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‘You think you’re the only one’: Documentary amplifies voices of military spouses facing PTSD

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During filming of a new documentary titled “I Married the War,” Director of Photography Bill Krumm captures military wife Laura Daniero Nickel for an interview with Lucien Nickel. (Ken Rodgers)

‘I Married the War,’ a new film produced and directed by Idahoans about the wives of combat veterans, will make its Idaho premiere May 4

After the success of their first documentary film “Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor” in 2011, Betty and Ken Rodgers felt in their bones there were more stories to tell.

Their project got men who hadn’t shared their Vietnam War stories in decades — or, in some cases, ever — to open up their experiences. It helped people who didn’t live through the war know what that conflict was really like. And it helped Vietnam veterans connect with perhaps the only people who truly knew what they had gone through – each other.

Perhaps most importantly, for some veterans, it allowed them and their families to start to heal from their trauma.

But there were others who deserved to have their voices heard, their stories told, Betty said.

What about people like her, the wife of a Vietnam veteran? What about their experience healing their marriage from Ken’s post-traumatic stress, caused by his combat experience as a U.S. Marine trapped in one of the worst sieges in American wartime history – the siege of Khe Sanh in Vietnam? What about the wives of these veterans from every American war who come home battered physically and mentally and need care and understanding?

“We just felt that we really needed to talk to this group of spouses, which has been silent forever – all throughout history,” Betty said. “We thought we need to get as much history involved as we can.”

So advocates of what would become Betty and Ken’s second documentary, “I Married the War,” used their networks starting in December 2015 to find spouses of veterans from all walks of life, ages, conflicts and experiences to talk about what they’ve been through. All told, 11 women were interviewed to share their experiences of how war has affected them, their husbands and their families.

For a suggested donation of $1-$12, residents of the Treasure Valley can catch the Idaho premiere of “I Married the War,” directed by Betty Rodgers, at 6 p.m. May 4 at the Riverside Hotel, 2900 W. Chinden Blvd. in Garden City. Four of the wives – Carman Hinson, Sally Jackson, Laura Nickle and Terri Topmiller – will be in attendance.

About 18 service and family-resource organizations that specialize in veterans issues will also be available to connect veterans and their spouses with the help they need.

Women speak out about their husband’s combat experiences and how it shaped their families

Make no mistake, none of this project was easy, said the film’s executive producer, Norma Jaeger.

“The courage and the willingness and overcoming fears … to talk about your trauma, your husband’s trauma, can feel very disloyal, can feel very accusatory, can feel shameful,” Jaeger said. “You’ve hidden a lot of it, within the family. So breaking some of those stigma barriers is so huge.”

Jaeger should know. She’s dedicated most of her life to veterans issues, including helping establish Veterans Treatment Court throughout Idaho. The courts — which are now available in all of Idaho’s judicial districts except the First District in North Idaho — rely on the framework of other problem-solving courts. Local teams, including the defendant, prosecutor, judge and other attorneys and advocates hold regular meetings and hearings to ensure veterans get the intensive treatment they need and probation supervision to get them back into society.

Much of the healing that can take place when veterans face mental health issues depends on knowing that they have a support system and the safety to express themselves, Jaeger said.

Spouses of military veterans, she said, deserve the same respect. Just like the men interviewed for the “Bravo!” film, many of these women had never spoken openly about their stories, their fears, their hardship, Betty and Jaeger said.

That’s why the goal of the film is to show women they are not alone when supporting their husbands who come home from war with symptoms of post-traumatic stress, which can include irritability, angry outbursts, trouble sleeping or concentrating, overwhelming guilt or shame, always feeling like you must be on high alert, or self-destructive behavior like drug and alcohol dependence.

“I definitely didn’t want the film to be accusatory or embarrassing,” Betty said. “But when you’re the spouse of these combat veterans, they have these manifestations of post-traumatic stress and from traumatic brain injuries. They call them invisible wounds. You think you are the only one, and you don’t realize there are millions of people out there with the same experience.”

Betty said while husbands of combat veterans also deserve our support, she made the conscious decision to select women to tell their stories for the film because it mirrored her own experience so closely.

Her husband Ken had moments of rage, flashbacks and a lack of understanding of what was causing his symptoms. They were at a veteran reunion about 15 or so years ago – decades after his combat missions – when another veteran urged them to learn more about what post-traumatic stress is and what it can do to veterans’ relationships.

“And that was probably the first seed for this film to let people know: This is what war does to people,” Betty said. “They’re not weird, they’re not usual, they’re not weak.”

Betty and Jaeger said they have two ultimate goals for the film: to make sure it appears on public television and premier events throughout the U.S. (it’ll be broadcast on Idaho Public Television at a future date) and to start a conversation for couples who are dealing with post-traumatic stress about how to find counseling or support to heal.

“Even just talking about everything in their interviews has helped the wives heal because there’s so much power in telling your own story,” Betty said.

The film was made possible with funding from the Idaho Division of Veterans Services, the Dougherty Family Foundation and the Idaho Humanities Council.

To learn more about the documentary and how you can financially support the work, go to imarriedthewar.com.