As the U.S. pauses to recognize veterans for their unparalleled sacrifices for freedom, one Arizona couple discussed their journey navigating the labyrinth of PTSD, crediting All Secure Foundation with saving their marriage.
Eric and Sandra Ballester overcame the worst of post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental health condition that may include negative thoughts about oneself or the world, distorted feelings like guilt or blame, or loss of interest in enjoyable activities often leading to suicide or other self-destructive tendencies, with the help of the non-profit dedicated to helping special operators find their way home.
The Ballesters talked with Fox News Digital, detailing their struggles before finding the “camaraderie, counsel, understanding and help” of All Secure Foundation.
Eric, a 100 percent disabled veteran business owner who sits on the board of directors for Shields and Stripes Inc, joined the United States Air Force in 2000, following in the footsteps of his military family.
“Being a smaller guy, there was something that field me to be part of a mission,” Eric said. “Where you are serving with individuals who are capable of the most amazing stories–the most amazing feats of strength, and the most honorable actions.”
Drawn to the special operations community because “they were able to achieve something greater than themselves … They fought for something that was important to them,” Eric started to experience things he couldn’t identify.
“It was just a noise, a noise that I had to do something about,” he said.
Eric and Sandra met in 7th grade but it wasn’t love at first sight.
“He was a nerd and I was just attracted to his personality,” Sandra laughed.
Eric was set on wooing the “pretty cheerleader” and the couple started dating in high school. Married shortly after, Sandra supported Eric’s dreams to enlist and held down the home front while Eric worked as a combat controller, supporting flight operations in the US Air Force.
“Life with Eric deployed had its ups and downs,” Sandra said. “It was tough because my son was impacted the most.”
Not recognizing the symptoms of depression, Sandra slept a lot during the day and her “naps” were normal to the couple’s young son.
“So trying to keep it together for him was the thing that I had to be really good at,” Sandra said.
Enlisted for 20 years before retiring as a master sergeant, Eric’s deployments ranged from three to six months.
“I was fortunate enough to do my job over 10 different combat rotations,” Eric said. “I would say that I started recognizing the toll of war and what it was doing to me mentally and physically and it was reinforced by seeing some of the teammates that I served with being killed in combat. I recognized that there was something that was leaving me. A fracture in myself from who I was and who I felt like I was always meant to be.”
Sandra watched the change in Eric over the course of his many deployments but did not recognize what was happening as PTSD, instead she chalked the difficulties up to marrying young, she said.
“Is this what it’s like when your husband is gone all the time?” she wondered. “Is it normal that your husband drinks all the time or that he’s wanting to be with his friends even though he just got back from a deployment or a trip with them?”
Watching footage of his missions, tears roll down Eric’s stoic face.
“PTS was affecting me on the battlefield and I was dealing with it. I had my teammates there with me,” he said. “It helped tremendously. It got me through it. But when the deployment was over I had to figure out a way to deal with it when I came home. I didn’t really know how to do that.”
The constant stress, anxiety and hyper-vigilance were unrelenting, Eric said.
“I turned to what coping mechanisms I had developed the years while deployed and that happened to be drinking,” he said. “Trying to find something that was louder than the noise in my head. I would use anything I could to check my brain out.”
Video games were an escape for the soldier who now serves on the military community affairs panel in Gilbert, Arizona.
Meanwhile, Sandra tried to hold their splintered family together with bandaids.
“Trying to say yes to everything he wanted to do or all the things he wanted to buy or when he wanted to drink just go with the flow but also still not sure what’s happening or how I can make it better,” Sandra said.
From deployment to deployment the distance between the man she married and the man she was married to grew further apart.
“I showed up for my wife and son the way that I thought was normal,” Eric said. “I put on a facade and I was able to act in a way that I knew was normal. I knew what normal was supposed to look like. But deep down inside, I had no feeling.”
Eric continued to isolate himself from his family, arguments became more frequent and more heated.
“It really felt like you had no control and you were just falling,” Sandra explained.
As their son got older, the anxiety of living with someone experiencing PTSD became a heavy burden.
“I would say it showed up in a way that [my son] was equally as stressed out when I was home than when I was gone and it forced me to psychological care through a military professional,” Eric said. “I realized that I needed to put the same level of effort in my therapy and my healing as I did with my job.”
While therapy was helping Eric, Sandra was physically breaking down, she said.
“The only way for us to be our best selves for each other is if we worked on ourselves individually, as well as a couple,” she said.
The couple credits All Secure Foundation with helping them reaffirm their foundation.
Founded by decorated combat veteran Tom Satterly, who was portrayed in the blockbuster “Black Hawk Down,” and his wife Jen, All Secure Foundation helps veterans and their families heal the physical, mental, emotional and psychological trauma that often manifests following active duty deployments.
“If it had not been for that sort of therapy and that camaraderie and reconnecting with the community, I don’t know if our marriage would have made it through,” Eric said. “We made it through war. We made it through 20 years and without that level of care and camaraderie and friendship and counseling I don’t know that we would have been successful.”
Sandra encouraged others suffering the invisible wounds of war to reach out for help.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help and don’t think there’s judgment if you share that with somebody,” she said. “Don’t be embarrassed. Everything that you’re feeling, I promise you, somebody like you is feeling the same thing.”
“Think about what you would do for a teammate if he was in a firefight,” Eric said. “Think about what you would do for a teammate if he was in trouble in combat and they called for support. Would you go and support that person? I think the questions always hands down ‘yes’ you would do that. So you have to do it for yourself.”
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