How PTSD Hurts Families: ‘My Dad Never Really Came Back From the War’

The daughter of a veteran speaks for the often-forgotten victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome in the milltary: kids.

A new book chronicles the impact of parents' PTSD on children. (Photo: HCI)

Mar 22, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California.

Christal Presley knew something was wrong with her father; she just didn't know what. He was moody and withdrawn. He was unable to work and would sometimes refuse to leave the family's house in rural Virginia. Loud noises would ignite his temper.

"My dad vacillated between depression and rage," she recalls. "He was hypersensitive when it came to sounds or lights, particularly sounds. I was pretty clumsy as a child, like a lot of children, and I would occasionally drop or spill things. Hearing any sound like that would make him go into war mode. He would drop on the floor, or he would come after me."

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At some point, Presley decided she was the problem. She was not good enough, or not lovable.

In fact, it took years of therapy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for Presley to understand the festering wound in her childhood home. Her father, a Vietnam War vet, had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The effects on children of parents with PTSD are revealed in Presley's new book, Thirty Days With My Father: Finding Peace From Wartime PTSD. While Presley is now 34 and her father's illness dates back to a distant war, the issue of PTSD has never been more prominent. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, almost 14 percent of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from the illness.

Today the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as many private organizations, have launched programs to lead people to recovery. However, Presley worries that spouses and children may be the forgotten victims. "I don't think the general public realizes what PTSD can do to families," she says. "Families aren't talking about it. And when you look up all the resources for veterans, there is almost nothing for children and spouses comparatively."

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Without education and counseling, children can easily blame themselves for their parents' lives, Presley says. "I wasn't allowed to talk about my feelings or what was even happening to my family unit," she says. "It was a secret. I began to cut myself. I wanted to release the pain. My dad was hurting so much and I wanted to hurt like him."

After moving away from home for college, Presley got counseling. Finally, after establishing a successful life for herself—but still estranged from her father—she reached out to him. She asked her father if he would talk to her each day for 30 straight days about his experience in Vietnam and how the war affected him. "I had healed a lot and understood about my father's condition," she says. "But there were pieces of my childhood I didn't understand. I felt I was mature enough to hear my father's story."

To her surprise, her father opened up about his experience. "At the end we felt we had heard each other's stories," says Presley, who works as a teacher. "There was a lot of healing and growth that took place. I realized my parents did the best they could with what they had. They had no resources back then. They were kids. I was able to see my dad as a kid who went to a country he had never heard of, to fight in a war he didn't understand. And he never really came back from that."

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Since telling her story, Presley says she has been inundated with calls from spouses of military members with PTSD who are worried about themselves and their children. While PTSD is better understood today, and certainly talked about more openly, children are still largely in the dark about the condition and may be unprotected from its effects on families.

Presley recalls having lunch recently with a spouse of a serviceman with PTSD. The woman brought along her nine-year-old daughter, who listened to the women's conversation about the illness. Toward the end of the meal the child asked: "Miss Christal, my mommy says your dad was in a war too."

"I said, 'Yes, he was in Vietnam,' " Presley recalls. "She looked up again and said, 'Miss Christal, did your daddy yell when he came back? Because my daddy yells at me, and I hide in my room.'

"I kept thinking to myself," says Presley, "this problem is still happening."

What do you think can be done to support the families of service members afflicted with PTSD?