Sunday, August 26, 2012
WALLA WALLA — The young wife shed no tears when she saw herself on TV on Aug. 9. That made a first, she said. “I’d watched it 10 times and cried every time.”
This time, however, the couple talking about their marriage on the nationally syndicated “Dr. Phil Show” no longer seemed like Megan and Mark Hexum.
It’s them, all right. There’s Mark, talking about “survivor’s guilt” with show host, Phil McGraw. There’s Megan, explaining to a studio audience how her husband looks when he’s enraged and backing her down the hallway of the family’s home. How afraid she is.
It was on April 19 the world was first allowed to see into the Walla Walla family’s home on Glen Erin Street to glimpse a marriage that’s been twisted out of recognition by post traumatic stress disorder. Mark had served his country well while in Iraq, but returned home with a souvenir no soldier wants.
Months earlier, Megan had contacted producers of the syndicated show that offers advice from the former psychologist and current TV personality, known widely as “Dr. Phil.”
She had seen the show’s Facebook page asking for spouses living with veterans PTSD to step forward. The questions in the post spoke to her, she said. “It asked ‘Do you fear for your life?’ There were times I did.”
From newlywed to soldier to victim
Life wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Mark and Megan married young, both 18 years old, after falling in love during their senior year of high school in the Tri-Cities. It was June 14, 2004, when the couple “ran away” to wed, Megan said. “And didn’t tell anyone.”
Mark left three days later for basic training at Fort Benning, Ga. Then Megan called her family and his to break the news — the wedding being planned was moot.
It didn’t matter to him or her.
“We always got along great,” Megan told McGraw’s audience.
In January of 2006, Mark’s unit — 11 Bravo Infantry in the United States Army — was deployed from Texas to Iraq. He was nervous, he said, not knowing what to expect and leaving behind a wife and month-old daughter, Lilli.
By that August, Mark knew more than he wanted to about being in war. His unit had been getting “shot at and ambushed two to three times a day,” he said on the afternoon talk show.
And on Aug. 27, 2006, Mark became one more victim.
The soldier had spent the day before trudging alongside the company’s Bradley fighting vehicle on machine-gun duty. “When you’re carrying a machine gun, any time something happens, you’re going ... around the block or several miles ... We cleared miles of roadway that day.”
That next day, his sergeant commanded Mark to switch places with the driver of the Bradley, a man Mark describes as “a very good friend. A brother.”
It was meant to be a break for Mark. Instead the move broke him.
“It was the worst day of my entire life,” he said. “We were going to a water treatment facility that day.”
The unit was to travel over a primitive road, one they all knew was unsafe. “It’s made out of dirt. Pretty easy to hide stuff in the dirt.”
Even on roads to the only place in the area to produce clean water, he added. “They even kill their own people. It’s a totally different mentality over there ... it is a Third World country.”
As soon as the unit got going on Aug. 27, there was a huge explosion and the Bradley was engulfed in flames. Mark could hear only one soldier screaming — his buddy, Tristan Smith. Smith and four other members of the platoon were killed.
He wishes, so much, he was the one who died that day, Mark told McGraw. “It’d make my life a lot easier.”
Post-Iraq: Life continues to embattle family
It didn’t feel that way when her husband first returned. He was honorably discharged in June of 2007, Megan said in the home she and Mark have rented for three years. This day is warm and sunny and the couple’s daughters — Lilli, now 6, and Leylah, 3 — twirl and jump a few feet away, their laughter filling the space.
With Mark back home, she explained, “it was a relief. We could go back to being teenagers ... we were all flirty.”
And Mark was just as giddy to not be hammered with constant calls to report to duty.
This second honeymoon didn’t last long, however. The Hexums quickly became aware Mark had brought the war home. By the time her husband was home a week, Megan had called 911 as she hid from an enraged soldier who seemed to still be in battle.
Mark’s “survivor’s guilt” meant immediate anger over tiny things. His moodiness and irrational, rambling conversations forced the family to walk on eggshells, Megan said.
But all else paled when compared to fearing for her life — or his — when Mark went into his darkest place. The boy she married seemed gone forever, causing her to overreact and grow defensive, she explained.
The two began drinking, a lot, to keep this new “monster” at bay, Megan said.
“It was the only way to not get on each other’s nerves,” Mark added, “We got to the point we were just drinking (Jim Beam) out of the bottle, not even chasing it. It was bad.”
Megan nodded. “And we’d still end up fighting.”
It didn’t help that Mark endured six months of unemployment before finding a job as a correctional officer at Washington State Penitentiary. Such work, though, brings another set of stressors.
“The small things really get to me. The doors slam and they are huge steel doors. Then there’s the (inmates’) attitudes. Their biggest concern is getting a shower every day,” Mark said with a wondering shake of his head. “I’ve gone weeks without a shower. We had baby wipes, we were fine. We were trying to stay alive.”
When the Department of Corrections took away breaks and lunch times for officers in January, Mark’s PTSD got worse, Megan said. “He doesn’t have that time to go out and smoke, get out of the walls, to read.”
The Hexums approached local veterans resources for help, to little avail.
“The VA won’t tell you what their programs are. You have to pry it out of them,” Megan said.
It made the family extra grateful when McGraw and his staff arranged to send Mark to Texas for help for his disorder. That came after the show’s producers searched for a local or regional program, Megan said. “They told us they could only find ‘dirt and rocks’ in this area.”
Coping tools help, but work doesn’t stop
In Dallas, Mark underwent two weeks of intense therapy, including hyperbaric chamber treatments and biofeedback. It was exhausting and restorative, he said. “You feel really alive.”
The staff explained to the veteran that PTSD causes parts of the brain to shut down; thus the medicinal effect of being “immersed” in oxygen.
According to the National Institute of health, the air pressure inside a hyperbaric oxygen chamber is about 2 1/2 times greater than the normal pressure in the atmosphere. This helps blood carry more oxygen to organs and tissues in the body.
As well, Mark was taught breathing techniques that allow the PTSD sufferer to focus on moving certain muscles while drawing in breath, he said. “I can focus on moving air, not the stress.”
Doctors told Mark that anger was the only tool he had used for a “very, very” long time.”
“I have to put it down,” he said. “I was asked if the anger would be taken away, what would I use. I didn’t know. Because being angry was the only way I could feel safe ... at the state of being ready for anything.”
He brought home his new set of coping skills and has been able to give up the Zoloft and Ambien, medications that tamed the monster but made him a zombie.
Mark is also able to go shopping in public, an activity that was nigh impossible before the treatment, the Hexums said.
Nonetheless, it’s become clear to them they are in a lifelong battle. Local resources for specialized help are sparse and the disorder continues to hold the family hostage.
“One of the hardest parts about my anger is my kids,” Mark said, with a glance down the hall where his children played in their room. “The anger, it just takes over. The girls have been scared.”
McGraw told Mark and another veteran on the show they were supposed to be “poster boys” for the neuropsychological way to dealing with PTSD. But two weeks of treatment can’t undo it all, Mark said. “It doesn’t feel like I’m a poster boy ... we really are damaged goods. We’re not the same people who went in.”
He sometimes regrets enlisting, Mark added.
The couple recently started marriage counseling and resumed individual counseling. Megan is realizing she needs as much help as Mark does from her husband’s disorder, she said. “I’m still trying to fit it all in ... I want Mark to grow, but I still want to grow. Because I wasn’t offered help.”
While going on the “Dr. Phil” show didn’t solve the issue, the Hexums’ appearance did bring the matter to light to their families and a nation, Mark and Megan feel.
“I think it brought it all to the surface. I was very worried,” Megan said. “I didn’t want my husband being seen as this monster. But at the same time I want other wives to hear this. We can sometimes be the silent victims.”
Monday is the anniversary date of the bombing. It’s going to be a very hard day, the two already know. There will be stress.
“It is such an adjustment. It’s hard, living together,” Megan said. “We’ve been married eight years, I have never left him. But there have been points ...”
They will keep on keeping on, however, the Hexums said, watching their daughters race through the house with various toys in tow.
“We don’t want (a dysfunctional family) for our girls,” Megan said. “Giving up is too easy.”