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For soldiers, love is a battlefield Add to ...

Fort Leavenworth may seem like an odd place for a couples therapist from Ottawa.

But Sue Johnson has become familiar with the massive army base as head of a U.S. Army pilot program to address marital stress after soldiers return from long tours in Iraq.

The program, which involves five weekend retreats and wraps up this summer, was championed by an army chaplain who sought out Dr. Johnson after hearing about her work with Vietnam veterans and New York firefighters facing marital crisis after Sept. 11, 2001.

This week, the University of Ottawa psychology professor and director of the Ottawa Couple and Family Institute also released her latest book, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. In conversation with The Globe and Mail, Dr. Johnson explains how she is helping Iraq war veterans get in touch with their feelings, and why soldiers aren't the only ones facing battle during wartime.

What is unique about counselling soldiers?

One of the things we hear people talk about is being able to shift from being in Iraq or Afghanistan, where there's no front line, you never feel safe ... to coming home and being able to let down and let go.

I remember one person talking about how he didn't feel close to his wife any more. He didn't feel alone in Iraq because his buddies were there and they were all facing the enemy together. But he felt alone at home because he'd been in a different world for months. ...

When you helped him talk about that, he said, "Well, I don't just feel numb, I feel resigned." [He said he couldn't talk to his wife because]he didn't want to hurt her feelings, and she had had a hard time when he was gone. So everybody's being careful, nobody knows quite how to handle this transition back home. What we do is we help them sit in small groups and talk about it.

When that man was able to talk to his wife ... [she]turns to him and says, "You've got no idea what a relief it is for you to just tell me that, because I haven't even known what's going on with you. How can I help you? How can I support you?"

Then the man's eyes filled with tears, and he said, "I didn't even know you wanted me back. You talk about how it is to be an army wife. I didn't even know you wanted to hear my feelings."

Isn't it tough to get battle-hardened men to talk about their feelings?

People always say this. It's such a funny one for us, because we don't seem to have any problem. They're not big tough soldiers when they're in front of me. They're just regular human beings like we all are, afraid of finding ourselves alone and unloved, or hearing from our partner that we can't please them, that they maybe don't want to be with us.

If you're a human being on this planet, you've got that going on. It really doesn't matter how many weapons you have in your hand.

You say in your book that when you work with soldiers and their spouses, you see them both as warriors. How so?

The soldiers are from the battlefront. But the woman is holding down the home front. And she is desperately struggling to keep this home as a safe haven for her children, for herself and her husband. She's trying to deal with all this separateness and isolation, and the fact that she does live in a different world from her partner.

I remember this woman talking about how she would see in the paper that somebody had died, and she would start to shake. And then when her husband would call, she would ... say, "Everything is wonderful here. We can't wait for you to get home."

Of course, the tricky part is, then he comes home and she's a different woman. She's had to deal with different enemies, if you like. But if you think of emotional isolation as an enemy, the woman has had to fight her own war.

You've also been approached by Canadian military officials for advice. Do you think the Canadian military is doing enough to help soldiers and their spouses?

I think that the military - by that I mean in Canada and the U.S. - are really going through a huge shift from just being concerned for the individual soldier. Of course it's taking time, but the military is starting to understand that a soldier with a strong family and strong family bonds is a more resilient soldier, and that creates a stronger army.

Are there any similarities between trauma on the battlefield and other types of trauma, like childhood abuse or a cancer diagnosis?

I think there are. We work with all kinds of people at [the Ottawa Couple and Family Institute] My colleagues work with people who've had strokes, had devastating medical diagnoses. ... I think what is common here is a sense of helplessness. That suddenly, in a moment, your life changes and you've changed. Trauma is all about our sense of losing control and how vulnerable we all are. And that comes from car accidents; that could come from anywhere.

If you had one piece of advice for all couples, what would it be?

[It]would be for all of us to be able to accept our deep need to be loved by a special person in our lives. And when in doubt, to risk reaching for that person. Because so often we've been taught not to do that.

What does your husband think about having to discuss his emotions all the time?

Well, you have to remember my husband's lived with me for 21 years, so he's used to it! But also I'm amazingly blessed with the most wonderful man. Having said that, nobody escapes this. We get stuck in the same places other couples get stuck.

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