PHOTO CAPTION: Fifteen-month-old Zoeigh Haskell greets her daddy, then-Tech. Sgt. James Haskell, at Royal Air Force Station Mildenhall, England, upon his return from deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2006. Haskell was an aerial gunner at the time and now suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. His wife, Melissa, and two daughters, Zoeigh, now 8, and Leslie, 4, have been a source of strength through his recovery. (Photo by Melissa Haskell)
April 19, 2013
By Staff Sgt. Carolyn Herrick
HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. - Broken by battle
Wounded by war
My love is forever
To you this I swore
I will quiet your silent screams
Help heal your shattered soul
Until once again my love
You are whole*
For every service member affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, there's a family affected along with them.
For James Haskell, a master sergeant at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., that family is his wife, Melissa, and his two daughters, Zoeigh and Leslie, ages 8 and 4.
Haskell was diagnosed with PTSD in October 2012, almost five years after he started noticing symptoms of the disorder and 11 years after the event which began what would be a long series of deployments and stress: Sept. 11, 2001. He was an aerial gunner when the Twin Towers were attacked, and deployed more than 20 times before he then cross trained and moved to Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. It wasn't until he slowed down that things started go sideways.
"He was different, and I wasn't sure if it was because of the missions he was flying and the job he was doing, or because he wasn't gone [so much]," said Melissa, a military "brat" herself and Ft. Walton Beach, Fla., native, who met Haskell in 1992. They'd been friends for years, and married in 2003.
The first change she noticed was that he was snappy.
"I felt like Zoeigh and I were walking on eggshells," she said. "The littlest thing she would do would upset him. He never got violent or angry, to where I felt unsafe or I felt my kids were unsafe; it was more like, 'What's going on with you? Why are you so impatient and irritable?' His tone of voice would change, and it got progressively worse."
He began alienating himself from her and the girls, according to Melissa - not intentionally, but she noticed that he'd be sitting on the couch, just staring off into space, and they weren't connecting the way they had before. He was jumpy, forgetful and losing sleep.
"He was there physically, but he wasn't there," she said.
All the combat trauma Haskell had experienced during almost two decades in Air Force Special Operations Command had emotionally consumed him, but neither of them had identified that as a cause for his extreme mood swings and stress. Around that time, Zoeigh was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder as well. Father and daughter were constantly butting heads and setting each other off, and it was causing a distinct rift between the previously-close duo.
By then, Haskell had moved to Holloman AFB and was staying in a friend's recreational vehicle until his family could join him here. Melissa and the girls would drive down to visit him, but the cramped quarters, uncertainty and separation were weighing on all of them heavily.
During one of the girls' visits, he had an "episode" that set Zoeigh off, and it was more than Melissa could handle. She threw her hands in the air and cursed, finally at her breaking point.
"I can't take this anymore!" she told him.
Then she realized: he was falling apart, their 8-year-old was falling apart, and now she was falling apart.
"You know something is wrong when, out of a family of four, the 3-year-old is the only one who's not falling apart," Melissa said with a wry laugh.
Haskell went to see a Military and Family Life Consultant, who helped him with some stress management techniques, but after another difficult family vacation he decided to go to the mental health office here and get some more intense counseling. It was as a result of that decision that he was diagnosed with PTSD. For them, it was a relief.
"We went through four years not knowing why," she said. "He'd come home and feel like he wasn't a good enough father or husband. We didn't know what was going on or why our relationship and our intimacy in conversation and being able to sit next to each other were drifting. Now we know why. We've been able to do a lot of the things we did in the past, but we do them differently."
But Melissa found that most of the people around them just didn't understand.
"People would say to him, 'You look fine," or, 'well you were just diagnosed' - they didn't understand that just because he was just diagnosed doesn't mean it wasn't going on prior to that," she said.
As tough as it is to explain it to adults, explaining it to their children is even more difficult.
"It's easier to explain to our oldest because she has some of those same feelings with her anxiety disorder," said Melissa, who has put her photography business on hold and devoted herself to caring for the family's needs so that her husband has the time and space that he needs to deal with his own disorder.
"But ... try explaining that to a 4-year old, and ..." her voice trailed off, as she shed a few silent tears.
Even though the Haskell family at least has some answers to the "why" questions, understanding the issue doesn't mean it's instantly solved or never manifests, she said.
"Sometimes, we'll be out in public and there'll be a loud noise or too many people around, and he'll go into 'combat mode,'" said Melissa. "We can still go out for dinner or something, but if I see something that is a trigger for him, I'll end it and say it's time to go."
She tries never to draw attention or place blame on him, no matter what, but she admitted she will never be able to fully understand or feel what he's feeling. Haskell says her support is what holds the family together.
"She's the rock for the family," he said. "Most of the time I can take care of myself, but when I have those bad days she's there. I can lean on her, I can trust her, and I have complete faith that no matter what happens she will always be there. Knowing that tells me that I will make it through the good times as well as the bad times. She's my strength when I need it."
Melissa isn't the only spouse who's put her own interests on hold to help deal with her husband's PTSD. Jamie Fleming, a good friend of theirs whose husband, Glenn Fleming, was a gunner with Haskell and now stars in the Discovery Channel show "Sons of Guns," put her life on hold and became Glenn's "personal secretary" when he started to get treatment for his PTSD. She was there for every appointment, kept track of his medications, kept notes, and provided information for his medical discharge board. She also kept the family routine going so that he could concentrate on getting better.
"Glenn's diagnosis was the easy part," said Jamie. "Adjusting to the reality that this was going to be an ongoing thing for the rest of our lives was difficult. His condition would be manageable but never cured."
Although she played an active role, she said, she let him take the lead because the issue was about him. Seven years later, she has some advice for other spouses going through similar struggles.
"Get your own therapist," she recommended. "I can't tell you how important it was to have a professional tell me I am not crazy or a bad person for wanting to smack my husband when he was being a complete jerk. Your therapist will help you get through this and teach you how to adjust."
She also talked about allowing yourself to go through stages of grief.
"You have basically 'lost' your spouse," said Jamie. "He or she is not the same and never will be again. Grieve for that, so you can began to know them as they are now and fall in love with that person. Yes, it is hard. Yes, you will debate if you can do this or not. Yes, you will have to make one of the hardest decisions: to stay [married] or leave. But don't let them get away with behavior that was unacceptable prior to the diagnosis. Hold them accountable or you will resent them and have a lot of regret. You are important too."
Lastly, she said, "Remember to laugh and love often."
Knowing was half the battle for both Melissa and Jamie. Now, they cope by reaching out to other spouses and families, trying to raise awareness and support education. By doing so, they're able to get the help they need, and help others in the process.
Coping with the disorder has been difficult, but it hasn't devastated the Haskell family. They are determined not to let it.
"You may be broken, but you're not destroyed," said Melissa.
Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series on PTSD. Part three will focus on helping agencies the Air Force and Holloman AFB provide.