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Healing from invisible wounds: The other side of the story

Tech. Sgt. Christopher D’Angelo, right, a 490th Missile Squadron missile alert facility manager at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., poses for a photo with his wife, Chanda, son, Jace and daughter, Brittyn at their home in Great Falls, Mont., June 7, 2017. D’Angelo was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after he was injured by an improvised explosive device Jan. 15, 2008. He said his wife has been very supportive with helping him cope with his PTSD. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Chad Thompson)

Tech. Sgt. Christopher D’Angelo, right, a 490th Missile Squadron missile alert facility manager at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., poses for a photo with his wife, Chanda, son, Jace and daughter, Brittyn at their home in Great Falls, Mont., June 7, 2017. D’Angelo was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after he was injured by an improvised explosive device Jan. 15, 2008. He said his wife has been very supportive with helping him cope with his PTSD. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Chad Thompson)

Staff Sgt. Christopher D’Angelo, an 819th RED HORSE Squadron heavy equipment operator, was injured by an improvised explosive device Jan. 15, 2008. To help combat D’Angelo’s emotional and physical struggles, he began competing in wounded service member events. (Courtesy photo)

Staff Sgt. Christopher D’Angelo, an 819th RED HORSE Squadron heavy equipment operator, was injured by an improvised explosive device Jan. 15, 2008. To help combat D’Angelo’s emotional and physical struggles, he began competing in wounded service member events. (Courtesy photo)

A Humvee is damaged and covered in burn marks after an improvised explosive device was detonated, also injuring then-Senior Airman Christopher D’Angelo, an 819th RED HORSE Squadron heavy equipment operator, Janu. 15, 2008. (Courtesy photo)

A Humvee is damaged and covered in burn marks after an improvised explosive device was detonated, also injuring then-Senior Airman Christopher D’Angelo, an 819th RED HORSE Squadron heavy equipment operator, Janu. 15, 2008. (Courtesy photo)

This pencil illustration is an attempt to visualize PTSD.  Those who suffer from this disorder are constantly trying to regain some sense of the normalcy they had before events that caused pieces of themselves to go missing. (U.S. Air Force Illustration/Master Sgt. William Vance)

This pencil illustration is an attempt to visualize PTSD. Those who suffer from this disorder are constantly trying to regain some sense of the normalcy they had before events that caused pieces of themselves to go missing. (U.S. Air Force Illustration/Master Sgt. William Vance)

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- Chanda D’Angelo was in a frenzy; she quickly washed all the clothes in her home, zoomed the vacuum across every floor, wiped down every surface, cleaned out the refrigerator and stove and scrubbed the windows and mirrors until they were spotless. Exhausted, she had just enough time to get her hair and nails done – everything had to be perfect for her husband’s return.

The last time then-Senior Airman Chris D’Angelo, a heavy equipment operator with the 819th Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineer squadron, or RED HORSE, returned from deployment, she’d experienced the fairytale homecoming welcoming her husband back. The first time had been amazing, she recalled. There had been smiles and tears, hugs and kisses. She looked forward to experiencing that feeling again after having to live without him for another several months.

Like before, she waited at the squadron building as the hangar doors opened and busses pulled up and unloaded.

This time, her world came to a screeching halt, as the happy-go-lucky husband who’d left wasn’t the same man who returned.

“He held back and wasn’t quick to come up,” she remembered. “He did come find me and we did hug and kiss, but he was almost melancholy, reserved. He didn’t want to be intimate with me. I could tell immediately he wasn’t right. I just knew – red flags started popping up everywhere right away.”

She asked him what happened, but he didn’t want to talk about it, leaving her feeling left out and disconnected.

“I didn’t know if this was normal, if he just needed time,” Chanda recalled. “I didn’t understand the severity of what had happened to him. So, in a way I knew to suck it up and move on, we can’t let this define us. But that was me being ignorant to the fact that my husband was really hurt over there.”

Weeks turned into months with little improvement. He was distant, short-tempered with the kids, and paranoid. It was clear her husband was more comfortable at work than at home.

At her breaking point, she pleaded with him to get help. Fortunately, Chris listened. But little did she know he wasn’t ready to admit something was wrong, and lied to the medical professionals so they would let him get back with his unit.

“He went to get some help and it got a little bit better,” she said. “He wasn’t great.”

Roughly a year later, her husband deployed again. He later told her he broke down while he was away, when he found himself incapable of doing his job and putting others at risk. This time when he came back, she went with him to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Maryland.

“When I first learned about it at Walter Reed, I still didn’t understand the severity of [post-traumatic stress disorder],” she said. “In my mind, everybody kind of went through something traumatic, and [it’s] mind over matter. I know that sounds so insensitive but I remember that’s how I was feeling.”

She was able to tour the facility, learn about PTSD and other invisible wounds. The more she learned, the angrier she became. She was mad at “the bad guys,” about the war, but mostly heart- broken for her husband.

Meeting other wounded warriors, her husband began swapping stories. That’s when she first heard what he had been through.

Over the years, Chanda heard several versions, sometimes in watered-down summary, sometimes in pieces, but small bits would come out that she hadn’t heard before. She was in shock the first time she heard it, but impressed and proud of him.

“I actually did tear up; it made me love him even more,” she said with pride. “What a strong man I’m married to.”

With her story, Chanda hopes to encourage other spouses and military dependents who may be going through similar situations.

“Hang in there,” she said. “We need to be their rock, because they’ve gone through things and seen things we can’t even comprehend. Through all of this, it truly has given me the best husband -- we have the best marriage. He’s my best friend.”

In February 2016, the Air Force chartered an office focused on invisible wounds to identify and implement ways to more effectively support Airmen and their families. Leaders are currently working to integrate efforts to improve processes associated with identification, diagnosis, treatment and reintegration/transition of Airmen with invisible wounds.

“The first step to recovery from invisible wounds is to acknowledge that there is a problem and be willing to take the steps to get help,” said Maj. Gen. Kimberly Crider, the special assistant for the Invisible Wounds Initiative. “This can be the hardest step, we know. Anyone can get ready access to expert mental health professionals, chaplains, family life counselors and informed leaders at every installation to assist them in early recovery. [Counselors] at every base are a good first place to start to get help.”

As part of this initiative, the Air Force identified a number of opportunities for growth in treatment options across the total force, several of which are currently underway. These include a medical facility focused on invisible wounds, modeled as a clinical center of excellence, to better serve the unique treatment and support needs for Airmen. Also, health care providers have been embedded in some high-risk units, such as special forces, to increase awareness and accessibility of resources.

According to Michelle Padgett, the Air Force Invisible Wounds of War Policy chief, “It’s never too early to seek assistance.” She explained that the Air Force is working to educate spouses, chaplains, Airman and Family Readiness Centers and health providers to ensure that no matter where one turns, help for post-traumatic symptoms, and traumatic brain injuries is available.

Chanda and her husband have since become involved with the Wounded Warrior Program, joining others trying to heal. Her husband has since been promoted to technical sergeant and taken a special duty assignment as a nuclear facility manager at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana.

They might not have been able to heal and move on without seeking help and learning about invisible wounds.

“That’s what saved him, that’s what brought my husband back.”

For more information on getting help, visit https://www.ptsd.va.gov/

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(Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is Healing from invisible wounds.)