Transcript for the Piece Audio version of Love in the time of PTSD
LINDSAY LEE KEEL: The door to Carolin Kunze’s Oakland apartment is covered in a large yellow ribbon with a big bow in the center. The ribbon means she is waiting for a soldier to come home.
On the wall of Carolin’s room, there’s a line of Post-it’s, a rainbow of numbers counting down from 41 – all the weeks until Carolin’s fiancé, Matt Fuller, is officially released from the Army.
CAROLIN KUNZE: Look at this room, it’s so funny, like, that’s my countdown and then those are his ACU’s, that’s the bag his mom got for me.
Carolin points at a camouflage jacket of Matt’s hanging on a chair near her purse – also camouflage. On top of the nightstand sits a golden tinted photograph of Matt and Carolin where the young couple kiss like the world doesn’t exist outside the frame. On her bed is a doll, dressed in fatigues.
KUNZE: That’s Joe.
As in, G.I. Joe.
KUNZE: Joe is a Daddy Doll. They handed these out free, to children, who had dads that were deploying, and he kinda went around with me everywhere during this deployment.
Carolin carries the doll to places Matt can’t be, as a symbol of both his presence and absence in her life.
KUNZE: He missed my 21st birthday and Christmas, which is always a really big deal in my family.
The thing is, Matt has actually been gone for most of their relationship. And it was during his absence that Carolin began writing about their time together. He was on his first deployment in Afghanistan in 2008 when they met as pen pals.
KUNZE: I’d offered to write to a soldier, and he responded with, “Hi. I’m not a stalker or a weirdo. But you live close to me so I figured I’d write. So yeah. I promise I’ll respond if you write back.” How could I resist? We got to know each other over the course of three months, talking every day, until finally I was carrying my computer from class to class in the hopes that he’d become available. We both seemed glued to our screens then, and even after hours of typing, we never ran out of things to say.
Three months after they started to write each other, Matt came home on leave.
KUNZE: He wanted to meet me and I told him no like four times, and he kept asking me. And, I finally said, “Okay, I’ll meet you – fine.”
In person, they hit it off.
KUNZE: I had never liked a guy so much.
After Matt went back to Afghanistan they continued to chat online, eventually typing the words “I love you.” They were able to see each other when Matt’s first deployment ended in April of 2009. They were engaged by May.
KUNZE: He proposed in the parking lot a half an hour before I was supposed to go into the airport to fly back home.
Still, something didn’t seem right to Carolin – something she had noticed the first night they spent together, before they were a couple, after they fell asleep on the floor of Matt’s room while watching The Jungle Book.
KUNZE: Every time I moved he’d bolt upright and look at me and ask if I was okay. And you know, I was just shifting, like I was nervous, I was around this guy I didn’t know well.
And I remember thinking, “That’s really weird; he’s a really light sleeper isn’t he?” But the more time I spent with him, the more I realized that that was normal.
Normal for Matt, because he’d been in combat. But, Matt wasn’t just a light sleeper – he was anxious. He was having nightmares – bad ones. Dreams seemed like real threats.
KUNZE: I’ve gotten shoved out of the bed before. I always thought that having your loved ones there would be calming but, it’s hard not to get upset by it.
After that first deployment, every time Matt was home on leave, Carolin noticed the nightmares, the sleep stress, his extreme anxiety in public places. While he was away she heard the depression in his voice and saw it in his writing. Eventually he sought help.
A psychologist determined that Matt was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. But even though the diagnosis helped explain his feelings and behavior, Carolin says Matt’s symptoms were hard on her and their relationship.
KUNZE: When we were alone or around his friends or his family, he was the guy that really liked you and paid attention to you. He would, you know, be cuddly and be sweet, and looked me in the eye. And then we went out and it was just a totally different person, he would just shut down.
Carolin says their struggles weren’t the simple misunderstandings of a typical relationship. PTSD made the problems deeper and far more complicated.
KUNZE: When you have somebody that goes to deployment, goes through horrific, combat experiences and comes home a different person, that’s when the really big issues start.
But she didn’t give up on him, they went to therapy, they talked about how they felt. Like any couple who wants to make it work, they told each other when they were upset, and Matt tried his best to explain what was happening to him, though he was struggling to understand it himself. Carolin started writing about his struggles.
KUNZE: “About sitting at his computer at home playing a game when suddenly a flashback grips him like a quick vicious tug at his skull, retreating just as quickly and leaving him reeling with emotion, nausea. It’s about getting up, angry because he knows it isn’t real, angry because it feels like he’s still stuck in a goddamn-miserable-dusty-ass desert. About grabbing his gun and checking every door, every lock, and every inch of the perimeter around his house because he can’t shake the feeling that he has to do something to make it better. An enemy he can’t fight, and it’s right smack dab inside his own head.”
***PROGRAM/STATION ID HERE. THIS PIECE CONTINUES IN PART II.***
LINDSEY LEE KEEL: After a while, Matt was even able to open up about what his psychologist refers to as the trigger for his PTSD symptoms. He whispered the story to Carolin one night in bed and she later wrote about it.
KUNZE: “His convoy had arrived after a bumpy ride on narrow mountain roads, much too small for the Humvees that formed a beige armored snake inching across the Afghanistan desert. It was as they had expected: two hollowed shells of what was left of the Humvees – the front ends blown off, a black char marking a neat semicircle around where the hoods should have been, wires and machinery hanging limply in the open. Inside they found the customary pink blood spatters against the cracked windshield, small puddles on what was left of the seats. It was what they didn’t find that caused concern. There were no bodies. The burned remnants of some boots and lower limbs remained, but that was all. So they were sent out to search, each armed and each wary because they knew what it meant. The enemy had gotten there first.
It was someone else that spotted the drag marks through the dust, but they all stood as one to gaze on a scraggly tree draped with severed, mangled body parts like some sort of limited edition Christmas tree – the War Edition. He was handed a black plastic bag and told to start picking up the pieces. The families deserved their loved ones’ remains, after all.
Sometime later they found the camera stolen off one of the dead soldiers containing pictures of what had happened that day, hooded faces grinning with joyous triumph in contrast with the gruesome background. The fact that the camera had been recovered from more dead bodies was little consolation.
It was supposed to end once they got home."
It didn’t end. And his service wasn’t over. Matt found out that in August of 2010 he would be redeploying to Afghanistan. The stress of anticipation and preparation was enough to kick start the anxiety and nightmares. And then, Matt left. Carolin knows that when he comes home they will need to start the healing process all over.
KUNZE: I’m hoping it won’t be as bad the second time around because we’ve gone through it and we at least have the tools to know how to deal with situations.
Matt seems to be doing better. His last deployment just ended; he’s on base in Tennessee. He doesn’t have as many nightmares. He isn’t as depressed or anxious. Here’s Matt, on Skype from the base…
MATT FULLER: Right now I feel great.
Matt has just a few weeks to go before he gets his honorable discharge and returns to the Bay Area, to marry Carolin.
FULLER: The Army is a chapter of my life that’s getting ready to end, the last page. And you know, I did it, I went there, I saw it, and I did my time and I’m ready to get out you know. No hard feelings towards the Army, but eh, I feel like I did my share and I’m ready to get back to a normal life, and start it with Carolin there. And I feel great about it.
KUNZE: Alright, bye baby. I love you.
FULLER: I love you too.
Matt and Carolin are eager to begin their life together. They’re already talking about a house, a dog, and kids. But there will still be things to work through. There will still be therapy.
KUNZE: You fall in love with the person, you don’t fall in love with their profession. I certainly didn’t fall in love with PTSD, but it comes with Matt as a package, so I can’t pick and choose. In the end I do think it’s worth it. I think it has made us a much stronger couple, because we’ve dealt with all the issues, head on. You don’t have any other choice, but you work through them, and there’s a skill set that comes with that that will help us have a long lasting marriage and a good life.
Dealing with PTSD does seem to have made Matt and Carolin stronger, willing to take on anything to make their relationship work. And really, they are like any young couple in love: happy and optimistic, ready to start a new life, together.
For Crosscurrents, I’m Lindsey Lee Keel.Back