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War-Torn Marriage: Family Shattered by TBI, PTSD Picks Up Pieces
The breaking point came when Sandra Rivera found their 9-year-old son backed against a wall with his arms over his face, shielding himself from her husband’s screaming.
Desperate, she did what is unfathomable for a Marine wife: She called her husband’s commander.
It was a Friday in fall 2010, about a year and a half after Gunnery Sgt. Felix Rivera emerged as the sole survivor of a car bomb in Afghanistan. By the following Monday, he was checked into a mental hospital.
His struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury were ravaging their marriage. Husband and wife had been relegated to patient and caregiver.
Sandra wishes she could say it was love that kept her from leaving when things were so bad that she regularly hid in a closet to cry.
“But I’d be lying,” she said. “I didn’t love the man who came back from war.”
With TBI and PTSD, the war comes home but the husband doesn’t, not in the way he was before. The family is upended. A wife has to embrace a new role and create a new family identity. And, often, she must try to forge a new love for the man her husband has become.
When Sandra ran into the room that night, she was scared enough by what she saw to confront the truth they had been avoiding for months: Felix was getting worse, not better.
“When I looked at him, he was there, but his eyes were cold,” she said.
It had gone on long enough, she thought. If he stayed on this downward spiral he was going to hurt her, their son or himself.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Sandra said. “I was going to leave. Pack my bags and go.”
She pushed past her guilt about breaking the unwritten code for military spouses and talked to Felix’s command at the Wounded Warrior Battalion.
His commander told her they had been asking him to go to an in-patient facility for months. This time, they made the choice for him.
Watching Felix leave for a 30-day stay in a mental hospital an hour and a half away, Sandra and their son, Christian, sat on the front step and cried.
Felix was certain he didn’t belong. Left to fume at the check-in desk, he thought, “I should walk out and leave.”
The staff stripped him of his cellphone, his iPad and everything he had with him, including his belt and his shoelaces.
Every day he called Sandra from the phone in the hallway and told her he hated her.
After nearly two weeks of those disturbing calls, she turned to his unit’s chaplain for help. He drove out to the hospital in Virginia, and when he confronted Felix, the Marine fell to his knees in tears.
‘I just vanished’
In 2009, Felix was on his third deployment. He had gone to Iraq twice, and this time he was a platoon sergeant with a weapons company in Afghanistan.
Five months into his tour in March, Felix was manning a checkpoint with several Afghan counterparts and a young Marine he often held up as one of the best in the unit. Before they deployed, Lance Cpl. Daniel Geary’s mother had told Felix, “I’m putting my son’s life in your hands.”
At the checkpoint, a stolen Afghan police car rolled up and exploded, killing everyone but Felix.
Geary, just 19, died in Felix’s arms.
Felix was treated locally for facial wounds, but after returning to his unit for a few weeks, the true severity of his injuries became apparent and he was medevaced to Germany. For the nearly a month he was there before transferring to the Naval hospital in Bethesda, Md., Felix refused to let his family come visit him. He didn’t want them to see him that way.
Once out of the hospital in July — four months after the explosion — Felix joined Camp Lejeune’s Wounded Warrior Battalion.
The damage to Felix’s body was extensive and long-lasting: three destroyed vertebrae, a burst ear vestibule that affects his balance, hearing loss, severe PTSD and TBI that robbed him of short-term memory.
Over the course of the first year after his injuries, Sandra dropped everything to take care of her husband.
“I just vanished,” she said. “I lost my identity when everything happened.”
Her $100,000-a-year job, her pursuit of a college degree, the many hours she volunteered at Christian’s school each week — all gone.
Sandra, now 39, had tried to hold onto her job as a technology manual editor, which provided the bulk of their income. When she and Felix first started dating she was working at a large bank in New York City, and she never let go of her career ambition despite the constant upheaval that comes with being a military spouse.
She telecommuted from home with her tech job, but the workload and deadlines became too much to balance with the demands of caregiving. A little more than a year after Felix was hurt, Sandra’s company declined to renew her contract.
“I cried for a week,” she said. “But after he got hurt I always wondered, ‘how am I going to do it all?’ I tried to do so much.”
She was overwhelmed and exhausted, barely holding it together.
Her husband, who is now 38, had trouble recalling the details of conversations that had happened a few hours earlier or remembering what he ate for dinner the night before. He could sleep only with a heavy dose of medication. Emotionally, he was a zombie.
Their relationship had devolved into little more than that of roommates. Sandra was his caregiver, house cleaner and cook, but not his wife.
Felix was detached in so many ways, moribund on the couch with a wall between him and his family. The shrapnel embedded in his face was the least of what he had carried home from war. When he first got back, he would stay awake for days to avoid the nightmares.
Felix was surviving on 14 medications a day, which Sandra portioned out in morning, afternoon, evening and nighttime doses, terrified she would give him the wrong amount.
“They had me in a real big stupor. I was numb,” Felix said.
He wasn’t even motivated enough to take care of their lawn. Sandra had to hire a landscaper.
“You’re wasting away,” she told him.
He was too angry at everyone to hear her or to care.
Their son, Christian, retreated into a bubble. He was talking back, sleeping restlessly and wetting his pants. About the same time Felix went to the mental hospital, Christian started counseling.
Used with permission from Stars and Stripes. © 2011, 2013, Stars and Stripes. www.stripes.com.