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The Toll of War: MilWives and Suicide

Hands over face

The military has all manner of metrics on the rash of suicides among active duty troops, but the statistics on suicides and suicide attempts by military family members mostly show up on the police blotter.

Last January, Julia Powers Schenecker, the wife of an Army colonel at the Tampa, Fla., headquarters of the Central Command, left a note saying that she was going to kill her children and herself. She shot to death her 13-year-old son and 16-year-daughter. Police arrived at the upscale family home and found Schenecker sitting in a chair, covered in blood, before she could kill herself. Police said Schenecker told them that the children had been “mouthy.”

“I’ve lost three of my friends to suicide,” said Kristina Kaufmann, the wife of an Army colonel. One of them at Fort Bragg, N.C., went to the garage and got in the car with her two toddler children and turned on the engine. All three were found dead.

The women she knew were in their 30s and 40s, and not the younger wives who are more prone to depression. They were open and sharing, they did volunteer work, but Kaufmann also could understand.

“I’ve been an Army wife for 10 years,” she said. “I’ve walked the line. I’ve wanted to fall completely off the grid.” The repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan put pressure on the wives to hold the family together that can get overwhelming.

“At some point, everybody hits the wall,” said Kaufmann, executive director of the Code of Support Foundation supporting the troops and families. “I just had to admit to myself that I had to talk to somebody,” Kaufmann said, but access to treatment can be more limited for dependents and can bring its own problems.

Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff, has identified the “stigma” of seeking help as his major impediment in bringing down the rate of suicides among the troops. That stigma – the feeling that seeking help is a sign of weakness and a barrier to promotions – in many cases can apply to the wives, advocates say.

And mental health professionals are also coming around to recognizing the existence of “Secondary PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)” that family members can experience in dealing with a troubled servicemember.

“I’ve seen instances where a woman has felt that it would hurt her husband’s chances of promotion” if she sought help, Kaufmann said. “There is a sense if you have to do that, well, you’re not as strong as you need to be.”

In April last year, Sheena Griffin phoned her estranged husband, a soldier at Fort Hood, Tex., who was deploying to Afghanistan, to tell him she was thinking about killing herself and the children. When sheriff’s deputies arrived, they found the two-story home in flames. The two boys, aged 8 and 9, were dead from gunshot wounds and lying together on a twin bed. Their 36-year-old mother was on the floor, also dead.

Earlier this year, Deborah Mullen, the wife of the then-Joint Chiefs chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, blew the whistle on the growing incidents of suicides and suicide attempts by wives and other family members, and the military’s failure to respond.

“I was stunned when I was told there are too many to track,” Mrs. Mullen said in calling on the services to confront the problem and implement prevention measures with spouses in mind.

“There’s another side to this and that’s family members who commit suicide,” Mrs. Mullen said. “It’s our responsibility. These are our family members.”

She also noted the stigma problem in getting treatment: “Spouses tell me all the time that they want to get mental health assistance. As incorrect as this is, they really do believe if they seek help it will have a negative impact on their spouse’s military career.”

But stigma was the least of the problems for Shawn Gourley, of Evansville, Ind. Her husband was out of the Navy after three overseas tours and had been diagnosed with PTSD.

“You start noticing the nightmares, the road rage. He didn’t want to be around people,” Gourley said. “They go into these rages and start destroying things, and then they turn on you when you try to do something. They can make you feel pretty bad about yourself,” she said.

“At one point, my husband pulled a gun on me,” Gourley said. “We get to the point where we have no one and no hope. What friends I had, I lost. I had contemplated and tried to commit suicide twice,” but both times her husband kicked down the door, she said.

Their claims for treatment weren’t approved by the Veterans Administration, but they finally got help in the private sector. “We’re both doing a lot better,” Gourley said, but “we’ve got a long way to go.”

Last April, an entry posted to the blog “(Mis) Adventures of an Army Wife” by Jessica Harp, a 27-year-old Army wife, lit up the Internet: “If you are reading this, you should know that I am dead. At least I hope I’m dead. It would be awful to fail at your own suicide,” but others intervened before it happened.

Her husband was depressed after deployment to Afghanistan, and later left her for another soldier. “I wish he had just died in combat,” Harp wrote. “If he had died, I would have been surrounded with so much support that I wouldn’t have known what to do with it. Instead, he has discarded me on the side of the road like a piece of rubbish, and the Army ‘family’ has shrugged its shoulders and said, ‘Well, he doesn’t want you anymore. There’s nothing we can do about it.’”

The parents have little recourse with the military or the VA when they seek help for a son or daughter suffering from PTSD.

Cheri Caiella, of Syracuse, N.Y., had nowhere to turn when her son came back from Iraq after serving during the troop surge in 2007. He had stood out in the Marine Corps, first in physical fitness at Parris Island and then he was chosen to serve as a scout sniper in Iraq.

When he came home for Christmas, “I think he was sober maybe three days. I didn’t think much of it” but by March of 2008 the Marines were finished with him. He received a bad conduct discharge.

Back at home, he had constant headaches. “He didn’t sleep. He holed up in the basement. He hardly ever came out,” Caiella said.When he did, he wrecked the family car. Caiella said she came to realize that “my kid is a different kid” than the one she sent to the Marines.

“There was nothing we could do,” Caiella said. When they went to the VA, “the guy said he had dirty paper,” meaning the bad conduct discharge. “We can’t help you,” Caiella said she was told.

Then she fought with with her son. “I thought he was dead. He was slumped over the computer desk. When I touched him, he thought I was the enemy. We got into it,” Caiella said.

In the summer of 2009, the VA finally agreed to treat him. “I understand we’re in a war and we, as civilians, understand they have standards in the military,” Caiella said. “But I did not expect my son to get damaged as he did and then they put the burden on the family.”

When the military can’t or won’t help, Karen Francis has become something of a mentor to the younger wives who rely on her experience in 33 years as an Army wife while her husband has served on active duty and in the Minnesota National Guard.

“I, de facto, became the old broad everybody cried on,” Francis said. “Every time you turn around, there’s another wounding, another death. You can only take so many funerals. If we’re sensible, we get counseling,” Francis said, but then they’re told “Oh c’mon, be tough, be Army strong, yada yada.”

The counselors also “are up to their asses with PTSD and the uniform takes priority” over the wives and other family members, Francis said. “You’re on an emotional roller coaster and things start to fall off the roller coaster. The two weeks before deployment really suck and the two weeks after deployment are vile,” Francis said. “You’re wondering, who the hell is this stranger?”

“People start to realize they can only do this for so long” and they begin to look for a way out, even suicide, Francis said.

Francis said she’s gone back to school to study for a masters in social work to counsel military spouses “because I have come to the realization that we’ll have to help ourselves.”

Children in military families who have dealt with multiple deployments over the past decade are also dealing with the suicidal thoughts that sometimes overwhelm their parents.

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