One Military Mom's Struggle with PTSD

More than 230,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. And though they were barred from direct combat, they did not escape trauma. A retired lieutenant colonel who says she “loved the first Gulf war” now struggles against a personal enemy so fierce, it makes her afraid to hug her own grandchildren.

By Louise Farr
Robin Milonas, Robin Milonas's War, PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder,
Meditation, prayer and talk therapy are some of the methods Milonas uses to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Photograph: Jodi Bieber

In Bagram, Milonas witnessed horrors of a kind she hadn’t been exposed to on her earlier overseas tour: A little boy, his leg mangled from stepping on a land mine. A nightmarish misadventure when an interpreter mistakenly led her convoy into a field of unexploded mines. But worst of all was the drowning infant she couldn’t save. Milonas and her convoy of SUVs were returning to base after delivering food to a village when she spotted children playing in a stream. An old man plucked an apparently lifeless baby from the water and, holding him by his feet, began to shake him. “I wanted to do CPR but knew I couldn’t,” Milonas says.

In repressive Afghanistan, the female soldiers were under orders never to touch a male—not even an infant. She remembers begging the Marine assigned to guard her troops to let her help the child. Impossible, he told her: “You’d be putting the team at risk, ma’am.” Male soldiers were equally helpless; the convoy had strict orders about where they could go, where they could stop. And so they drove on.

There were traumas on base, too—one soldier committed suicide, and at least one other attempted it. “You try not to think about it because you have too much time left on your tour. The only thing you want to think about is doing your job, counting down the days,” she says. At the same time, however, she became attached to the local kids. They needed her; she wondered if she should volunteer for another tour. “My spouse sort of gave me an ultimatum,” Milonas recalls. “He said, ‘No, you’re coming home, and you’re coming home now.’ ” But the woman who returned to him was not the wife who had left.

POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS disorder did not enter the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1980, but soldiers have reported feeling its symptoms for as long as battles have been recorded. The syndrome rose in the public consciousness as the wars of the 20th century gave rise to such terms as shell shock and combat fatigue, but the illness is not limited to warriors (see PTSD: Not Just for Soldiers).

The APA defines it as a disorder that can develop after an extremely stressful ordeal in which one experiences or witnesses actual or threatened death or physical injury, or learns of the unexpected or violent death or injury of a loved one or close friend. Symptoms include hypervigilance (of the sort Milonas experienced seeing the shadow on the highway and hearing the hotel vacuum), insomnia, anger, nightmares and flashbacks.

Jonathan Shay, a Boston Veterans Affairs psychiatrist and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award for his work on the psychological effects of warfare, has described sufferers as feeling “dead,” as though they were looking at life through “a dirty window.” This is the detachment Robin Milonas felt when she left Afghanistan and returned to her family.

Her symptoms became apparent almost immediately. At bedtime, she needed to leave a light on and music -playing—but still couldn’t sleep. She heard the voices of Afghan kids crying in her head. “Be kind to your mom,” Kevin warned his children and their families when they visited. “She’s going through something. She’s different.”

Indeed, the once-affectionate grandmother who ordinarily hugged her grandchildren and played with them fled upstairs to hide in her bedroom. Milonas’s daughter (who asked that her name not be published) had been in the army reserves herself for six years but hadn’t gone to war. She couldn’t understand how her mother could have come back so “jumpy and suspicious . . . extra needy.”

This was not the independent woman who’d raised her, the role model she’d emulated. She followed her mother from room to room, attempting to soothe her, repeating, “It’s OK, Mom.”

First Published May 24, 2011

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Paula 05.28.2011

I have great respect for Robin Milonas. She is to be admired for her strength, leadership, and courage as a soldier who served in our US Military. I congratulate Milonas on her journey of perseverance and efforts toward overcoming PDST. Like Milonas, my father, a WWII US Marine Veteran, worked very hard to gain disability benefits for his tooth decay he acquired oversees from the food supply of sugar cane. Unlike Milonas, my father is still trying to gain the disability benefits for this. After much effort with Dr's letters, exams, etc. but to no avail. I am thoroughly proud of my father's US Military service, as well. As he is one of the first US Montford Point Marines (a Black American Unit who served in WWII in the Pacific). Thank you for sharing your story. I wish you ALL the Best in your continued journey!

05.27.2011

Sorry for your trauma and let downs.I'm a vet that has been there and it's hard to explain what you have witness to others that just don't know the hardships of war .We have seen the worse that humanity has to show us but we are suppose to let it go and live a nornal life.Yeah right.We have giving the best of our selves and then we are put out there in the wind.People in the world think that we are nornal but they don't know how wrong they are.We are in need of help to cope with the nightmares that we've see and have to live with from day to day sometimes every hour or every minute.

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