Saturday, February 4, 2012

The wartime love triangle of a disabled vet, his girlfriend/caregiver and his post-traumatic stress disorder

The first part of the story in the Wall Street Journal:

DALLAS — The night Katie Brickman met Ian Welch at the bar, she knew right away the Iraq war veteran was the man she wanted to marry. (Both are pictured.)

That made it all the more jarring when he asked a favor as they said goodbye in the parking lot: "When you see me again, just say, 'Hi, Ian, you remember me,' so I'll know that we've met before."

So began the wartime love triangle of Ms. Brickman, Mr. Welch and his post-traumatic stress disorder.

Mr. Welch's amnesia, induced by the combination of PTSD and traumatic brain injury, leaves him struggling to remember events, words and friends, even Ms. Brickman. Most days, Mr. Welch doesn't change out of his pajamas. Small surprises—a traffic jam, a crowded waiting room, a loud noise, a change in plans—trigger anxiety and anger, echoes of the violence he dealt and endured.

The Iraq war is over for America and the end of the Afghan conflict is just over the horizon. But a generation of military families will face its physical and psychological consequences for years after most other Americans have put the wars behind them.

Unlike most couples coping with the aftermath of war, Ms. Brickman, 23 years old, and Mr. Welch, 28, fell in love more because of his wounds, than despite them. Both say they wouldn't be a couple if they had met before his wartime service. "I'm so happy with who he is, and he wouldn't be that way without his…experiences," said Ms. Brickman.

But, like others, their relationship is precarious. Devoting herself to Mr. Welch has put Ms. Brickman's own dreams on hold. She is both Mr. Welch's girlfriend and his government-paid caregiver under a new federal program for badly disabled veterans. She lives with the pressure of knowing if she ever left, he might slip deeper into the despair and confusion that mark their lives.

One recent day, Ms. Brickman asked Mr. Welch to drop a comforter at the dry cleaner, but when it was ready, he had forgotten which shop. The lapse embarrassed him, and he lashed out during a car ride.

"Katie, I need you to talk to me right now and explain how this is going to be OK," he said, frantically lighting a cigarette.
[PTSD_A1] Gilles Bassignac/Gamma via Getty Images

Ian Welch reported to boot camp on Sept. 10, 2001. After three tours of duty in Iraq, he retired on Feb. 27, 2010, for medical reasons, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

Later, as Ms. Brickman hunted for a receipt, he said: "I feel like I'm weak. I feel like I'm stupid. How am I going to remember to drop my kids off at school? How am I going to remember what school they go to? How am I going to be a father?"

The questions also bedevil Ms. Brickman. "I don't worry about us as a couple," she said during a moment alone. "I worry if we have kids, will he get mad at them?"

Mr. Welch was born near College Station, Texas, where his mother and father dated and married while attending Texas A&M University. He was an easygoing boy, artistic with a goofy side, a B student who threw himself into art and English. His best friend remembers him showing up at high school with a breakfast of hash browns in one pocket and a toothbrush in another.

The field work of his father, John Welch, an entomologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, took the family to Central America. His mother, psychologist Nancy Welch, worked as a therapist during their years abroad.

As a boy, Mr. Welch imagined his G.I. Joe toys planting the Marine Corps flag he received from his mother's stepfather. When he was about 11 years old, his paternal grandfather, a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, shared memories from his service in the Pacific. His grandfather talked about leading patrols and losing friends. He described the guilt he felt for failing to spot the ambushes that killed them.

That night, Mr. Welch said, he decided to join the military. At the end of high school, he visited the Marine Corps office in College Station and told the recruiter he wanted to be an infantryman. He reported to boot camp on Sept. 10, 2001, standing 6 foot, 2 inches and weighing 120 pounds—wraith-thin, just like his grandfather.

He was also a grunt like his grandfather. On April 7, 2003, Mr. Welch's battalion was outside Baghdad, pounding Iraqi positions and waiting to attack across the Diyala bridge. Mr. Welch knelt with his back to an armored vehicle, cleaning his bullets. On each, he wrote the name of a friend or relative.

Moments later, a 155-mm artillery shell landed inside the top hatch of the vehicle behind him. The explosion knocked Mr. Welch unconscious and killed two men inside. When he came to, his vision was blurred. Blood dripped from his ears. Wounded men nearby screamed for help.

Gunnery Sgt. Jean-Paul Courville saw Mr. Welch standing in the open, disoriented and exposed to enemy snipers. "What's going on?" Gunnery Sgt. Courville, now a sergeant major, recalled Mr. Welch asking. He told Mr. Welch to help tend to the casualties.

Mr. Welch's memories are hazy. But he recalled seeing the vehicle's interior painted with blood and realizing he was stepping on someone's brains. He vomited. Then he helped collect the dead men's remains in a sleeping bag.