Secondary Trauma and Permission to Speak

Featured in Ms. Magazine: Secondary Trauma and Permission to Speak

Written by Emily Sernaker, this piece was originally published on Ms. Magazine’s online blog on November 11th (Veteran’s Day), 2016. Many, many thanks to Emily for sharing our story with such enthusiasm and skill. 

“This is the first time I’ve told my story in public,” Sarah Dale, a 30-year-old military wife says to a Veterans Voices meeting in Washington D.C. She’s pretty in a patterned dress, fashionable boots and nice makeup. But her warm and steady voice has a slight tremor today. Her husband, John, a former Staff Sargent who spoke at the last Veterans Voices meeting, came early to help her set up the projector. He rubbed her shoulder before taking his seat. “You’ll be great,” he said.

Slide by slide, Sarah Dale spends the next 45 minutes telling a room full of strangers about her battle with vicarious trauma. How her marriage fell apart when John returned from Iraq with PTSD, which led to her secondary pain, and how with all the fighting and drinking and depression they both almost killed themselves. But making art saved her and their marriage. That’s what she says to the veterans – that learning how to tell one’s story, as she’s doing today, could save their lives too.

“I’m a veteran and the spouse of a veteran so your presentation is really hitting me from both sides tonight,” a woman in her 40s says, standing to address the room. It’s a modest crowd – a few dozen fold-out chairs, with some sandwiches on the side and pamphlets by the door. Most of the veterans here are from Iraq and Afghanistan, though sometimes Vietnam makes a showing. “In the military, it can be really hard to talk about trauma. If you complain, people say: Well, at least you have your legs.” An affirmative murmur went around the room. Nearly everyone nodded, including John.

It’s no secret that PTSD has been fatal for thousands of young veterans. In 2014, Veterans made up 18 percent of all U.S. suicides even though they were only 8.5 percent of the country’s population. More soldiers have died from suicide in the states than in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. For veterans and their families experiencing trauma, access points for resources have been through awareness campaigns and support groups. In both categories, Sarah and John have become leaders – something they’d never expected, given their turbulent story. “We’re lucky to be alive,” says Sarah.

Read the rest of our story on Ms. Magazine’s blog.

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