Secondary Trauma and Permission to Speak

“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.

Sarah and John Dale smile on their wedding day
Sarah and John Dale smile on their wedding day

“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.

Sarah Dale grew up in Columbia, Missouri. She was Sarah Yates then, just 19 when she met John Dale. He was studying to become a teacher and had enlisted in the Army National Guard, motivated both by his family’s history of military service and a desire to cover his school fees. The couple started dating, knowing that any day he could be sent to Iraq.

When War Comes Home by Sarah Dale
When War Comes Home by Sarah Dale

“I liked that John was a very confident and strong person,” Sarah says. “He was kind, a gentleman and easy to talk to. He could also be really silly and goofy, which was a fun surprise.” On their first date, John showed Sarah his bucket list of things he wanted to do in town before being deployed. They wound up on the swings at a local park.

Soon, John and Sarah were in a long distance relationship. “It was my job to be supportive,” she says. “To talk to him when he got a chance to call. To send letters, saying ‘I care about you’, ‘can’t wait to see you’. I just had one thing to do.” Both Sarah and John thought his deployments would be the hardest challenge they would face in their relationship. When he returned, they would go back to school and keep dating.

“You have to understand,” Sarah tells the room. “When he’s at war, his senses are sharp. He knows his job and purpose. He has a literal army around him so they can help each other. It’s cut and dried. When you come home, everyone’s scattered. They don’t have a support network, don’t understand their place in society. It’s so hard: navigating relationships, injuries, finances, the unknown. Being at war is easier.”

Sarah carries John’s army pack in a performance piece
Sarah carries John’s army pack in a performance piece

While John was away, Sarah went to a meeting about PTSD. The meeting was held by Missouri state officials, who said John may come back and be easily rattled. He might be weary of a freeway pass, or see burning trash on the road and think it’s a bomb. The examples seemed large and easy to spot. In reality, John’s baggage wouldn’t be revealed to Sarah for months. He wouldn’t be formally diagnosed with PTSD for five years, and when he was he felt lost.

“This is a tough spot for a soldier,” says John. “Because if we’re not fit for duty and don’t say anything, we could get someone else hurt or killed during training or a deployment. We rely heavily on each other for mission success and survival.”

John and Sarah lived in separate apartments during college, so for a while, he navigated much of his pain in private. The list was extensive: He had bulging discs and arthritis in his neck and lower back, pinched nerves and loss of feeling in his left arm, a surgically repaired torn labrum and arthritis in his right hip, damaged meniscus in his left knee and hyper active senses. Emotionally, he had a tough time sleeping, resting and participating in social events. He felt nervous or unwell in large crowds. “Shame is a huge barrier,” John says. “We’re conditioned to fight through pain. [While] that, combined with adrenaline, is vital when you’re fighting an enemy, it’s a detriment when you’re not. My injuries were invisible and made things so much harder to get help for.”

The pictures of Sarah and John’s wedding are adorable. He’s winsome in his uniform, she’s in a big gown teasing him, wearing his hat. “This is a perfect example of pictures military spouses post online,” she said, pointing to the screen. “We see husbands in uniform and wives beside them smiling. It’s usually a wedding or them home hugging their wives and kids by a dock.”

Sarah and John’s love was genuine but the next eight years of their lives would be a nightmare. Their house slowly filled with fighting, pain medication, drinking as self-medication, confusing paperwork, being called a liar from the VA’s office, job changes, counseling sessions, mood swings and talks with a divorce attorney; driving them both to the brink. In her presentation, Sarah clicked to a picture of her standing on a boat. She had gone on a trip with classmates and was surrounded by water on a beautiful day. “I’m smiling here, but I was seriously thinking of drowning myself.”

Back at home, John was facing his own demons. “On more than one occasion, I remember being very depressed, isolated and drunk,” he says. “The mixture of those three had me in the dark place of contemplating suicide. The last time it happened, and this was the turning point, I remember working through a bottle of Crown Royal and sitting on the floor in the bathroom of our apartment in Alexandria, VA, thinking that I was a monster who made Sarah afraid, a worthless broken soldier with no purpose, a burden on those around me and I was better off dead. I had the means in the other room with my Glock model 22 (.40 cal) pistol. That’s when it hit me that I had to take the pistol out of the equation. I knew that if I ended up on the bathroom floor again, I’d end it.”

I Wish I Could Tell My Veteran by Sarah Dale
I Wish I Could Tell My Veteran by Sarah Dale

John could no longer do active work and took a desk job at Homeland Security. Sarah found a job in advertising and applied to art school. She had always liked art; she frequented museums with her family as a kid and chose creative electives in school. Now as an adult, she was interested in a range of forms including theater, painting, sculpture and photography and decided to enroll in a Studio Arts Masters at American University. As she started that first semester, her work was respectable but her teacher could tell she was holding back. Was there something Sarah wanted to share? The teacher reminded her that art is good for this kind of thing.

By the time Sarah got to her art in her Veterans Voices presentation, there was a feeling of release, freedom and play. Trying to stay in the 45-minute time window, she clicked happily through slides showing project after project: sculpture, installations, documentary, social media campaigns for military wives, interviews of veterans and their families. One was a performance piece of a housewife trying to act normal at a party while standing beside her husband’s military trunk. With each of these pieces, Sarah is addressing a tough subject but is letting herself enjoy the process of finding her voice. She’s also involving others in her process – John and other military wives and families.

“Many artists start from a formal, detached place,” said Sarah’s professor, Luis Silva. “But Sarah begins with community and voice. It’s exciting to see art contribute to a dialogue that means so much to so many others.” Veterans Voices founder Jocelyn Rowe agreed that this is a special approach. “Sarah is the first person that shared from a caregiver’s perspective,” she told Ms. “Her presentation opened us up to how to the arts can be a healing tool to process our own journey.”

For Sarah’s senior project, she made an interactive living room installation called “When War Comes Home.” She and John recorded sample tracks of her nagging him about appointments and had the audio playing in the background. She had participants sit on their couch. The coffee tables were covered with American flag quilt and pictures of her and John’s wedding. She put out copies of confusing letters they received when trying to claim benefits. Pills, wine bottles and energy drinks were strewn about to show the chaos she was feeling. The mirror she hung up was also theirs, with colorful mosaic tiles from the time they took a vacation to Mexico to feel better. The vacation didn’t work – she bought the frame alone when she was angry at John and needed space.

Sitting in the room, participants are meant to feel overwhelmed – by the specifics, the intimacy, the trash everywhere, the feeling of not knowing where to start. “This isn’t what our living room actually looks like,” Sarah says. “When I feel out of control I make things clean and orderly.”

It was a bit of a shock to put their life in front of people, but John could see the difference Sarah’s work was making. “Being authentic is healthy,” says John. “She’s chosen to be healthy and share her struggles with others instead of hide them. I think that it’s helped her and has given other veteran spouses permission to stop hiding as well.” Eventually, Sarah’s pieces changed from foundations in anger to ones rooted in awareness and hope.

Sarah and John Dale renewing their wedding vows in 2015
Sarah and John Dale renewing their wedding vows in 2015

“For a long time I felt like I couldn’t say anything.” Sarah says. “I thought: he’s the disabled veteran in the room. Whatever his needs are matter more than mine. It was a slow process of giving myself permission to be human; to have needs to speak up for those needs.”

Sarah realized she liked interactive exhibits and teamed up with In It Together Warehouse to put on “I Wish I could Tell My Veteran.” She invited real military families to address their loved ones in writing and put their notes on display. The handwriting, primarily of wives and children read: “Try hard to relax. You are home now, you’re done with that.” “I miss you when you’re gone, I miss the parts of you that never come back.” “You’ll probably never know how much I love you. Even I didn’t know I could love someone this much.” “I’m sorry I gave up on us. I just lost it… I’m so sorry.” “Sometimes I wonder if you want me to stay.”

Sarah and John separated for a few seasons, but eventually reconciled in 2015. “We decided we would try some really big things, give it our all and if we still couldn’t make it work and things didn’t get better, we would give up and go our separate ways.” They sold their house in Alexandria and moved to DC. They signed up for more counseling sessions and couples courses-including trainings with Reboot Combat Recovery, a nonprofit dedicated to helping military families heal from combat trauma.

In their sessions, the Reboot participants saw John’s natural leadership and warmth. A year later, he became the Operations Director of Reboot, facilitating classes for veterans and their families. To date, the organization has over 1,000 program graduates. They also have a 0 percent suicide rate.

“The more I learn about trauma, the more I understand the things that are vital to healing,” John says. “(1) Community – gotta have traveling companions on the journey, (2) trying again and again until you find something that works, (3) the “new normal” won’t be like before but it can be joyful and (4) be vulnerable even when it hurts.”

At the end of Sarah’s presentation, veterans and spouses came up to thank her and John. This is another lesson the couple has learned–sharing their stories gives others permission to open up. “I believe on the spouse side and family side when we stay silent about these things there is a cost to that,” Sarah says. “If the realities remain hidden, then service members and their families can’t get the help they need because no one understands what’s going on.”

They are candid about being a work in progress, but are also proud of how far they’ve come. Sarah and John celebrated their ninth anniversary this October and recently renewed their wedding vows. “Art can do so many things,” Sarah says. “It can bring awareness. It can provide a moment were we can create the world how we wish it to be. Some art can offer an escape. It can connect us to reality, authenticity. It can give people a voice, help them realize their voice. It gave me mine.”


Emily Sernaker is a Ms. contributor and a staff writer for the International Rescue Committee. Her poetry, articles and reviews have appeared in The Sun, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney's, The Rumpus and more. She is a 2019 Lincoln City Fellowship recipient in poetry.