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PTSD's 'secondary' victims: the children of veterans

Research shows that when a combat veteran with PTSD returns home, it can have consequences on a child's personality

TOWSON, Md. Mark Trepanier spends likes to spend time with the chickens he keeps in the back yard.

“It’s a barometer for my stress levels,” he said. They’re relaxing.”

Trepanier, a former military intelligence analyst, once made six figures working for a defense contractor, but he can no longer hold down a job. His life now revolves around completing simple tasks at his home in suburban Baltimore.

“He needs a task list to remember to feed the dogs, to take care of the pets, to take the trash out,” his wife Gayle said.

Trepanier was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in the first Gulf War, in Bosnia and in North Africa. When he came home in 2007, he was different as a husband and a father, his wife said.

“He was very depressed,” she said. “He was very angry at times. He had flashbacks where he thought he was somewhere else when we were in the front yard.”

Fourteen-year-old Genna, the oldest of the Trepaniers’ four children, remembers how her father used to be – and how he changed after his service.

“We would always play games and stuff, and so he didn't do that as much,” she said. “And he seemed more separated at times. And he'd get like really emotional.”

Gayle Trepanier said their kids have been on an emotional roller coaster, each responding differently to dad’s condition.

“Kendrick, for example, will act out at school to the point where they thought he had ADHD, but it's emotional distress that was causing his outbursts and just unable to relax,” she said.

Like the Trepaniers, there are an estimated 4 million military-connected children in the United States. With the longest wars in American history winding down, these kids have been affected by war like no previous generation, especially in families where the veteran has PTSD. The entire Trepanier family is in counseling trying to learn how to deal with a very different dad.

The Veterans Administration reported that 21 percent of post-9/11 troops who sought help at the VA from 2004 to 2009 had PTSD, 2 percent had traumatic brain injury and 5 percent had both. Now that these veterans at home, their lives – and the lives of their families – are forever changed as young children face the stress of living with someone who, in many ways, is a new and sometimes unpredictable parent.

Some call this secondary PTSD.

A ‘contagious disease’

“The children have this expectation, this vision of ‘Oh, daddy’s coming home. This is going to be great,’ and they have these memories, perhaps if they’re older, of the fun they used to have with daddy,” said psychologist Bob Motta. “But the person coming back is a somber, negative, machine-like being. That shock of your expectation compared to what comes back is really tough to take.”

Motta was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War, serving in the 1st Calvary Division, often working in helicopters as a door gunner or helping deliver medical supplies. When he came home, he decided to study how PTSD affected the families of Vietnam vets.

“The original medical conceptualization of PTSD is that it is a disorder of an individual but what research has consistently shown is that’s not true,” he said. “It’s a disorder that spreads to others particularly those who have close and extended contact to the person just like the flu would. It’s a contagious disease.”

That disease that can spread not only to a caring spouse, but to children as well. Motta calls this secondary trauma.

Multiple studies in different countries have shown that kids are affected by having a parent who is a combat veteran with PTSD. For example, a 2008 Bosnia and Herzegovina study on kids of veterans with PTSD found that the father’s PTSD may have "long-term and long-lasting consequences on the child’s personality."

Usually, children are spontaneously happy and enjoy playing and having a good time, but traumatized children show radically different behavior.

“They’re somber. They’re moody. They’re withdrawn. They’re irritable. If they were functioning OK in school, their grades have now fallen off,” Motta said. “They can’t focus. Their memory is very poor. And it’s because they’re so absorbed with the problems of their parent that they can’t really focus well in school.”

"He was near a bomb … like 3 feet or 2, and the sound wave messed with his brain a little bit. He doesn’t remember that much words. He doesn’t remember how to spell that much. But he’s working very hard to learn all of those again. I’m proud of my dad for working on – even though it’s really hard."

Laney Vines, 8

daughter of veteran Caleb Vines, who has PTSD

Families helping each other

Caleb and Brannan Vines

Caleb Vines did two tours in Iraq, the second in Ramadi where firefights were a daily occurrence. After he returned home to his wife, Brannan, and infant daughter, Laney, their family life started going downhill pretty quickly.

“I was angry more times than I like to admit, saying stuff I would not like to admit,” he said.

Vines has PTSD and a traumatic brain injury after more than two dozen close calls with improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

Frustrated by the lack of Veterans Administrations support for families, Brannan Vines founded the nonprofit Family of a Vet in 2007, hoping that families could at least help each other.

She thought it would be a modest website, but the network of volunteers now reaches 48 states and five countries, filling what she calls a crucial void.

“For the most part, the VA is largely ignoring our children,” she said.

Many of those kids, including her own daughter Laney, exhibit child-sized versions of PTSD, Brannan Vines said. The 8-year-old worries a lot about her family’s safety.

“I’m pretty much a detective to my family,” Laney said. “I want to make sure they’re OK. I want to make sure that nothing happens.”

Many kids take on the idea of needing to protect the people around them, her mother said. It’s the same kind of hyper vigilance – always scanning for potential threats – Brannan Vines sees in her husband.

The Vines haven’t told their daughter much of what her dad went through in Iraq, but she does know how he behaves.

Brannan Vines has a name for what her daughter is experiencing. She calls this “secondary PTSD” – PTSD from PTSD. But you won’t find secondary PTSD – or secondary trauma – in any manual.

“I think it would help because it would allow justification for treating these families,” Motta said. “Right now the medical community and the VA could say, ‘Well, it’s not a real disorder. It’s not really a problem. So why should we treat this thing that’s not a problem?’”

Brannan Vines says it is a problem, something she and others like Gayle Trepanier face every day.

“I’m doing my best, the best I can… to communicate that to the children that dad’s emotions that he’s dealing with has nothing to do with who they are,” she said. “Dad loves you. He cares for you, but when dad’s in that state, it’s because he’s struggling with deep hurts.”

Brannan Vines believes her daughter is experiencing “secondary PTSD,” when exposure to someone with PTSD can bring on stress and trauma of its own.
America Tonight

His daughter Genna was 8 when he father returned home from war. She thought his anger meant that he was angry with her.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to understand that it wasn’t,” she said. “I want him to get better, not have like all these medications and emotional and mental problems.”

Her sister Mari, who’s now 8, is also learning to cope with dad’s condition.

“The other day Mari came up to me and she’s like, ‘I know dad’s angry, but I know it’s just the PTSD,’ her mother said. “You know, for an 8-year-old to have that awareness…”

That kind of awareness seems to have fostered a level of empathy in the children of PTSD vets like Laney Vines, also 8.

“He was near a bomb … like 3 feet or 2, and the sound wave messed with his brain a little bit,” she said. “He doesn’t remember that much words. He doesn’t remember how to spell that much. But he’s working very hard to learn all of those again. I’m proud of my dad for working on – even though it’s really hard.”

Her dad Caleb Vines had been an engineering student, getting As and Bs in college, but on 9/11, he decided to enlist in the Army. Now, he’s unable to hold down a job.

One symptom of his PTSD is that he does not like crowds. Vines tries to find ways he can bond with his daughter through quieter activities like fishing. We asked Laney what she tells her friends when her father doesn’t come to events like school plays.

“‘He’s at home. He’s hurting right now,’ and sometimes I’m kind of sad but I try to think of other things that makes me happy even though he couldn’t come,” she said.

With editing by Dave Gustafson

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