore/LIJ therapists in the other half.

Many are unaware these programs exist to help those closest to returning veterans.

Al and Dolores Anderson of Lindenhurst were not equipped to help one of their two Army sons after he narrowly escaped death during a 2007 rocket attack in Iraq. His agitation during visits home after the incident heightened his parents' anxiety, leaving them chronically sleepless, irritable and depressed.

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Not knowing where else to turn, Al Anderson said he called a veterans suicide help line, even though he had no thoughts of hurting himself. "It was as if we hit the wall and didn't want to go on," he said.

Anderson and his wife have since recovered emotionally after counseling through the Soldiers Project. "Both of us were mentally broken by then."

To be sure, most returning veterans readjust to civilian life without causing serious family disruption, said Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, director of Purdue University's Military Family Research Institute.

But sizable numbers of returning veterans become emotionally distant, leaving spouses and children feeling neglected. Veterans with PTSD can variously exhibit extreme irritability, rage, emotional withdrawal or patterns of heavy drinking.

Of the more than 2.6 million Americans who served in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, about 38 percent suffer from relationship problems and high levels of rage -- key indicators of post-traumatic stress -- according to a poll released this month by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation. Half of all Iraq or Afghanistan troops say they know a service member who has committed or attempted suicide, the poll showed.

Veteran suicides and drug overdose deaths have taken a toll on families on Long Island.

Three years ago, an Iraq War veteran being treated for PTSD menaced his parents with a rifle in the Lake Ronkonkoma home they shared after they confronted him about his erratic behavior. In May 2012, he died at his parents' home of a mix of heroin and alcohol. Four months later, a Marine veteran shot himself to death in the Bayville apartment he shared with his girlfriend after the two argued. The next day, former Fort Hood soldier and Iraq veteran Daniel Stey shot himself dead in his father's Commack home.

Wadsworth said struggling veterans can spread psychological trauma to those around them, as loved ones seek to either confront the veteran's anti-social behavior or adapt to it.

"There is very good evidence that these things reverberate through families," Wadsworth said. "So if a person has a substance abuse problem, it has consequences for other family members. They stop participating in family life, perhaps become less reliable. Anger can create distance and withdrawal. It can make it difficult for children to trust. There can be less intimacy. Every aspect of the relationship has the potential to be affected."

 

Intense rageTrust became an issue for DuBosque's eldest son, Hutchinson DuBosque III. His parents struggled through a troubled marriage before parting in the 1970s, when he was 7 years old.

He said although his father was never violent, his drinking could bring on bouts of rage.

"His voice would change, and that is when my brother and sister would realize no more messing around," said DuBosque, of Santa Fe, N.M. "There were things he did to release his anger which I was confused by. He would get frustrated with a tool in his hand and just throw it."

He said his father's emotional vacancy taught him to withdraw as a way to avoid conflict.

"I didn't know what to do to get my dad's attention, and I wanted it so desperately" said DuBosque, 42, who said counseling he began about five years ago has made him less fearful of emotional intimacy and helped him reconnect with his father.

His father's inner turmoil was kindled during the bloodiest year of the Vietnam War, when nearly 28,000 died.

Assigned the medic's task of keeping soldiers alive, more than he cares to remember died, including a best friend who bled to death in his arms. For the next 40 years, DuBosque Jr. said, he drank heavily to keep the memories from overwhelming him.

"I crawled into a bottle and hid there," he said. "I didn't think I could open up."

Erratic behavior continued to plague DuBosque's relationships until his third wife, Carol, called police to their Huntington home in 2010. Drunk, he was trying to use power tools in his basement workshop, which included a table saw.

He agreed to enter group therapy at a VA program in Babylon, where he was diagnosed with severe PTSD. A counselor persuaded him to enter a 90-day inpatient PTSD program at the VA Medical Center at Northport, which he completed in 2012.

The counseling saved DuBosque's marriage and helped him rebuild relationships with his family, children and ex-wives.

He said his family suffered for decades because of his war-related problems. But he's hopeful the needs of loved ones of others like him get attention.

"My family got angry and pulled away from me," DuBosque said. "Had there been help for families, I know my ex-wives would have gotten it, my kids would have gotten it, I know my sisters would have availed themselves of it. That would have saved them years of disappointment and frustration."

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