Fighting On Two Fronts

Fighting On Two Fronts

What happens when military families, already strained by long war-zone deployments, get hit with a devastating illness at home.
sharlet lynn february 2008 chemo chip lynn feb 2008 afghanistan
Courtesy Lt. Col. Chip Lynn
Sharlet Lynn (left) on Valentine’s Day 2008—just after her first round of chemo. Her husband, Chip (right) on duty in Afghanistan.
By Daniel Stone | Newsweek Web Exclusive
Dec 10, 2008

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When Sharlet Lynn found out she had breast cancer last January, she was alone. Sitting in a hospital room in San Antonio, Texas, a doctor told her that she had ductal carcinoma, a fairly common and treatable type of breast cancer. The road ahead would require surgery, chemotherapy and a hefty bout of radiation. As devastating as the news was, Sharlet couldn’t share the news with anyone just yet. Her husband was more than 7,000 miles away, having been deployed with the Army to Afghanistan for a full year. And she didn’t think her teenage daughters, already struggling with their dad’s absence, were ready to hear that their mom was seriously ill.

When the couple did talk a few days after the diagnosis, Sharlet, 52, and her husband Lt. Col. Chip Lynn, 44, wrestled with a question facing roughly 1,600 military families each year. What to do when one spouse is serving abroad and the one back home is faced with a life-threatening condition? The military makes some accommodations for unexpected situations on the home front, but some families say it’s almost impossible to compensate for the absence of a spouse in times of real family crisis.

A long war-zone deployment is a trying psychological experience even without any complicating factors. A 2006 study from the University of Virginia found that more than 20 percent of all Iraqi veterans are diagnosed with psychological disorders, many with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Add to that the anxiety of being absent from a high-stakes health crisis back home, and the difficulties are unimaginable. “The fear abroad that you may lose a family member, or concern that you aren’t there when they need you is enormously traumatic,” says Col. Kathy Platoni, a psychologist with the Army. “Talk about a psychological overload of catastrophic stressors.”

Meanwhile, on the home front, families are also in a war zone—trying not to worry too much and to keep the household functioning on their own. While PTSD is a condition the military normally uses only with the service members themselves, Platoni says that family members can be affected by similar symptoms, like anxiety disorders. The dark cycle of each spouse worrying about the condition of the other can lead to deeper and deeper depression, in some cases alienating the two from each other, which can exacerbate the PTSD symptoms upon a soldier’s return. Chip says that being so far away, he sometimes felt emotionally removed from his family, not being there to help when he could tell they needed him.

The military does have a safety net to help families. The Department of Defense helps coordinate what they call Family Readiness Groups (FRGs) that consist of military families, volunteers and military officials to provide assistance on the home front. Officially, they lay the framework for communication among families in a particular unit, like drafting a phone tree to spread news, good or bad. But less structured is the community that FRGs create. With access to families in similar situations, military families often help one another with neighborly tasks, too, like coordinating errand runs or help finding a babysitter. Banding together is something you find often among military communities. “People come together in times of crisis or just to help each other out,” says Platoni, “I’ve seen it happen in many resource groups.”

In the face of a crisis like the one that the Lynns were facing, the obvious solution is to ask that the deployed member come home; aborting the national mission in order to enlist in a more personal one. The military has guidelines in place for such occasions, like when an accident occurs or a child is in immediate need of parental care. The policy states that since “most soldiers are mature and responsible individuals,” emergency-leave requests can be “considered on their merits.” In many cases, the Red Cross is called on to verify the need for a sudden trip home and to help with logistics. (The military declined to release statistics on how often this occurs.)

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~ by sunil khemaney on December 12, 2008.

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