Wife helps ex-sol­dier with PTSD out of emo­tional fox­hole

Post Tribune (Sunday) - - Front Page - jdavich@post-trib.com Twit­ter@jdavich

Like the good Army sol­dier he was trained to be, Wil­liam

“Billy” Mil­ner Jr. be­came pro­fi­cient at pre­tend­ing noth­ing was wrong with his troubled men­tal health. Some­thing, though, has been very wrong since he re­turned from two tours of com­bat duty in Iraq.

“I felt use­less,” Mil­ner said. “I felt worth­less to ev­ery­one in my life. I lost all my self-es­teem, pride and honor.”

Mil­ner, 42, served in Iraq as an E-4 com­bat spe­cial­ist from late 2004 to early 2006, and again from late 2006 to late 2007. While there, he saw the bloody, deadly car­nage of war, up close and per­sonal, too many times.

His mind can’t erase what it wit­nessed.

“I tried my best to hide it, but some­thing al­ways trig­gered it,” said Mil­ner, who lives in ru­ral Ch­ester­ton, In­di­ana.

Af­ter re­tir­ing from the Army in 2008, Mil­ner was di­ag­nosed with post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der, trau­matic brain in­jury and re­lated phys­i­cal ail­ments. He’s been in and out of treat­ment pro­grams, un­able to cope with the flash­backs that fol­lowed him home.

“In com­bat, we’re trained to deal with this kind of stress by hid­ing it, to fo­cus on the mis­sion,” Mil­ner said. “There’s no time to process all th­ese emo­tions when we’re fo­cused on just stay­ing alive and keeping our unit alive.”

Soon af­ter re­turn­ing to the U.S., while sta­tioned at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, Mil­ner felt am­bushed when he over­heard some­one speak­ing in Ara­bic.

“I snapped,” Mil­ner said, “and I got pro­gres­sively worse ever since.”

This past sum­mer, “I hit rock bot­tom. I was so tired of feel­ing very an­gry or very de­pressed.”

Mil­ner qui­etly told me that he at­tempted to take his life.

“I was in a very dark place,” he said. “Some­thing had to be

done.”

His wife, Tif­fany Mil­ner, also knew that some­thing had to be done.

“Every sin­gle day, we lose 22 mil­i­tary vet­er­ans to sui­cide,” she said. “As a spouse, every sin­gle day, I pray that my hus­band doesn’t be­come one of those 22.”

She has re­moved all the firearms from their home. She ex­plained to their chil­dren about their fa­ther’s cry­ing, yelling and sadness. She once stood in front of a tree that her hus­band was speed­ing to­ward with his ve­hi­cle.

“I knew he wouldn’t hurt me even though he wanted to hurt him­self,” she said. “That’s a heavy weight for him to carry.”

In­stead, he took a base­ball bat to the fam­ily’s pole barn.

“My hus­band is very good at pre­tend­ing noth­ing is wrong,” Tif­fany Mil­ner said. “What he hides from the world is more than most of us will ever know.”

When I thanked Billy Mil­ner for his mil­i­tary ser­vice, he in­stinc­tively replied, “Thank you for your sup­port.”

His wife re­minded me that he doesn’t see com­bat vet­er­ans as heroes of any kind.

“He sees the op­po­site,” she said. “He sees a man who is jolted awake every night by the night­mares of what hap­pened in Iraq, a man who is think­ing of end­ing his life.”

In Septem­ber, she learned about the Eisen­hower Cen­ter, a res­i­den­tial treat­ment fa­cil­ity in Manch­ester, Mich. It caters to mil­i­tary vet­er­ans with PTSD and brain in­juries.

She asked her hus­band what he thought about the fa­cil­ity by pre­tend­ing it was for an­other troubled vet­eran. Billy Mil­ner agreed that it looked help­ful for vet­er­ans in his des­per­ate sit­u­a­tion. But he wasn’t con­vinced it was for him.

In Oc­to­ber, the cou­ple wel­comed a grand­daugh­ter into their large fam­ily. Friends and fam­ily saw cheer­ful­look­ing pho­tos of Mil­ner cradling the baby at the hospi­tal. What they didn’t see was his melt­down in the back of the cou­ple’s eight-acre prop­erty.

“He was cry­ing hys­ter­i­cally be­cause it trig­gered a mem­ory of a baby in Iraq dy­ing in his arms,” his wife said.

Af­ter that in­ci­dent, Tif­fany Mil­ner per­suaded her hus­band to try the Eisen­hower Cen­ter. He moved there in mid-Oc­to­ber for up to a 90-day stay, de­pend­ing on fund­ing.

“Com­ing here was a huge step for me,” Mil­ner told me by phone from the cen­ter.

He is learn­ing to re­al­ize things he never be­lieved in his past — such as, he’s not the only com­bat vet­eran with men­tal health prob­lems, and civil­ians ac­tu­ally care about his trou­bles.

“This fa­cil­ity is treat­ing the root of my is­sues, not just treat­ing my symp­toms, and they’re do­ing it with tools and tech­niques that help me deal with my trig­gers,” he said.

His wife makes reg­u­lar three-hour treks to visit him, of­ten stay­ing overnight at a lo­cal mo­tel. On her Face­book page, “Tif­fany Marie Mil­ner,” she has posted about fundrais­ing to help pay for her lodg­ing, gas and re­lated ex­penses.

On Vet­er­ans Day, Nov. 11, she will be speak­ing at the Op­er­a­tion Halo fundrais­ing event, hosted by the Patriot Project/Mis­sion 22, a na­tional non­profit vet­er­ans’ as­sis­tance or­ga­ni­za­tion with an of­fice in Illi­nois. Pro­ceeds will go to­ward the pur­chase of an ed­u­ca­tional tour bus to raise aware­ness of vet­eran sui­cides and PTSD.

“Spouses and fam­i­lies of th­ese troubled vet­er­ans don’t know what to do in th­ese sit­u­a­tions,” said Johnny Bo­ersma, the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s di­rec­tor of op­er­a­tions. “They need to be ed­u­cated so they can help th­ese vet­er­ans, like Tif­fany helped Billy.”

The event is set for 5 p.m. Sun­day at 115 Bour­bon Street, an en­ter­tain­ment com­plex, at 3359 W. 115th St. in Mer­rionette, Ill. Tick­ets are $30, with din­ner, drinks and live en­ter­tain­ment in­cluded. For more in­for­ma­tion, visit www.pa­tri­ot­pro­ject22.com.

Bo­ersma, who lives in St. John, met me at the Mil­ners’ home in Ch­ester­ton to per­son­ally praise Tif­fany Mil­ner for her ef­forts to do what­ever it takes to res­cue her hus­band from his de­mons.

“Some wives leave their hus­bands be­cause they just can’t deal with it,” Bo­ersma said. “But not Tif­fany. She’s been the good sol­dier on his be­half.”

Billy Mil­ner is slowly, yet con­fi­dently, emerg­ing from his emo­tional fox­hole.

“This is truly an amaz­ing place,” he said of Eisen­hower Cen­ter. “My wife saved my life by bring­ing me here. I feel hope­ful again.”

Watch a video and view more pho­tos at www.post-trib.com/opin­ion

Jerry Davich

TIF­FANY MIL­NER PHOTO

Tif­fany Mil­ner ad­vo­cated for her hus­band, Billy, an Army vet­eran who suf­fers from PTSD af­ter two com­bat tours in Iraq.

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