The heartbreaking trauma experienced by soldiers returning from combat is as old as war itself — as are the devastating effects it can have on soldiers’ families. Before post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) became a more regular part of our vocabulary, there were far more secrets and shame surrounding trauma. But in this intimate, eye-opening account, a wife and mother examines her reluctance to address the trauma that impacted her family after her husband returned from active duty in the Vietnam War. From the October 1995 issue of Good Housekeeping, Janet Iacobucci’s story, as told to novelist Joyce Maynard, is brave, unblinking and humanizing. — Alex Belth, Hearst archivist
When I met Joe Iacobucci, I was just 14. But even then I knew I wanted to be with him. Everybody did. He was always so cheerful and full of fun. I remember telling my older sister I couldn’t wait until I was in ninth grade, when I’d be old enough to date him.
And that’s what I did — all through high school. We’d break up now and then, but we’d always end up back together. Growing up in Southbridge, MA, there was never anybody else I could talk to the way I could talk to Joe.
In 1967, after graduation, I got a job as a secretary. Joe decided to enlist in the Army. Because his mother was a widow and he was the sole surviving son, the recruiters assured him that he’d be stationed in the United States. It was a shock when, after basic training, he was told he was being sent to Vietnam. He didn’t like the idea — he’d never been farther from home than Washington, D.C., for a school trip — but he believed in doing what your country asked of you. Shortly before he was to leave for Vietnam, we got engaged. Suddenly, my whole focus was on getting married as soon as he came back from the war.
Joe wrote me almost every day from the bunker where he was stationed. Today, when I listen to a tape he sent me from the bunker, I can make out the sound of gunfire, and the noise of the helicopters taking off or landing. Most of all, I can hear the terrible tension in Joe’s voice.
But back when I was 20 and Joe was 21, I just hung on to his words. He was telling me everything was fine and making plans for how we’d visit his Vietnam buddy Willy in California after they were home again and we were married.
Years later, Joe told me how he and the others in his battalion used to eat their meals out of their helmets, and how they would pick up body parts of their buddies on the field, never knowing when or where the next grenade might land. But at the time, I never let myself think that Joe wouldn’t come back, or that he was going through anything so terrible.
In March 1970, Joe’s tour of duty ended. I’ll never forget how he looked when we picked him up at the airport. He seemed so alone, standing in the waiting area in his uniform. This was the moment I had been thinking about for 13 months, but when we were finally together, neither one of us could think of a thing to say. Maybe I should have realized something was wrong, but I told myself he was just tired. He never told me, until many years later, that as he stood there waiting, some stranger took one look at his uniform and called him a baby killer. It wasn’t what you’d call a hero’s welcome.
The next day, while we were out taking a walk, a passing car backfired, and Joe hit the ground. I laughed nervously and told myself that he just needed time to adjust, to put the war behind him. If he wanted to talk about Vietnam, he’d bring it up. But truthfully, I didn’t want to know all the awful things he did and saw. I wanted him to remain the same Joe he’d always been.
Three weeks later, we were married and settled in a little house near our folks. I soon realized that anything that reminded Joe of Vietnam upset him. So I just didn’t talk about it. Besides, I was pregnant with our first child. I figured that once the baby came, we’d go on with our lives. Joe would finish college and get a job in business. I’d stay home with our children.
Only it wasn’t working out the way I’d planned. I’d talk to Joe about some item for the baby, and he’d be a million miles away. I knew he was proud and thrilled about being a father but all his old playfulness and enthusiasm for life were gone.
Our son Jason was born in 1971 and Justin two years later. I was so busy, it wasn’t hard to overlook Joe’s aloofness. Between going to school at night and holding two jobs — as a painting contractor and as a supervisor at an optical company — he was hardly home. When he was, which was mostly at night, he had a hard time sleeping and would often end up on our living room couch so his thrashing wouldn’t disturb me.
In 1977, our youngest, Jena, was born. I was too exhausted from taking care of the three kids to have the energy to worry about our relationship. I just assumed these were rough years because we were building for a better life in the future.
To our relatives and friends, Joe was still the same friendly, easygoing man and a loving father. When Joe coached Jason’s little league team, he never pressured the boys the way so many fathers do. Instead, he was always quick to praise them and give hugs after a game. Kids loved him.
But at home, Joe would get into these moods I called his black holes. You never knew what would set him off — a loud noise from the kids, a glass of spilled milk. He was never physically violent, but he’d storm around the house, scaring the kids and me.
I knew something was very wrong. I just didn’t know how to fix it. Here we were doing everything we’d always been told would make a good life. Joe was moving up in management jobs. We had a nice home. And still we weren’t happy. We were fighting a lot — mostly about Joe not spending more time with me and the kids. I found myself wondering if he still loved me.
But I couldn’t forget the young man he used to be. And I could still see what a good person he was. It felt as if that person was locked up behind a wall of glass, and whatever the kids or I did, we couldn’t reach him.
In 1984, Joe was working as a manager at a manufacturing company. He was making enough money that we’d bought a bigger house in New Hampshire. We’d even built a comfortable retirement fund. I was working part time as a receptionist, but the money I made was for extras.
Then, about a year later, Joe was let go from his job over a series of disagreements with his boss. Eventually, he found work at an insurance company for less than half of what he’d been making. Feeling the pressure of not being able to maintain our family’s old style of living, Joe was living on antacids and drinking way too much. Night after night, he’d come home from work, head straight for the TV and fall asleep in his recliner. He hardly ever came to bed anymore.
For the first time, I seriously thought about divorce. The main reason I stayed was for the kids’ sakes. I convinced myself that they thought we were happy.
I didn’t know it at the time, but at this point, Joe was suffering from severe depression. Sometimes, when driving alone, he’d fantasize about gunning the motor and crashing the car into a tree. In desperation, he joined a men’s prayer group. One of the men was another Vietnam vet, who made Joe promise he would see a woman named Carla Kirsch, a therapist who specialized in treating trauma survivors, many of them vets.
I wish I could say I was supportive of my husband’s decision to see a therapist. The truth is, I was scared and even jealous that he might open up to another woman in a way he couldn’t to me. As unhappy as we were, Joe and I were still managing to keep up the appearance of being a normal family. I was afraid his therapist would open up doors that — after all these years — were safer closed.
But by 1990, a lot of things were happening in the world and in our lives that made it more difficult for Joe to suppress his feelings — the Persian Gulf war, a greater openness about what it was really like in Vietnam, and the fact that our oldest, Jason, was approaching the age Joe himself had been when he left for Vietnam. My husband was a time bomb waiting to explode. During a regular checkup, our family doctor found that Joe’s blood pressure was dangerously high. Carla took him to a nearby VA hospital, where he was officially diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Getting that diagnosis, I finally began to understand what it was that had cast such a long shadow over our family. Carla explained to me that PTSD is a syndrome common to war veterans and others who have experienced profound trauma. People with PTSD continue to re-experience events through flashback and other stress reactions months, years and sometimes even decades after the original trauma occurred.
Learning about the symptoms was like reading a detailed description of Joe — from his extreme jumpiness at loud noises to his emotional withdrawal and explosive rages. Like many vets, he’d created his own peacetime bunker in our basement, with the curtains drawn and the TV on to block out thoughts of Vietnam.
After his diagnosis, Joe had more and more difficulty handling stress. In 1992, he was fired. Unable to work again, he began to receive veteran’s disability benefits, and we had to dip into our savings.
It was hard going off to my job, seeing Joe sitting around the house. There were days when I resented him for it. I couldn’t help thinking, Why is he in therapy? He is just getting worse.
I now know that it’s not unusual for a person to experience setback in therapy. It’s a long and painful process, especially for someone who has spent years suppressing emotions that need to be faced.
It hasn’t been easy for our children either — maybe in part because, unlike a physically disabled vet, Joe looks fine. But the kids are beginning to understand that their father has an illness. They realize now that his anger had nothing to do with them.
Last fall, Joe decided to enter an intensive inpatient treatment program for PTSD at the VA hospital. For six weeks, he lived with five other Vietnam vets, going to group therapy and learning relaxation techniques to manage stress.
On Family Day, I took Jenna, now a high school senior, to visit Joe. We were all sitting in a circle — the six men in the program and their families. All of a sudden, Jena, who was still having trouble accepting her father’s disability, began to cry. Joe went and put his arms around her.
Since then, there was been other breakthroughs. Joe, who still sees Carla and is also going to group therapy, hardly gets angry anymore. Because he’s always loved kids, he has decided to work toward becoming certified as an elementary school teacher. And he’s trying to locate his best friend from the war, Willy.
For a while, I participated in a support group for veteran’s wives. Of the seven women in the group, I’m one of the only two whose marriages survived. It’s a testimony to our deep feelings for each other that Joe and I have managed to hold on. My children and I never set foot in Vietnam, but all our lives were changed by the war.
I know that some people probably look at Joe and think, “Why doesn’t he get over it already?” I wish it were that simple. My husband came home from Vietnam 25 years ago, and he still fights a battle every day. I’ll never know what it feels like to face Joe’s demons. I only know, from watching him go through this, how much courage it takes and I can’t think of a better role model for our children than a father who’s brave enough to do what he did.
If you or someone you know is in a suicidal crisis or mental health-related distress, call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing "988." If you're a veteran or family member of a veteran in crisis, call "988" and press "1." Visit the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website for more veteran resources.