Teresa Grace’s story begins in earnest the recounting of the experiences of military men and women transforming their service in the armed forces into civilian life. Military Success Network (MilSuccessNet) profiles present people in transition. The generosity in sharing their experiences in guest blog posts and interviews, allow us all to learn from their challenges and to be inspired by their successes. We’ll also explore the personal and public resources that support their process.
Today’s 3rd (and longest) of the 4 posts is based on interviews with Teresa Grace (nee Broadwell) and Helena Kaufman in January of 2012. It covers:
Life as Teresa Grace knew it radically changed when she enlisted in the Army. She chose this path not long after graduating high school in Lewisville, Texas, instead of the modern-dance scholarship offered her to the University of North Texas.
Those natural creative inclinations, however, now help Grace balance out the Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) resulting from her deployments to Iraq. With the 194th Military Police Company, she had moved back and forth between peacekeeping and combat. She was one of 34 women of the 171 soldiers functioning with infantry-like capabilities and also performing policing and stability operations. Perhaps her being a woman in proximity to other women warriors ultimately also helped balance the effects of PTS for Grace.
She had sent the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star with V for Valor she earned that were pinned on her by Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, home to her mother in Dallas, “for her to hang on to until I get back,” said Grace, then Pvt. Teresa Broadwell. Read more in Part 1
Accompanying her home, invisibly, would be what the Mayo Clinic defines as, “post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.” In Grace’s case, and many other armed forces personnel, who do not become dysfunctional in aspects of their life due to the trauma, or who find successful treatment solutions we can drop the “D.”
“PTS affected my mom and dad, and my brother with me just being in a danger zone doing what I was deployed to do,” said Grace. “Who knew her baby girl would end up in Iraq. They worried while I was away and when I came back.”
- According to the Mayo Clinic’s definitions, the process for Grace included some of the most common symptoms of PTS:
- Intrusive memories such as flashbacks
- Nightmares and reliving traumatic events for minutes or even days at a time
- Avoidance and numbing such as not thinking or talking about the traumatic event and even avoiding activities once experienced as pleasurable
- For some veterans it might also include difficulties with memory, concentration or maintaining close relationships
- Increased anxiety or emotional arousal (hyperarousal) may show itself as anger, irritability and overwhelming guilt or shame.
Grace recalls not being able to sleep or relax for two days after her intense and first experience of combat. She couldn’t eat. “All I could do was sit back and cry,” she said. She still has dreams about the firefight in Karbala. In her case, she is not plagued by freezing into inaction, rather, taking the action she was trained to take and to save other soldiers’ lives.
“That was something I never thought I would have to do. I never thought I would have to take somebody’s life, but I had to. It was kind of a shock. I wish there was something we could have done differently, but there wasn’t,” Grace said.
At the conclusion of her first tour of duty, might have been credited with youthful resilience. It likely helped that, between deployments, she met and married her husband, Army Sgt. Jake Grace, and had a good shot at stability and the normalcy that supports recovery from high stress.
Her second return from duty, however, came suddenly due to medical urgency. She began her transition home, alone.
Once in the U.S. for surgery to repair two holes in her heart and to recover from an aneurysm, she had the support of her family and the medical team. Other medical issues arose and added to the emotional and psychological stress. Then came news of her first child on its way.
“Recovery from surgery took quite a while. I still have times when some activity with my kids, or even normal movement or weather changes will remind me, sharply, of the wires in my chest,” Grace said.
Grace traded scanning rooftops and alleyways and the constant camaraderie of a military family for marriage and monitoring her now three children under the age of six, at play. “I can’t deal with loud noises which is hard when you are living on a military base. I have flashbacks. It’s more like a fear or memory and I still have nightmares, nine years later.”
“I’m grateful the Army strengthened me as a person, but some of my experiences have ruined special holidays for me. The 4th of July and New Year’s eve, when others are enjoying fireworks, I’m having anxiety and flashbacks.”
Grace recalled an experience at a football game, while she was pregnant with her second child. Fireworks were featured, unexpectedly. Tears flowed from her uncontrollably and she started to shake. Visibly flushed and frightened, she only calmed down when miles away, after her husband had whisked her away immediately in their vehicle.
Whistles may remind veterans of bullets whizzing by their faces. Explosions and things backfiring link them instantly to a time when someone died.
Advice from the heart
The advice Grace has to offer others who experience PTS which may come and go as they struggle to reintegrate comes from her own experience.
“Get therapy. Don’t be ashamed to speak to a counselor,” said the former soldier. “Your pain may be a hidden wound that people don’t see or understand. Every battalion has a chaplain in case you are too embarrassed to speak to your chain of command. Your fears may hinder you on the job, like being too scared to get back in your truck.
“A chaplain walked me over to the clinic at our medical field unit when I was injured, and soon to find out I needed lifesaving heart surgery. Until then I resisted acknowledging weakness and pain. “The people in our lives need to realize that as soldiers we’ve seen bodies on fire at the side of the road. We’ve lost friends and had bullets come incredibly close to us.
“Talk to someone who will listen.
Learn ways to deal with it.
Find something to relieve the stress, even if it seems like a minor activity. Something small and simple may reduce your stress. I tried scrap booking till I needed more as a creative and artistic outlet for me.”
Grace pursued her creativity and created new community around projects she did with friends and interests she built up in crafts and in baking.
Loss comes to America’s living rooms
Life continues to have its challenges. “There are no filters on the TV news,” Grace said. “Opinions are everywhere. People don’t support the war. If you weren’t there you don’t know that it’s hard to do the work. People don’t understand.”
Some of those who understood, brothers and sisters in arms, weren’t lucky enough to come back. Grace attended the funeral of Jon Rape, a fellow Texan and a civilian contractor killed in Afghanistan in 2009. He worked as a driver when she was a gunner, but he was as close as a brother. He died in an explosion the day before he was set to come home to his daughter’s second birthday. The funeral was at Fort Campbell, Ky. and the mates who “ran together” now “cried together” and helped each other.
Another battle buddy who often visited in Grace’s living room was former Army Spc. Tim Guffey. He later committed suicide in 2006. His commanding officer, Capt. Nate Brookshire wrote the opening chapters of his book “Hidden Wounds: A Soldier’s Burden,” co-authored with Capt. Marius Tecoanta on PTS and its aftermath on soldiers and their families. This was one of the stories that inspired the book.
“No one saw it coming,” said Grace. “He (Guffey) was fun, funny and full of life. The circle of friends continues to maintain the bonds of a family and to support each other.”
The future hinges on active life now.
“I’m a veteran of four and a half years of active duty Army service,” Grace said. “We’ll probably only fully adapt to being real civilians when my husband retires.” For now, life living on base offers benefits of healthcare and travel as a family to help while they raise their children. She speaks admiringly of her husband as a great leader who cares for his soldiers.
Grace’s military knowledge also smoothes the way at home.
“Jake loves that his wife has prior service experience and understands all the initials, the language and doesn’t have to stop to explain all the details of his work when he’s at home,” she said. It’s harder for the young military wives who have less life experience. The longer the time as a military spouse, the better because you can adjust, Grace added.
Grace makes sure that the strategies that help her work for her husband too. “People need to find their own thing that helps them deal with stress and the rest of us then have to let them do it. I make cakes. Jake likes to play football and he plays semi-pro games. It’s good to have an outlet like that and to do it over time.” Grace took classes and experimented with techniques. Photos of the new found passion for baking breads, muffins cookies and decorating cakes are delectably offered up with fun on Teresa’s Facebook page
Look for the most recent installment coming soon, as Grace updates us on life at home and on base a year later and reflects on advice she has for military members preparing to transition to civilian life.