Editor’s note: The names of soldiers and Marines in this article have been changed to protect their privacy.

John Moore was flying home recently from California to Chicago. Next to him sat a 22-year-old Marine traveling to visit his family before being deployed to the Iraqi town of Ramadi. When the Marine learned that Moore was a counselor who worked with military personnel, he began sharing his feelings.

“He talked about his fears,” Moore said. “He had just got engaged, and he was worried about leaving his wife behind and about who would take care of his mother — his dad had just died.”

Moore, an American Counseling Association member, is accustomed to helping people with these kinds of concerns. Through both his private practice and the online classes about relationships he teaches for American Military University, U.S. troops tell him about family troubles and emotional wounds that have festered while serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and other danger zones.

The soldiers share stories about snipers, land mines and car bombs. They also tell Moore how they’re afraid their spouses are cheating on them or how they’re riddled with guilt because of their own infidelity. They tell him about wanting to come out of the closet or about their pregnant girlfriend or about not knowing their own children after being gone for 15 months. They tell him about their anxiety, anger, helplessness, depression and financial fears.

When the approximately 300,000 U.S. service members deployed overseas finally head home, Moore worries, they won’t be ready for the emotional reality of their homecoming — and America won’t be equipped to support them. “If they don’t have a safe conduit to talk about it, it’s like a time bomb,” said Moore, who is 35.

Moore attempts to defuse that emotional explosiveness through his classes: “Addictions and Addictive Behaviors,” “Stress and Health” and “Interpersonal Communications,” better known to students as “Love 101.” He launched the eight-week-long Love 101 in 2002 to let soldiers, who try to prove how tough they are in combat, reveal vulnerabilities they would never share with their own units.

“The whole culture of the military is that you don’t talk about feelings or emotions,” said Moore, the author of Confusing Love With Obsession. “For people who feel alone, this is a conduit for them to communicate intimate things. By the second or third week, students start to share their feelings. By the end, it’s a crescendo of emotion.”

Battlefield stress

With a crew cut jutting across his forehead, piercing dark eyes and the wiry yet muscular build of a man who works out regularly, Moore looks ready to go into battle himself. In addition to teaching for American Military University, Moore is the chief counseling officer at Clear Counseling and a case manager at Alexian Brothers Bonaventure House in Chicago.

Every day Moore sifts through numerous e-mails, assignments and discussion board postings from students based in Iraq, Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Germany and the United States.

“Trying to remain faithful to my wife has been very difficult,” writes Rob, a 24-year-old Army private from Kentucky who was shipped to Iraq for a year one month after getting married. “About four months after being deployed, I found myself having an affair with a woman who was recently divorced. I feel so much guilt about cheating on my wife, but a man has needs, and it is not easy being alone for all this time.”

Marital strains such as Rob’s only add to the danger of military life. A 2002 Department of Defense survey found that military personnel with high levels of stress are twice as likely to get sick or injured. “You can’t fight an enemy effectively if you’re worried your wife is sleeping with someone or if your kid is sick,” Moore said.

For instance Greg, an Army private from Chicago, was driving a truck in July 2003 near Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit when a roadside bomb exploded, destroying his right arm. Greg confided to Moore that he wasn’t thinking about safety before the bomb exploded. Instead, his mind was in turmoil: His wife had just told him she was unhappy with their relationship, and he had just learned his time in Iraq was being extended by 60 days.

This kind of emotional burden becomes even heavier when soldiers can’t talk about their relationships, Moore said. Once every couple of months, he said, one or two students divulge to the class that they are gay but are afraid to tell anyone in their units because they risk getting discharged.

“Being gay in the Navy is extremely hard,” David, a 24-year-old sailor from Florida, wrote for Moore’s class. “Combine that with having a partner for four years who you can’t contact while on deployment and you have a recipe for severe depression. I can’t even talk to the chaplain about the problem because I fear he will turn me in and I will get kicked out of the service.”

The trauma for gay military personnel only increases if they are injured and can’t reveal that the friend who is visiting them is really their partner. “They can’t share their support system,” Moore said. Private counselors play an important role for gay soldiers who fear, rightly or wrongly, that they will be outed if they instead tell a military or Department of Veterans Affairs counselor, Moore said.

A long way from home

Whether gay or straight, troops in the class talk the most about their distance from loved ones, Moore said. “If they’re used to hearing from their wife every other day, but now it’s once a month, it sends them out of their minds,” he said. “The Marines will tell me that it hurts more being away from their wife and kids than being shot at.”

Holidays such as Valentine’s Day can be especially difficult for soldiers overseas. “It’s just another reminder to them of what’s been lost,” Moore said. “It’s rough when it’s been their second or third Valentine’s away from home.”

The length of the Iraq deployments, which the Pentagon says can last for a year, makes staying in touch with children especially difficult. About half the students in Moore’s classes are parents, and they’re upset that they’ve missed their children’s birthdays, holidays and other milestones.

Moore knows all about the disruptions military life can bring. His father was in the Navy and served in Vietnam, and he had uncles in the Navy and Marines. Moore said his parents’ marriage collapsed as they bounced from Chicago to Texas to Florida. After they divorced, his mother moved to Chicago Heights and the family went on welfare. “I know what it’s like to stand in a soup line for food and get my Christmas gifts from the Salvation Army,” he said.

Shelley MacDermid, co-director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University, said that although all wars disrupt the lives of military families, the anxiety level during the Iraq war has increased as it drags on and deployments are repeatedly extended. “Desert Storm was quite a bit different because it was shorter and more of an air war,” she said. “From this war we have people coming back who have been on the ground in very ambiguous and risky situations for a long time.”

Every week Moore hears about this risk and bloodshed. “I get private e-mails from students who say their (class) assignments are going to be late because they just shot someone,” Moore said. “If you’ve just killed people or lost a limb, it’s impossible not to bring that into your relationships.”

The result can be severe mental health problems. A July 1, 2004, article in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that up to 17 percent of 1,709 soldiers surveyed as they were returning from Iraq suffered from major depression, generalized anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder.

PTSD doesn’t only happen when you are attacked yourself, Moore said. “You can get PTSD from watching a buddy or a civilian get hurt or even hearing constant stories of violent experiences,” he said. “It’s compounded by being separated from family and loved ones.”
In extreme cases, the depression and PTSD lead to domestic violence. A 2000 study in the journal Military Medicine found that long deployments raise the likelihood of severe aggression against spouses. The danger of this aggression became tragically clear in the summer of 2002 when four soldiers — including three just back from Afghanistan — allegedly killed their wives at the Army base in Fort Bragg, N.C.

Although such severe cases are rare, many of the hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops who are based abroad will need social services or psychiatric help, Moore said. But a report last year by a Veterans Affairs task force found that the availability of quality VA care for suicidal or depressed veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is “haphazard and spotty.”

To improve care, the Department of Defense has started a “one-stop” program allowing military families with problems to go to a single place for help, said ACA Executive Director Richard Yep. According to a July 2005 article by Donna Miles of the American Forces Press Service, instead of going to different places to get medical care, counseling, financial assistance and deployment information, military families can now go to one of more than 400 family assistance centers around the country to obtain this help. “The federal government is finally realizing that more needs to be done for military families,” Yep said. “I’m pleasantly surprised that they’re trying to address these issues.”

But even if counseling is available, there’s no guarantee that troops will take advantage of it. “There are still a lot of military people who think that if you went to see a mental health professional, you’re not going to get promoted,” Yep said. “I think trying to overcome that stigma is an important thing. They have to realize that, like a cold, if you’re not feeling well, it’s good to get help.”

On the way home

Preparing to come home from a war zone sometimes only increases stress for military personnel. The troops returning home don’t know what they’re coming back to, and they might not be coming back in the same shape as when they left — either physically or mentally. “You leave and you’re a strong, strapping breadwinner for the family,” Yep said, “and you come back and you can’t do any of that stuff.”

Some soldiers turn to Moore’s class to share that stress. They tell him that as they get ready to return home, they often grow nervous about the changes they might face. If their marriages were troubled even before they left, their apprehension only increases. When they do finally walk in the door, some returning soldiers feel they can’t match the images that others have created of them. “You have to live up to expectations that your spouse has built you up to be — a hero — but in reality you’re tired and angry and possibly depressed,” Moore said.
A burst of sexual activity when couples reunite can relieve some of that tension, but after the initial excitement, depression often starts to sap their love live, Moore said. “Students say it’s difficult being home,” he said. “The adjustment is harder than they thought, because they’re no longer on a sense of mission.”

Even when the relationships last, the partners sometimes are as drained emotionally as the soldiers. “It’s almost more difficult for the spouse because they’ve had to live through constant anxiety and fear about the deployed person,” MacDermid said. “But if your relationship was strong when you left, you have a good basis to be strong when you get back.”

Moore hopes his classes help keep these relationships strong. “The good thing is that love is no longer a four-letter word for these soldiers,” he said. “They can talk about it now.”

Moore also hopes the counseling community will be ready to welcome his students home and then to help them heal their emotional wounds. “They are heroes for having to put up with this. Not just for getting shot at and risking their lives, but also for leaving their families,” he said. “They just want to come home.”

Until they come home, Moore said, he will keep counseling the troops as they serve abroad. For instance, he kept in touch with the young Marine who had sat next to him on the plane before being sent to Iraq. They traded e-mails until suddenly the messages stopped. Finally, Moore received a note from one of the Marine’s buddies. His friend, the note said, had died in combat.