But it wasn’t OK. Milonas didn’t want anyone to touch her, not even her husband. “You don’t expect anything like this; it was a shock,” says Kevin. A soft-spoken man with long hair and a beard his wife describes affectionately as “scruffy,” he tried to tease her out of her funk. It didn’t work. Sexual intimacy was out of the question and still is.
“My anxiety goes up, and I can’t breathe,” Milonas explains. “My spouse is resigned to it. It’s not that I don’t love him. I just can’t be that close to him anymore.” She also felt an undercurrent of anger at Kevin because he’d insisted that she return home.
“I think about it and wish I’d stayed longer to do what I thought needed to be done,” she says. “It’s not a very pleasant feeling.”
Back teaching school in January 2005, Milonas found herself afraid to move around the classroom or to get close to her rambunctious middle school students. Sometimes she had to grip the edge of her desk just to stay in control of her emotions. School bells panicked her, too, and when the workday ended, she paced at home for hours to calm herself.
Also shocked by these changes was Milonas’s onetime army colleague, now a retired lieutenant colonel, Elizabeth Burris, who lived nearby. Before Milonas’s Afghanistan deployment, the two had become quilting buddies. “As a soldier, she was on top of everything—quick-witted, sharp, multifaceted, with excellent speaking skills,” Burris says. Now her old friend was so rattled, she couldn’t distinguish left from right. And she had forgotten how to quilt. “It was heartbreaking,” says Burris, who suffers from PTSD herself and was being treated at a Department of Veterans Affairs center in nearby Tacoma. Recognizing the symptoms, she suggested that her friend seek help.
At the Tacoma VA, Milonas met with a therapist who tentatively confirmed Burris’s hunch and referred Milonas to the VA’s Women’s Trauma Recovery Program in Menlo Park, California, for a more thorough, inpatient evaluation. But Milonas didn’t want to believe she was suffering from PTSD. “No, I can’t have that,” she remembers saying. “That’s for people who are weak.”
MORE THAN 230,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan; according to the VA’s National Center for PTSD, nearly 20 percent of them have been determined
to have post-traumatic stress disorder. But some say the real victim count could be much higher, given veterans’ sensitivity to the stigma surrounding psychological problems.
Denial is common among sufferers, even those who know they have the disease: A study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress showed that a majority of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with new PTSD diagnoses failed to attend the recommended number of treatment sessions. Experts suspect that many are acting out of fear of harming their careers—a concern that may be especially pressing for women. “Saying you need help is a deal breaker,” Milonas says. “You’re already trying to prove yourself by working harder than anybody else.”
Still, when school let out in June 2005, Milonas checked into the Menlo Park facility, a Spanish-style building set in tranquil grounds dotted with redwoods, flowers and fruit trees. She underwent a battery of tests to assess her mental and physical health.
The result: the PTSD diagnosis her Tacoma therapist had expected. For two and a half months, Milonas was treated with a combination of medication, group and individual therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy designed to alter negative thought patterns, meditation and relaxation exercises. “It was comforting, because I met other women like me,” she says, adding that most of her fellow soldiers’ symptoms stemmed from trauma due to sexual assault and harassment.
Kevin visited when he could. “It’s no different than if she developed a physical ailment,” he says. “She’s my wife, and I have to be there for her.” He corrects himself. “I don’t have to be there. I want to be there.”