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Healing on the homefront

War has left a lot of marriages wounded. It's time to stop the bleeding and start your recovery

Feb. 28, 2012 - 12:24PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 28, 2012 - 12:24PM  |  
Marine Master Sgt. James Aurilio and his wife, Toni, fought for their marriage through three deployments.
Marine Master Sgt. James Aurilio and his wife, Toni, fought for their marriage through three deployments. (Sara Davidson/Staff)
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5 tips to get started

The experts gave us their best advice for how to stop the fighting and start the healing:
• Time out: Press pause when things get heated or, better yet, when you see they’re about to get bad. Go for a walk or do whatever you need to do to cool down. Train up for this by practicing a few times during normal conversations.
• Know your enemy: Stop thinking of your spouse as the enemy bad guy (or girl). The fights can make that hard, but if you can change your mindset and see the problems — not the partner — as the enemy bad guy, you’ll be a lot closer to turning things around.
• Write letters: Whether at home or deployed or at home, consider setting aside the immediacy of email and instant messaging IM’ing and pour your heart out in a letter. There’s just something about putting pen to actual paper.
• Code words: If you’re having problems with crowds or spiking irritability, work out secret code words or a special signal with your spouse to clue her or him when you’re out with friends that so you’ll both know it’s time to bug out.
• Find new ways to connect: Sex can be a big problem with troops coming back from combat. Until you can resolve that problem, It doesn’t mean it will be forever, but in the meantime find new ways to be close and intimate without sex. That can mean different things for different couples. For some, just cuddling without all the pressure to perform, can be all it takes to move things back in the right direction.

The fight came as it often did, like a sudden ambush. Marine Master Sgt. James Aurilio could usually feel the tension hanging in the air.

"It's like the combat never ended," thought the rock-hard Marine, known among his men to be as tough as the tanks they took into battle. But with every deployment, the fighting back home got worse. There was a brand-new honeymoon with each homecoming, then the bullets started to fly. Back from yet another tour downrange, Aurilio found that his wife, the mother of their two kids, somehow had become the enemy.

Or maybe he had.

He knew his drinking — and his raging anger — were getting out of control. The bodies of dead Marines were burned into his brain, their deaths replayed with the same vicious intensity in every nightmare.

Toni Aurilio hit her breaking point. It was early November 2006, and like so many firefights, it was over almost as soon as it started. But this time it was different. Just shy of their eighth anniversary, she was leaving. The kids were in the back seat.

Part of James felt like screaming for a corpsman. Part of him was so numb, he could hardly feel the pain. All he knew was that he wanted to save their family.

But how do you give first aid when it's your marriage that's wounded?

Unseen wounds

Like so many battlefield casualty counts, the statistics are grim.

While civilian divorce rates have been falling, military divorces are up 42 percent since 2001.

If troops got a Purple Heart for every broken heart, those who have gone through a divorce during the past decade of war would eclipse those with physical wounds by 5-to-1. It would take more than 255,000 white grave markers to account for every military couple divorced since 9/11.

And while medics, battlefield surgeons and physical therapists are helping troops survive even after the most horrific battlefield injuries, the wounds to military marriages are proving deeper than ever.

But there is hope. Couples who are willing to fight are surviving, say those in the trenches.

And the road to recovery often follows the same path as the wounded on the battlefield:

First aid: Just like you'd rely on your buddy in combat to take quick action if you were hit, couples who have made it through the valley of death together say that road began with a willingness to try something — anything — to stop the bleeding.

Dust-off: For the serious injuries, you've got to yell for that marriage medic — whether it's a chaplain, therapist, doctor or whoever — who can bring in life-saving support.

Long-term rehab: Recovering from a combat injury doesn't end in the ER. It takes months or years of hard work. But like any physical therapist will tell you, the exercises are going to make you stronger than you ever thought possible.

James Aurilio knew he and his wife needed to do something before it was too late.

When his wife left him, "I felt like I was failing a major mission," he says. But like any good war fighter, that's when he dug in his heels and refused to give up.

‘We've been hit'

"Every medic knows the first thing you have to do is assess the patient," says Dr. Chrys Parker. The same applies to a wounded marriage. She should know: As an emergency medical tech-turned-divorce lawyer, she's seen plenty of bloodied bodies and battered marriages. Now a civilian hospital chaplain and counselor who works extensively with troops and their families and even volunteered to serve downrange, she's seen the carnage continue on both fronts.

"In wars past, people did not really get care until they were removed from the battlefield," she says. These days, however, with every war fighter trained to be a life saver, casualties are surviving wounds once thought fatal.

"We need to be doing the same thing with marriages," she says.

That begins with figuring out how to do some basic triage.

So, first thing: Get your head together. Take an honest look at where the injuries are and tell the patient — you and your spouse — everything is going to be OK. Just like on the battlefield, you may not actually believe it, but if there's going to be any hope, you have to prevent shock and get to work on stopping that bleeding.

"The couple must be allowed to place some issues on the shelf until the major issues are dealt with. Little victories over time will ensure the battle is won," says Col. Mike Dugal, one of the Army's top chaplains. "The biggest challenge is getting the couple to refrain from employing disruptive and destructive coping skills — alcohol, drugs, pornography, Internet gaming, adultery, etc. — to relieve the tension or pain."

It's OK if it feels overwhelming. When the bullets are flying, everyone is tempted to run and hide. Partners in one out of every three successful marriages have seriously considered divorce at least once, according to studies on couples who've stuck it out for the long haul. The good news: Almost all of those who committed to the hard work of reviving their marriage found ways to breathe new life into the relationship that made it better than ever.

"Even if the relationship dies, that doesn't mean your life is going to be any better. It wasn't necessarily the marriage that was to blame for what's wrong," says former Army psychiatrist Dr. Harry Croft, who has been treating veterans since the waning days of Vietnam and co-wrote PTSD recovery handbook "I Always Sit with My Back to the Wall" with Parker.

Triage is all about figuring out what needs the quickest attention. Removing yourself and children from physical or severe emotional abuse should always be at the top of any checklist.

From there, "probably the most important thing you can do early on is protect what commitment there is to save the marriage," says Dr. Scott M. Stanley, author of "Fighting for Your Marriage."

That means no sniping or any of those other ways couples take pot shots at each other. "You have to start working on communication, otherwise nothing else will matter and your marriage will bleed out," says Stanley, who works with the military to help train couples and has led a long-term study on military marriages.

One thing he's learned from that study is that "time alone won't fix it. If you have a major physical injury, you probably have a team of doctors looking over you from the first surgery through the long process of rehabilitation."

For marriages suffering from serious wounds, he says, the sooner they call for dust-off, the better.

Calling for dust-off

By the time Toni packed up the kids and moved in with a friend, she and James had already seen two therapists. Married Dec. 31, 1998, there were fireworks from the very beginning.

In their mid-20s, both felt far from ready for marriage, but an unexpected pregnancy accelerated things. "Within a space of four months, I was married, had my first mortgage, and my terminally ill mother was living with us until she died just before our daughter was born," James says.

The stress and struggle just got worse from there. After his first deployment to Iraq, Toni noticed a real change in James.

"His anger could go from zero to 100 in a second. And I didn't know how to give him what he needed," she says. They found a counselor, "but he was quite possibly the worst therapist in the whole world. I think he really hurt more than helped," she says.

That's not uncommon, says Stanley.

"I often tell couples — whether they're working with a chaplain, social worker, psychologist, whoever — that you have to find someone who is a good fit for you. Sometimes it's a matter of competence; sometimes it's just not the right match."

Often particular problems call for particular specialists. You don't want a foot doctor when you've got a broken arm.

"Let's say there's infidelity," Stanley says. "The key there is to ask the therapist up front: ‘Do you have real experience and training in dealing with this?' Ask about their philosophy and treatment strategy."

Even among chaplains, some are better trained to provide counseling than others. The Army's Family Life chaplains, for example, usually have specialized backgrounds designed to help troubled marriages.

You may not even need to see a counselor, at least right away. Parker, the hospital chaplain, says she's convinced that those wrestling with post-traumatic stress, for example, often can find significant help just seeing a general physician.

Problems sleeping, high blood pressure, malaise and other symptoms of PTSD all can be treated individually, often just with tweaks to diet and exercise.

"If you change what's going on in the body, you can ease the symptoms often within just a few days," Parker says. "This kind of approach to ‘battlefield surgery' properly done can probably deal with at least 75 percent of the cases of I've treated, eliminating 50 percent of their symptoms. When you feel better in your body, you feel better in your relationships. The good effects will domino into the other."

A man's man

For the Aurilios, it was the third therapist "who literally saved our marriage," Toni says. "She's worked her magic on us," adds James. "She was amazing."

Over the course of about six months, the couple met with her at least once a week. One of the first things she had them do was write and sign a simple contract that they would not threaten divorce unless certain criteria had been met.

"We had been using that as a weapon, and that completely diffused it," Toni says. "I needed that assurance. A Post-it note with his signature on it really did it for me. I still have it in my wallet."

Toni gives her husband a lot of the credit, too.

"He didn't go into it half-assed. He's a man's man who was willing to fight for his marriage. I don't know what's more manly than that," she gushes now.

Friends and family

While friends and family will naturally rush to the bedside of any wounded warrior, think through who you're bringing into your inner circle when dealing with marriage issues.

"You're making the decision on which way you want things to go — whether you know or not — by who you choose to talk to," Stanley says. "If you choose to talk to your sister who always told you you shouldn't marry this person, you're pretty well guaranteeing to push your outcome a certain direction."

Instead, find ways to surround yourself with other strong couples, whether it's through a church, a dance class, hang gliding, whatever.

"The other half to that — and it's much harder to get people to actually do it — is to have dedicated time every week where you talk about the stuff. How we are doing on the alcohol, the kids, checkbook, whatever the hot-button issues are," Stanley says. "I've known couples where it's literally saved the marriage."

Long-term rehab

For a while, the Aurilios had checkups with their therapist about once a month — checkups both agree were key. "We usually couldn't wait to go see her. We needed the maintenance part — that was our rehab," Toni says. "But eventually you have to put your big-boy and big-girl pants on and start doing things on your own."

It's an important part of making a marriage strong again — or maybe strong for the first time, experts say.

These days, things are much better. The drinking and anger are under control, and James and Toni are the soul mates, spouses and parents they always wanted to be.

When James deployed for another combat tour in 2009, they were both worried it could set everything back, or worse. It wasn't easy, but this time they were better equipped to communicate from the heart, even with the distance.

"It was much easier for me knowing that I didn't have any issues back home," James says. "I was much more comfortable in my own skin."

When he returned, he says "it was a little rocky at first, but nowhere near as bad as it had been. It was night and day, really."

But they keep working at it.

"We still look at each other in a quiet moment and ask, ‘Are you happy? Am I doing the kind of things I need to be doing as a husband or wife?'" Toni says. "That's an amazing tool. Once you go through hell, who doesn't want to be that person? There have been times, for sure, where I was expecting him to say, ‘Everything's great,' and he's said, ‘Well, actually, these things have been bothering me.' I didn't want to hear it, but I needed to.

"Honestly it would have been a million times easier to say, ‘Forget it, we're done.' But then you don't get the reward. Like training for that first marathon — crossing the finish line is indescribable. It makes all the hours of hard work on the road worth it."

For those reluctant to seek help, James says there's no excuse. There's no shame in calling for help on the battlefield, and there shouldn't be any on the homefront, either.

"It was hard," he says. "But if you can face battle-hardened Taliban or al-Qaida, that's hard as well. You owe it to yourself and your family to at least try."

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