Post-Traumatic Stress and a Traumatic Brain Injury strain a marriage

By Ken Olsen

(Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved)

Some days, Tammara Rosenleaf would give anything not to be a combat veteran’s wife.

She loves her husband. He is kind, generous and unflappable – the perfect contrast to her stronger, more emotional personality. But the Sean Hefflin she married 13 years ago didn’t come back from Iraq. He can’t remember the smallest task. He can’t focus. He totaled her car and shattered her shoulder during one of the times he mentally checked out.

“Traumatic brain injury has a huge impact on our relationship,” Rosenleaf says. “It’s like being a mom with a 7-year-old.”

Rosenleaf and Hefflin met at a private college in Washington state where he was studying history and criminal justice. They later moved to her home state of Montana. Hefflin joined the Army in 2004 after tiring of the low-wage, low-skilled work available in Helena. In addition, the Army offered training and a way to pay off his college loans.

Hefflin describes his 13-month Army deployment to Iraq with indifference. “I did a little bit of a lot of things. (Truck) gunner, support to division, escorting foreign nationals who came on base to work.”

His camp in Baghdad was a favorite enemy target. “There were mortar rounds coming in daily,” he says. “I don’t necessarily believe my combat experience was that traumatic. Odds are better I would die in a car accident here.”

Every day of that deployment was agonizing for Rosenleaf. She sent him messages encouraging him to sleep in his body armor. She traveled whenever possible, in part to avoid a visit from casualty assistance officers, as if that would keep her husband alive. “I had this illusion if the men in the dress uniforms couldn’t find my doorstep … ”

Hefflin’s grandfather died as he was coming home from Iraq. The night of the funeral, Rosenleaf realized that her husband had PTS. The couple was driving along a foggy, winding road near Olympia, Wash., when an approaching car flashed lights to signal there were deer on the road. Hefflin grabbed Rosenleaf’s arm, then grabbed the steering wheel and yelled, “Don’t slow down! Don’t slow down!”  She barely kept the car from careening into the ditch. Her arm bore the bruise of her husband’s grip for weeks.

Hefflin later freaked out when Rosenleaf pulled into a parking spot next to an empty Chinese takeout container he feared might contain a roadside bomb. He still goes to great lengths to avoid driving by cars parked under underpasses.

Rosenleaf insisted Hefflin get help for his PTS. He was treated by a former military psychologist near Fort Hood for 18 months.

As Hefflin’s symptoms eased – he says the Army diagnosed adjustment disorder, not PTS – Rosenleaf started to see signs of TBI, especially after they left the structured military life at Fort Hood and returned to Helena, Mont. Hefflin loses to-do lists. He has a smart phone with an electronic calendar and a reminder function but misplaces the phone.  He leaves the house to meet his wife for lunch and returns without ever arriving at the restaurant.

Nonetheless, he is extremely bright. “If there was a particular thing Napoleon said on the eve of whatever, Sean would know that,” Rosenleaf says. “What he’s supposed to do today? He can’t remember.”

One spring day while he was driving, “Sean was living in his sleep like he normally does.” He threaded his way through cars at an intersection and into the path of an oncoming SUV. Rosenleaf, who was sitting in the passenger seat, went to the hospital with a shattered shoulder.

“There’s no way I can continue living with a person who can’t come back from wherever he’s gone,” Rosenleaf said a few days after the accident. “I would give anything to get out from under being a combat veteran’s wife … I’m talking about leaving a really good man because he can’t remember anything.”

Somehow she finds new resolve and goes on.

Rosenleaf’s frustration is not simply about Hefflin’s memory. She works full time as a case manager for developmentally disabled clients and takes care of most things at home. It’s exhausting. “He’s starting to realize it has serious effects for me,” Rosenleaf says.

VA is trying to determine what is causing Hefflin’s attention problems. Rosenleaf recounts two incidents in Iraq that could have inflicted TBI. In one case, she and Hefflin were conversing online through instant messaging when a blast from a mortar round blew him out of his bunk.

Today, Hefflin remembers a hooch two doors down being blown apart but has no memory that the blast knocked him to the floor. Nor does he recall being hit in the head by a portable toilet upended in a different mortar attack.

A VA neuropsychologist pinpointed evidence of TBI in the left temporal lobe of Hefflin’s brain in February, and a follow-up MRI was scheduled for July. VA has not yet decided if the brain injury is service-connected. Rosenleaf is less concerned with her husband’s disability rating than she is with his prospects for regaining independence.

“I want him to be able to function,” she says. “I lost part of my partner. The military owes me half of my partner back.”

This this story appeared as part of a special report on post-traumatic stress in the September 2001 issue of The American Legion Magazine. Other stories in the series can be found on this blog, including: The War Within and  A Marine’s suicide shows that even the unlikeliest veteran can fall through the cracks.

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About Veterans' Voices

Veterans Voices is produced by Ken Olsen, a freelance writer and author who frequently writes about military families and veterans issues for national magazines
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