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War on the Homefront

Just back from Iraq, Navy SEAL Mark Waddell suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. And his wife, Marshéle, was clueless how to help.

Waves lapped the sand while fireworks lit the night sky with red, white, and blue sparkles. It was July 4, and thousands gathered at the Virginia Beach celebration to observe the patriotic holiday. Marshéle and Mark Waddell watched the rockets exploding overhead, enjoying the show.

As the display concluded with a flurry of firecrackers and sonic booms, Marshéle (pronounced mar-SHELL) glanced toward Mark to share her excitement. But Mark was gone.

When he didn't return after several moments, Marshéle began to search for him. After a few minutes combing the crowd, she found him—far from the commotion, on a dark, deserted stretch of beach.

"What are you doing?" she called.

Mark didn't answer, his stern gaze fixed on the dark water.

"Honey, what's wrong?" she pressed, starting to worry.

To her surprise, Mark's eyes filled with tears as his voice trembled, "Can we just go home?"

The exploding firecrackers had triggered confusing emotions in Mark, a Navy SEAL two months home from combat in Iraq—memories of violence and death, sorrow over friends lost, and anger at America's failure to appreciate fully their sacrifice.

Although bewildered by Mark's reaction, 20 years as a military wife had conditioned Marshéle not to probe further. From the earliest days of their courtship, a barrier had existed between Mark's sensitive, secret job and his personal life—a wall Mark had erected under encouragement from his superiors and one Marshéle respected without question. But in the days that followed that beach retreat, Marshéle began to wonder if that silence was really the best thing for their marriage.

A young love

Mark and Marshéle met in church youth group in Phoenix, Arizona, and dated as teens, parting ways after high school—Mark to join the Navy and Marshéle to attend Arizona State University. Though they still had feelings for each other and kept in touch over the next few years, their lives were moving in different directions. While Mark completed his SEAL training, Marshéle worked on a degree in journalism and became engaged to a fellow student. The separation seemed permanent.

But Mark's first official deployment in the Philippines was life-changing. As a teen, fallout from his parents' messy divorce had shaken his faith in the church. Now seeing the suffering and exploitation all around him inspired Mark to re-examine God's purpose for his life. Broken, lonely, and still in love with Marshéle, he asked God to take control. "God, if it's your will," he prayed, "please let her reconsider the love we shared."

Meanwhile, Marshéle realized her feelings for Mark were still strong—too strong to commit to another man.

Three weeks (the average mail time from the States) to the day after Mark's prayer, he received a five-page letter from Marshéle. Not only had she broken her engagement, but she asked Mark to consider rekindling their relationship.

Mark had just enough money for a brief phone call: "I miss you. I love you."

After eight months of letters, Mark returned to the States and they became engaged. Four months later, Mark and Marshéle were married.

Military secrets

Though Marshéle knew much about the character of the man she'd married, she knew little about his career. She had no idea how elite the SEAL team was or how specialized Mark's training had been. And she was completely unprepared for the impact his job would have on their life together.

One week after they returned from their honeymoon, as they sat to a cozy dinner at their small kitchen table, Mark's beeper went off. Instantly, Mark morphed from a loving husband into a soldier. His eyes turned steely and cold. Laying down his fork, he left the table without a word, strode into the hall, and hoisted himself into the attic.

"What is it? What's happening?" Marshéle asked as Mark silently handed her bags of coded military equipment.

Maybe it's a routine drill, Marshéle thought desperately. But Mark's stony expression told her this was not a dress rehearsal.

Within minutes Mark was at the front door, ready to leave.

"Where are you going? How long will you be gone?" Marshéle pleaded. Mark's only response was to remove his wedding ring, fold it into her hand, and kiss her goodbye.

For the next two weeks, Marshéle wandered aimlessly around their apartment, crying and trying to cope with the life-threatening reality of Mark's job. What am I going to do, God? she prayed constantly. I don't want to be a widow.

Mark returned safely and they tried to resume their newlywed lifestyle—never discussing where he was or what he did.

That beeper experience was only the first of countless similar incidents. Though it was years before the September 11, 2001, attacks, the country was engaged in a silent war that sent Mark on frequent deployments—many dangerous and all secretive. For an average of 8 months out of 12, Marshéle was left at home, at first alone, and later with their three children, to wait, wonder, and worry. Many times he was unable to have any contact with her or their family.

Mark's absences were a strain on the marriage. Marshéle wanted to share Mark's burdens, to understand what he was facing and offer support. But she didn't have the security clearance for Mark to reveal details, so a large portion of his life remained closed to her. It was difficult to maintain closeness under a distance that was not only geographical, but mental.

When Mark was home, the couple worked to minimize the impact his absences had on their marriage and family. They created rules to protect their relationship, such as for three days after Mark returned from a deployment, he'd behave as a guest, allowing Marshéle to handle household issues until he had time to reconnect with her and the kids.

In addition, with death a constant possibility (Mark lost 19 of his co-workers in the first decade of their marriage), Mark and Marshéle determined not to allow small arguments to come between them. They learned to live in the moment, quick to forgive and move on from the kind of petty disagreements they saw come between their married friends.

And they swore they'd never speak the word divorce—never threaten, never even discuss it. It just wasn't an option.

Crumbling walls

For 20 years those safeguards helped Marshéle and Mark cope with the stresses of his job. Since his military training made sharing details with Marshéle taboo, Mark honed his ability to keep his work life separate from his home life, becoming expert at compartmentalizing. When he walked through the door, he shed the Navy SEAL persona and became a husband and father.

But one year, Mark was deployed to Iraq. His first night in the desert of Kuwait, he watched helplessly as a Marine Corps helicopter carrying British troops exploded into a fiery blaze. Rockets that sounded like jets flew overhead and chemical alarms blared. Though he had years of battle experience, everything he'd done in the past had involved special operations, small units, quietly moving in and out. This was his first nightmarish experience with large-scale conventional warfare.

After three months, Mark broke his leg in combat and was eventually sent home for surgery. For the first time he had trouble making the transition from soldier to family man. At night, he couldn't sleep. After tossing and turning, he'd drift off only to be awakened by nightmares.

Marshéle would lie next to him, worrying. But when she'd ask about his dreams when he'd bolt upright, drenched in sweat, struggling to slow his breathing, he'd insist he was fine.

During the day Mark developed a short fuse, snapping at Marshéle and the kids over little things—spilled cereal or leaving lights on. Marshéle began to feel as if she walked on eggshells, guilty that she had more peace when he was away.

The July Fourth incident was another indicator that something was wrong. Activities that normally would have been fun, a time to blow off steam and reconnect as a family, such as a trip to Disney World, had the opposite effect. The crowds, sounds, and smells left Mark in a constant state of alert, nervous and irritable despite his best attempts to enjoy himself.

When he returned to the States, Mark was promoted and assigned to Director of Operations for all the East Coast SEAL teams, which required him to make multiple trips overseas, in and out of combat zones, and left little sustained time for Marshéle and him to be together.

Marshéle thought getting back to work would help Mark's behavior, but nothing seemed to ease. He'd still return home, angry, silent, ready to snap at any little thing.

Marshéle didn't know what to do or how to help him. Instead of addressing the problem, she went out of her way to avoid conflict. She tried to head off situations that would spark Mark's temper—keeping the house clean and organized, quickly settling disputes between the kids, and covering as many of the daily tasks as she could.

She felt overwhelmed with confusion, anger, and guilt, desperately hoping if she were a better wife, if she took more responsibility around the house, perhaps Mark would get past whatever was bothering him.

Though he refused to discuss it with Marshéle, Mark knew something was very wrong. Accumulated pain and trauma from his 23 years of military service was spilling into the family life he'd always managed to keep separate. No longer in control of his emotions, he feared he was going crazy. It was the depth of that fear, as well as his SEAL, suck-it-up-and-deal training, that discouraged him from seeking help.

Spiritually, he was desperately begging God to help him. Since he was unable to share his pain with Marshéle, and sharing with the men he led was considered inappropriate, he felt God was all he had left.

Point of no return

On the surface, everything between Mark and Marshéle looked fine. Family and friends were unaware of the turmoil beneath the couple's loving exterior. Though both Mark and Marshéle were praying fiercely for God's help, neither felt they could turn to their church for assistance. While it boasted a military ministry, the Waddells had never received childcare, a hot meal, or anything that could be considered concrete support—a fact that left Marshéle disconnected and Mark bitter.

For Marshéle, everything came to a head a year later. In the commotion of organizing and packing the car for a spring break trip to visit relatives in Tennessee, tempers rose between Mark and their then 11-year-old daughter. When the wind and Jenna conspired to slam the door, Mark lost his cool, spewing hurtful, out-of-character words that left her crying and Marshéle stunned.

The week with relatives passed in turmoil, Mark's emotions swinging from anger to grief. At one point he opened up to the kids, sharing a little of the horrors experienced by children in Iraq. It was the first time they had seen Mark cry, and the rollercoaster of emotions confirmed to Marshéle that something had to be done.

When they returned home, she confronted Mark. "You're not acting like yourself," she said. "You're always on edge, and it's making the kids and me miserable. You need to talk to someone."

"You're blowing things out of proportion," Mark accused. "I've just been under a lot of stress. It'll pass."

Angry and frustrated, Marshéle decided that if Mark refused to get help, she would. She called her mother, grandmother, and a few friends. "Things with Mark are really bad. I need you to pray for us."

Shocked by Marshéle's revelation, her family and friends rallied around her in prayer. Buoyed by their support, she called her pastor and obtained the name of a Christian counselor who had experience with military families.

The counselor helped Marshéle understand the combat-induced crisis Mark was facing, and reassured her that what she was thinking and feeling—the anger, frustration, and guilt—was a normal reaction. "Mark's outbursts have nothing to do with his love for you and the children," she reassured Marshéle. "Try to remember that while it's hurtful, it isn't personal."

Mark had mixed feelings about Marshéle's sessions. He was glad and a bit relieved that someone was helping her deal with emotions he couldn't face. But at the same time, he worried for his career if the news leaked to his superiors and they thought he wasn't holding up under the pressure. Mark and Marshéle had always been pillars in the military community, taking care of other hurting couples. The idea that others might see they were struggling was a bitter pill to swallow.

Though her counseling sessions improved Marshéle's ability to cope, Mark's erratic behavior continued. The constant stress wore her down until finally, 18 months after she'd begun therapy, Marshéle had enough.

One evening, after the kids were in bed, she told Mark, "I can't go on this way anymore. I'm tired of you taking out your pain on me and the children. I love you, but I have to protect them. If that means I have to divorce you, I will."

Her words hit Mark like a sucker punch and he broke down, dropping the tough façade he'd maintained for so long. "I know I have a problem," he confessed tearfully. "Just please don't give up on us. I'll do anything to save our marriage."

"Even go to a doctor?" Marshéle pressed.

"Yes," Mark conceded. "I promise."

For the first time in months, Marshéle felt hope, though tentative, for a change.

Mark had worked closely in Afghanistan with Dr. Dan Sutton, a SEAL team physician. Although he was a medical doctor, not a psychiatrist or psychologist, he had extensive experience with hurting soldiers and knowledge of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

True to his word, Mark scheduled an appointment the next day. He opened up completely to Dr. Sutton, describing the emotional, psychological, and physical symptoms plaguing him since Iraq. The confession itself was cathartic for Mark.

"You're not going crazy," Sutton reassured him. "You're having a normal response to abnormal trauma. With time and therapy you can recover completely."

It was the first shred of hope Mark felt. He drove home to Marshéle infused with a sense of relief and determination.

"I'm so sorry for everything I've put you and the kids through," he said, tears in his eyes. "Doc Sutton is referring me to a colleague for counseling. Things will get better."

"I'm here," Marshéle replied, moved by his vulnerability. "Whatever you need."

A Christian friend inside the SEAL team arranged for Mark to remain stateside for the following two months while he attended counseling sessions. Two times a week, in the early morning darkness, Mark and the counselor would meet and talk before Mark went to his job. Although the sessions were painful and draining, Mark felt a weight being lifted from his soul.

Almost immediately, Marshéle began to notice a difference. Mark's sleeping patterns evened out and he was less rattled by stressful situations such as dealing with finances or the kids bickering. When arguments did occur, Mark or Marshéle would pull back, take a deep breath, and say, "Hold on. Things are getting out of control." By stopping to discuss what was happening, they had a better chance of avoiding a blow up.

Mark still blurted things that caused hurt feelings. But they were able to talk them through, resolving and reconciling the conflicts quickly, rather than allowing them to fester. As Mark recognized the impact his harsh words had on Marshéle and the kids, he worked hard to speak positively, offering praise and compliments instead of criticism.

When 14-year-old daughter Jenna vented her frustration with her father's hurtful and unpredictable behavior, Mark didn't get angry, walk out, or bark back. Instead, he was able to listen to her tearful tirade, apologize for hurting her, and tenderly reassure her of his love.

In addition, Mark began sharing with Marshéle those aspects of his job that didn't require secrecy. The more stories he shared, the better Marshéle understood what was going on in his mind and heart.

After months of soul-searching and prayer, Mark felt God's leading in a new direction of service outside the armed forces. He retired from the military, and today is International Director of Humanitarian International Services Group, an organization that brings relief to widows and orphans in war- and disaster-torn countries.

Mark and Marshéle are still on a journey of healing. Though their marriage was battered by the pressures and horrors of Mark's job, their faith in God and love for each other has allowed them to build a stronger relationship. Mark's painful memories will always be part of him, and therefore, their marriage. But each day the monsters shrink, the signs of recovery grow bigger, and Mark and Marshéle draw closer.

For more information on Marshéle Waddell's book, Hope for the Home Front (New Hope) and ministry, visit www.onehopeministry.com.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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