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Brain Injuries Challenge Veterans’ Marriages

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Aired 9/23/09

There are no official statistics on how many marriages break up after veterans return home from the Iraq war ... changed. But when a vet returns with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Traumatic Brain Injury, it can put a marriage to the test. The VA Medical Center in La Jolla estimates almost 30 percent of veterans they enroll are diagnosed with PTSD, and 8 percent have TBI.

Kenneth Kunce, an Iraq war veteran who is living out of the back of his truck in San Diego and still trying to get a foothold on life, almost two years after being discharged. He has been diagnosed with TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury).
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Above: Kenneth Kunce, an Iraq war veteran who is living out of the back of his truck in San Diego and still trying to get a foothold on life, almost two years after being discharged. He has been diagnosed with TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury).

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Video unavailable. Read transcript below.

Above: KPBS Reporter Alison St John, who produced the series War Comes Home, talks about special challenges faced by military families in San Diego.

There are no official statistics on how many marriages break up after veterans return home from the Iraq war changed. But when a vet returns with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Traumatic Brain Injury, it can put a marriage to the test. The VA Medical Center in La Jolla estimates almost 30 percent of veterans they enroll are diagnosed with PTSD, and 8 percent have TBI.

In the next part of our series “War Comes Home,” we meet Kenneth Kunce, a veteran of the Iraq war. His is not an unusual story.

Kennth Kunce is 26 years old. He has a smooth, almost boyish face with a couple of silver studs in his lower lip. Sitting on the tailgate of his truck in a local strip mall, he shows me his tattoos. The fingers of one hand spell the word “Love.” “Hate” is displayed across the other. Spidery designs spread from his wrists up his arms and disappear under the sleeves of his t-shirt.

“It’s all going to be coming to a war on my chest,” he explains. “Like, it’s the demons and angels fighting on my chest.”

Kunce is struggling with inner demons. It’s been a long road since he was discharged after six years in the Navy and nine months as a border guard with the army in Iraq. He hasn’t found his footing in civilian life yet.

“I’m still having a hard time.” he says. “I’ve been back for a year-and-a-half and I’m still living in my car.”

The back of Kunce’s car is filled with clothes. Everything is immaculately clean, folded and sorted into piles. A collection of baseball caps is nested neatly one inside the other.

“I’m still military-oriented,” he says, as I marvel at his sense of order. “I still fold my stuff boot-camp style.”

Kunce says he was a good sailor and border guard. But his military career came to an end one day in Iraq during Ramadan, when the Humvee he was riding in was hit by an IED.

“My friend got blown up right next to me,” he says, and pauses. “I got blown into the front end of the Humvee.”

The explosion changed Kunce’s life. He was discharged with a personality disorder.

“I get angry really quick now,” he explains. “Angrier than I ever got before, because I don’t think with logic any more. I have a lot of memory problems. I forget names. I wasn’t ever good with names, but I don’t even remember your name, and you’ve told it at least four times now. I forget my birthday, my kids’ birthdays, I can’t remember my doctor’s appointments. It’s difficult for me.”

Kunce has been diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injury. He also has symptoms of PTSD. Unexpected traffic noises set off feelings of panic, big crowds make him unbearably anxious. After he came home from Iraq everything fell apart.

“It’s like a domino effect.” he says. “I lost everything, I came back, I pushed everybody out of my life, I started using drugs and alcohol to self medicate, and little by little I lost my condo, I lost my wife, I lost my kids, I lost my truck and I was homeless in Santee.”

Kunce’s marriage was an early casualty. He’s one of an unknown number of veterans whose marriages have not survived after they returned home for good.

“I came back, I lived with her,” Kunce says. “But I just locked myself indoors for months on end. When I got back from Iraq I was a completely different person. I would get drunk; I would start thinking Iraqis were storming my house.”

Counselors at the Veterans Center say the families that succeed after a husband or wife returns from combat are the ones that can open up and talk about what happened to them. Some families become stronger after the separation.

The V.A. has no statistics of how many veterans get divorced after they are discharged. They don’t have to keep track. Spousal benefits end once a vet leaves active duty.

Kunce worries about his children. He has two boys, both under five. He says he feels like they are all he has left, and he visits them whenever he can. His ex-wife is on welfare now. Kunce has been told he could get Veterans Disability benefits, but he’s still waiting for a check. He’s begun trying to make payments from his state disability pay of about $1,200 a month to help her with the kids.

“I’m trying to be there for my kids because for the year-and-a-half, I really wasn’t there. When I came back from Iraq, I pushed everything out of my life and I wasn’t there for my kids at all, so I’m trying to be there as much as I can be now.”

He’ll take them to Jack in the Box once in a while for a burger, but, he confides, sometimes he’s afraid of being ambushed in the parking lot. He hopes to land a job soon, but he has a hard time even remembering to keep appointments, and he’s worried about his own temper.

Kunce has come home from the war, but the tattoos running up his arms reveal the battle inside has not ended.

Related

These Days: How Does Stress Of War Affect Military Families?

These Days: War Comes Home: Repeated Deployments

Marines Offer Help To Families Left Behind

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