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SPECIAL COVERAGE: Living With Wildfires: San Diego Firestorm 10 Years Later

Families of Iraq Veterans Struggle to Remain Together

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This segment originally aired Octover 2, 2006.

Soldiers’ homecomings usually conjure up romantic images of warm embraces with their spouses and children. But often, the reunions don’t live up to expectations. Combat and viewing first-hand death and the horrific injuries that come with war can scar soldiers. Meanwhile, their spouses are left at home having to earn a living, raise children and live with the fear of possible widowhood. So it’s little surprise that when couples reunite, the adjustment is tough. As a result, divorce rates among Iraq war veterans are spiraling. Reporter Amita Sharma spoke recently with one couple who say they’re on the brink of divorce.

Fran Garcia says the day her husband Mark returned from his second tour of duty in Iraq, he locked himself in the family study. 

Fran Garcia: After four hours, I started to yell and scream and cry. I was so angry, so angry. I just wanted to leave. I waited for 8 1/2 months for him to get back and he was just cold. I didn't deserve it. I didn't do anything. I sent him care packages like every two weeks and tried so hard to show support. 

Circumstances haven’t improved much since that day nine months ago. Fran says Mark is good with their two children but remains distant from her. He says he can’t help it. Mark explains there’s a place in his mind he goes to each night before he sleeps and thinks about his time in Iraq. 

Mark Garcia: And I just feel like you kind of learn how to put yourself in a box, I mean it's not very intimate. My kids … I can hug them and squeeze them but with my wife, I don't know how to be intimate anymore. It's like I don't even like to be touched, or held on to or counted on, you know. 

The trouble Mark and Fran are having in reconnecting as a couple is not unusual among Iraqi war veterans. The long periods away that soldiers spend from their spouses can damage even the strongest of relationships. 

Candice Seti, psychologist: There are a lot of stresses that come simply from deployment. 

Candice Seti is a psychologist who counsels military families in San Diego. She says the pressures on couples start with deployment. 

Candice Seti: It's a big adjustment for the wife who is left at home to take on all the responsibilities of a household. It's a big adjustment for the children, often times, who are very young and having to deal with an absent parent for a long period of time. It can be very difficult. 

It’s tough also for the spouse who’s in combat. 

Candice Seti: The military servicemen; what they're experiencing overseas is very complex and can be very traumatic and it affects them and changes them. 

Mark worked as a Navy corpsman with the medics in Iraq. He was first on the scene when civilians and soldiers were injured or killed in firefights and terrorist attacks. But it’s the story of an 18-month-old Iraqi girl that stuck with him. The girl was so thirsty that when she stumbled upon a container of petroleum one day, she drank it. Her father rushed her to the emergency military tent where Mark was stationed. 

Mark Garcia: I just stayed up with her all night. I kept bathing her. She smelled like diesel or something real bad. 

Mark says the doctors told him the girl wouldn’t make it through the night and urged him to move on but he didn’t. 

Mark Garcia: I just held her and I just felt like … my little boy, he was around the same age, and it was kind of hard. I don't know, I just related to that little kid pretty good. That's the one thing. Blood, guts, give me anything. But don't give me little kids. 

The girl did survive and that anecdote is the only story Mark has shared with his wife Fran about Iraq. She says he won’t talk to her about their problems or the epilepsy she was recently diagnosed with. 

Fran Garcia: I've had a hard, hard time trying to get on the right medication because I'm still having seizures. It's not like it's easy. He won't talk to me about me having epilepsy at all and I don't know anyone that's dealing with what I'm dealing with. 

Fran says she views herself as a strong person, but the words Mark does utter to her are taking a toll on her psyche. 

Fran Garcia: I know it’s thrown me off on confidence. You know, he says stuff about my weight. And he tells me that after 10 years of marriage, you know, it gets a little old, and I don't deserve that. 

Mark Garcia: I'm short with her. It's true we fight about the same thing over and over and over. 

Mark says he’s finding it hard to juggle all of his responsibilities. 

Mark Garcia: We get up at 5 a.m. I get home at 4:30, 5 p.m. I have to have a second job just to pay the mortgage. My kids are at school until 6 p.m. On the weekdays, we only spend like two or three hours together. We're growing apart. I feel like we're doing well on paper but emotionally, my family ... I don't think we're doing so hot. 

Mark and Fran say they mull over whether they should get a divorce, a step that many Iraqi war veterans have taken according to psychologist Candace Seti.  

Candice Seti: Forty to 50 percent of the families that we work with are divorcing or already divorced, so it's pretty significant and as compared to our nonmilitary families, it's significantly higher. 

Seti says part of the reason is few military families seek counseling. Even if the wives and children come, the actual veterans refuse to seek therapy. 

Candice Seti: Honestly, I think because there's still a really big stigma associated with it, particularly for the military. I think military personnel are very hesitant to admit they need that kind of help.

In fact, she estimates that only between 12 to 20 percent seek therapy. Seti says it would be better if psychological help were mandatory for returning Iraqi war veterans. For those who do want assistance, they can access counseling both within the military and from civilian programs. Seti says the key to helping couples regain their footing is recognizing that the time spent apart has changed both husband and wife. 

Candice Seti: A lot of it is really about gaining an understanding of both perspectives. Both people in that relationship have experienced two totally different things for that period of time. They come back and expect things to be totally the same and both people are completely different, but neither one of them has a clear understanding of what the other has experienced or why the other is different. A lot of it is about providing the avenues to express that and to empathize with the other person and then also to gain a clear understanding of that person's needs. 

Mark and Fran say they’re willing to go to counseling, but between jobs and their children, finding the time for it is tough. But so is irrevocably changing their childrens’ lives and their own through a divorce.    

Fran and Mark Garcia say they don’t want to divorce. They continue to live together while they work on their problems.

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