The Urgent Need for Confidential Psychological Care for U.S. Military

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Soldiers' concerns about retribution and stigma make many reluctant to see military psychologists, and their health insurance does not pay for them see civilian doctors.

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Hugh Gentry/Reuters

I patiently waited through two seven-month deployments for my husband to come home from Afghanistan. Every time we talked on the phone, he said he was fine. He'd say, "If you pretend everything is okay, then after a while you begin to believe it and that's how you make it home." 

That seemed to work in Afghanistan, but when he returned home the bottled up emotions poured right out. Almost every single day for seven months after returning home, Tyler would have outbursts. The smallest things, that never bothered him before, would set him off -- he would be laughing with me one minute, punching walls the next. We patched up numerous holes in the wall, bought new furniture, and even bought a new car windshield due to his rage.  

His fellow Marines are enduring the same. It's not uncommon for us to get a call to pick up some one from his platoon who got kicked out of the bar for throwing tables, whose wife kicked him out of the house for hitting her, or who was unconscious in the shower from alcohol poisoning.

***

People call my husband a "big teddy bear." He stands 6'2", weighs 225 pounds, and gives out hugs like nobody's business. We fell in love in high school after he lent me his jersey to wear to the school football game. Prior to deploying, Tyler loved spending time sledding with our nephew or building sand castles with our niece. Now it's very hard for him to spend time with them, because he fears having an outburst in front of them. He keeps visits brief. 

His lack of talking had never been an issue, until he had so much he wanted and needed to say about what he experienced while deployed, but physically couldn't.

RTXUGA5small.jpg(Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

As soon as the anger began, I suggested that we see a psychologist. He stormed out of the room. He said that he could fix the problem himself, in due time. But it only progressed. A few months later I brought up the idea of seeing a psychologist a second time. He realized that the problem had gotten worse, and he didn't know what to fix or how to fix it. After six more months of outbursts and with a great deal of courage, he finally acknowledged that he needed help.

I thought that was victory, but it was only the beginning.

Fearing that "the Marine Corps would find out," Tyler refused to see a psychologist on base. In the Marine Corps, he told me, getting help means weakness. What's more, the psychologist cannot guarantee confidentiality. Here he has this free health care that would cover all of the psychological treatment we could ever hope for -- and even all of the new PTSD treatments -- and he absolutely refuses to take advantage of it because of the lack of confidentiality.

I don't blame him at all for refusing to seek help within the military, and I know that many other Marines feel the same way. I spoke with one of Tyler's friends regarding the subject, who I'll call Corporal Johnson, and asked him if he thought that he or a fellow Marine would be comfortable seeing a military psychologist if they needed to. He told me, "I have seen many devil dogs that have chosen not to see a military psychologist. They say they are confidential, but working for the military, we know that they cannot have that right. You're afraid if you say the wrong thing to a therapist they would go to your chain of command and take you away from your brothers that you have spent day and night with since enlistment. We are also afraid that our chain of command could then label us as weak and not give us the promotions that we work so hard for and deserve."

The possible repercussions mean military psychologists see mostly wives, children, and vets. Enlisted men do not want to go. Another one of Tyler's fellow Marines told me, "You couldn't pay me to go to a military psychologist. Isn't the whole point of seeing a psychologist to 'open up'? Why would we go to them when we would just have to tell them lies?"

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Caroline Brown is the pseudonym of a college student studying psychology. Her husband is in the Marine Corps. 

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