Mental Illness, Alcohol Abuse More Prevalent Among Military Wives

Family & Relationships
First Lt. Douglas "Jolly" Foss, 95th Fighter Squadron F-22 Raptor pilot, hugs his fiancée, Abby, Feb. 13, 2016, at the Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., flightline.
U.S. Air Force photo by Sr. Airman Sergio A. Gamboa.

On Oct. 11, Jennifer Johnson tried to kill herself.

Addicted to cocaine and prescription opiates, still grieving from the death of her Army husband in Afghanistan five years ago, the New York woman believed she had reached bottom.

After the attempt, she decided to seek therapy, something she had avoided because she never wanted “to burden people.”

“It really was a pride thing,” said Johnson, 30, who has stayed sober since getting the professional help.

Johnson spoke to The San Diego Union-Tribune on Wednesday because she wanted to spare other military spouses from what happened to her — dabbling in drugs that led to addiction, being tortured by feelings of isolation and avoiding assistance for years due to the stigma of mental illness.

A groundbreaking study released on the same day showed that Johnson is far from alone in her experiences.  

The report from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that military wives are more likely than their civilian peers to abuse prescription medications meant to treat anxiety, attention deficit disorder and other psychological problems.

They’re also more likely than other married women to suffer from mental illness, consume liquor and binge drink, according to the analysis.

Related: Why More Military Spouses Need To Share Their Stories »

The relatively younger population of military wives partly explains the high levels of drinking, but the higher rates of mental illness might stem from the unusual hardships these women face — long periods of separation from husbands on deployment and the constant fear of those loved ones becoming injured or dying.

Meanwhile, the study indicated that military wives are less likely to use marijuana and just as likely to use illicit drugs overall.

“Our job as the statisticians is to collect the information and pass it on to the prevention and treatment specialists, who can take a look at see if it marries up with their expectations and how we should respond to this information,” said Rachel Lipari, a military sociologist who was the report’s lead author.

Over the decades, there has been limited research on substance abuse and mental health issues among military spouses.

Lipari and her colleagues tried to fill some of this information gap by adding targeted questions to the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health. It was the first time the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration decided to do so.

Cpl. Mason Morgante, a scout observer with the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force - Crisis Response - Central Command 16.2, hugs his girlfriend before departing Camp Pendleton April 14, 2016.U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Angel Serna.

The researchers estimated that more than 29% of the nation’s 910,000 military wives ages 18 to 49 suffered mental illness within the past year and that about 23% received treatment for their problems.

Nearly 20% of women married to civilians suffered from mental illness last year and 17% got help for it, the survey indicated.

The findings suggest that Johnson and other military wives are twice as likely as other married women to fall through the treatment net, but researchers cautioned that they need to collect more data to properly measure the difference.

“That’s something we look forward to understanding better in future years,” Lipari said.

Johnson spoke of what she saw as breakdowns in the military’s outreach to the wives of deployed husbands based at Fort Drum in New York, most of whom lived outside of the base. She described the risk of these spouses getting overwhelmed by holding down jobs, raising children and worrying about their loved ones serving abroad.

“They really didn’t help me that much at all,” Johnson said.

“How I feel is that if you’re a military family and you actually physically live on post, you get more help than if you live off post. I have a lot of friends and I’d go to their houses on post and [the military] would have so much going on every day for my friends who are wives,” she added. “They had so much that the Army provided them with and I’m like, ‘I’m a military wife, too. Why am I not getting help like this?’”

Pfc. John “Corey” Johnson died from wounds suffered after a 2011 Taliban attack in Kandahar Province. The infantryman was 28 years old and left behind two children.

To his widow, the report’s findings about military wives should be a wake-up call for that community, alerting its members that help is available — that they don’t need to bear anxieties, household burdens and other stresses alone.

“Make sure that you seek counseling because it’s very crucial,” Johnson said. “If I could go back in time, I would’ve gotten into counseling immediately. And I should have and I didn’t because I thought I could do everything myself. Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t let your pride get in the way of getting help, of going and talking to somebody.”

The study’s authors didn’t delve into substance abuse and mental health challenges among the nation’s estimated 242,000 military husbands because that pool of survey respondents was too small to properly analyze.

And when they examined the estimated 524,000 military children between ages 12 and 17, they found no meaningful differences between those kids’ rates of drug use and mental illness compared with peers from civilian families.

The survey showed that last year, about 20% of military children used illicit drugs and 11% smoked marijuana. Nearly 18% received mental health treatment during that period.


© 2016 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo illustration by Paul Szoldra

Navy Lt. Jonny Kim went viral last week when NASA announced that he and 10 other candidates (including six other service members) became the newest members of the agency's hallowed astronaut corps. A decorated Navy SEAL and graduate of Harvard Medical School, Kim in particular seems to have a penchant for achieving people's childhood dreams.

However, Kim shared with Task & Purpose that his motivation for living life the way he has stems not so much from starry-eyed ambition, but from the pain and loss he suffered both on the battlefields of Iraq and from childhood instability while growing up in Los Angeles. Kim tells his story in the following Q&A, which was lightly edited for length and clarity:

Read More

Todd Robinson's upcoming Vietnam War drama, The Last Full Measure, is a story of two battles: One takes place during an ambush in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, while the other unfolds more than three decades later as the survivors fight to see one pararescueman's valor posthumously recognized.

On April 11, 1966, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger (played by Jeremy Irvine) responded to a call to evacuate casualties belonging to a company with the Army's 1st Infantry Division near Cam My during a deadly ambush, the result of a search and destroy mission dubbed Operation Abilene.

In the ensuing battle, the unit suffered more than 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached. Despite the dangers on the ground, Pitsenbarger refused to leave the soldiers trapped in the jungle and waved off the medevac chopper, choosing to fight, and ultimately die, alongside men he'd never met before that day.

Decades later, those men fought to see Pitsenbarger's Air Force Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On Dec. 8, 2000, they won, when Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the nation's highest decoration for valor.

The Last Full Measure painstakingly chronicles that long desperate struggle, and the details of the battle are told in flashbacks by the soldiers who survived the ambush, played by a star-studded cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and William Hurt.

After Operation Abilene, some of the men involved moved on with their lives, or tried to, and the film touches on the many ways they struggled with their grief, trauma, and in the case of some, feelings of guilt. For the characters in The Last Full Measure, seeing Pitsenbarger awarded the Medal of Honor might be the one decent thing they pull out of that war, remarks Jackson's character, Lt. Billy Takoda, one of the soldier's whose life Pitsenbarger saved.

There are a lot of threads to follow in The Last Full Measure, individual strands of a larger story that feel misplaced, redacted, or cut short — at times, violently. But this is not a criticism, quite the opposite in fact. This tangled web is part of the larger narrative at play as Scott Huffman, a fictitious modern-day Pentagon bureaucrat played by Sebastian Stan, tries to piece together what actually happened that fateful day so many years ago.

At the start, Huffman — the person who ultimately becomes Pitsenbarger's champion in Washington — wants nothing to do with the airman's story, the medal, or the Vietnam veterans who want to see his sacrifice recognized. For Huffman, it's a burdensome assignment, just one more box to check before he can move on to brighter and better career prospects.

The skepticism of Pentagon bureaucracy and Washington political operators is on full display throughout the movie. When Takoda first meets Huffman, the Army vet grills the overdressed and out-of-his-depth government flack about his intentions, calls him an FNG (fucking new guy) and tosses Huffman's recorder into the nearby river where he's fishing with his grandkids.

Sebastian Stan stars as Scott Huffman alongside Samuel Jackson as Billy Takoda in "The Last Full Measure."(IMDB)

As Huffman spends more time with the grunts who fought alongside Pitsenbarger, and the Air Force PJs who flew with him that day, he, and the audience, come to see their campaign, and their frustration over the lack of progress, in a different light.

In one of the movie's later moments, The Last Full Measure offers an explanation for why Pitsenbarger's award languished for so long. The theory? Pitsenbarger's Medal of Honor citation was downgraded to a service cross, not because his actions didn't meet the standard associated with the nation's highest award for valor, but because his rank didn't.

"The conjecture among the Mud Soldiers and Bien Hoa Eagles is that Pitsenbarger was passed over because he was enlisted," Robinson, who wrote and directed The Last Full Measure, told Task & Purpose.

"As for the events in the film, Pitsenbarger's upgrade was clearly ignored for decades and items had been lost — whether that was deliberate is up for discussion but we feel we captured the spirit of the issues at hand either way," he said. "Some of these questions are simply impossible to answer with 100% certainty as no one really knows."

The cynicism in The Last Full Measure is overt, but to be entirely honest, it feels warranted. While watching the film, I couldn't help but think back to recent stories of battlefield bravery, like that of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who ran into a burning Bradley three times in Iraq to pull out his wounded men — a feat of heroism that cost him his life, and inspired an ongoing campaign to see Cashe awarded the Medal of Honor.

There's no shortage of op-eds by current and former service members who see the military's awards process as slow and cumbersome at best, and biased or broken at worst, and it's refreshing to see that criticism reflected in a major war movie. And sure, like plenty of military dramas, The Last Full Measure has some sappy moments, but on the whole, it's a damn good film.

The Last Full Measure hits theaters on Jan. 24.

Protesters and militia fighters gather to condemn air strikes on bases belonging to Hashd al-Shaabi (paramilitary forces), outside the main gate of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq December 31, 2019. (Reuters/Thaier al-Sudani)

With ISIS trying to reorganize itself into an insurgency, most attacks on U.S. and allied forces in Iraq are being carried out by Shiite militias, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, the deputy commander for operations and intelligence for U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria.

"In the time that I have been in Iraq, we've taken a couple of casualties from ISIS fighting on the ground, but most of the attacks have come from those Shia militia groups, who are launching rockets at our bases and frankly just trying to kill someone to make a point," Grynkewich said Wednesday at an event hosted by the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

Read More
U.S. Army Soldiers, assigned to the East Africa Response Force (EARF), 101st Airborne Division, board a C-130J Super Hercules, assigned to the 75th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, on January 5, 2020. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Daniel Hernandez)

The Defense Department has remained relatively tight-lipped regarding the brazen Jan. 5 raid on a military base at Manda Bay, Kenya, but a new report from the New York Times provides a riveting account filled with new details about how the hours-long gunfight played out.

Read More

Roughly a dozen U.S. troops showing concussion-related symptoms are being medically evacuated from Al-Asad Air Base in Iraq to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, a defense official told Task & Purpose on Tuesday.

Read More