The war came home with Chief Petty Officer Randy Sprague, but it lay buried deep in his psyche, releasing its damaging effects more than 30 years after his two combat tours in Vietnam.
His wife Debbie remembers it like a dark cloud that came over their fairytale marriage. He was suddenly prone to angry outbursts, showed aggression toward her and others and was depressed.
The man she had fallen in love with transformed into a cold, indifferent stranger. No one knew what was wrong with him and when Debbie reached out to different therapists for help, the advice she got was to leave him.
Debbie didn’t leave. She had made a vow to love her husband in sickness and in health and she wanted to honor that promise. Besides, she was already intimately familiar with caregiving.
She had cared for her ten-year-old son during his losing battle with an inoperable brain stem tumor a decade earlier, and her late mother-in-law as she fell to cancer during the same period Randy’s symptoms escalated.
She also tends to her aging parents. Instead, Debbie followed her instincts and sought medical attention, and in 2004 Randy was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and health complications from exposure to Agent Orange.
Although the diagnosis started them on a path to recovery, the public’s awareness of PTSD was minimal; faces stared back at her blankly when she talked about it and she bore the brunt of hurtful responses such as, ‘It’s a good excuse for bad behavior.’ No one understood what she and her family were experiencing.
Years passed during which Debbie cared for her husband’s invisible wounds without others knowing of the toll it was taking on either of them.
In 2006, Debbie was also diagnosed with PTSD. Yet by dedicating herself to learning about the disorder she was able to help her family and friends better understand it and ways in which they can offer support.
Prayer has also been a source of comfort, giving Debbie the strength and ability to move forward.
Inspired by the responses she got in trying to teach others about PTSD, Debbie authored a book, “A Stranger in My Bed,” that helps military spouses who care for veterans with PTSD.
She also volunteered with Family of a Vet, participating in their Caregiver Support group on Facebook and hosting their Blog Talk Radio “Life after Combat” Caregiver Edition. Debbie currently facilitates a monthly support group for spouses of veterans suffering from PTSD.
As a Dole Caregiver Fellow, Debbie offers all she has experienced and learned to help other caregivers have a better life.
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