Soldier With PTSD, Woman Who Lost Husband To It, Find Solace Together

Originally published on January 31, 2015 11:20 am

StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative records stories from those who have served since 9/11 and their loved ones.

Stefanie Pelkey, 39, is a former Army captain. Her husband, Michael, served in Iraq as an Army captain in 2003 and struggled when he returned.

"When he came back, he wasn't the same person that left. His light was gone. That's the only way I know how to say it," she says. "He just didn't joke around anymore. He had a lot of anxiety. He'd shake his legs a lot while he was sitting there talking, like, he'd tap his feet a lot.

"Also, he started sleeping with a gun," she says. "He would sleep with it under his pillow. So he sought help, and probably about a month after, he took his life — he shot himself in our living room."

Pelkey told a congressional committee in 2005 that it was only a week before Michael died in 2004 that he first was diagnosed with PTSD — by a therapist outside the military's system because its own therapists were booked up for months.

Army Sgt. T.J. Hart, 49, a friend of Stefanie, tells her he knows what Michael was feeling when he killed himself: nothing.

"It's a numbness. I didn't feel like I was doing anything wrong," he says. "I thought I was doing my family the right thing. And it's so easy to justify and say, 'Maybe the right thing for me is to just disappear.' "

Hart and Pelkey met while volunteering at a veterans center in Houston. Hart, another veteran of the Iraq war who has struggled with PTSD, tells Pelkey that he had attempted suicide himself.

"I can tell you what it's like to pull that trigger," he says. "For me, the round didn't go off. I don't know why."

According to a 2012 Veterans Affairs report, 22 veterans commit suicide every day.

Pelkey says she hopes she's helped Hart see suicide isn't the answer to his problems; Hart says she's now like a little sister to him.

"You remind me every day of what I can do to my family, with one slip," he says. "Never once did I think about the aftermath, the sadness, the things that I would miss. And, you've reminded me of that."


Produced for Weekend Edition by Nadia Reiman.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Let's hear now from StoryCorps Military Voices Initiative, recording stories from those who've served since 9/11 and their loved ones. Today, two people connected the invisible wounds of war. Stefanie Pelkey is a former U.S. Army captain. Her husband served in Iraq in 2003 and was diagnosed with PTSD when he returned. Army Sergeant T.J. Hart is also a veteran of the Iraq War. He also struggles with PTSD. Stefanie and T.J. became friends while volunteering at a veteran center in Houston, Texas. At StoryCorps, they talked about what happened once Stefanie's husband came home from war.

CAPTAIN STEFANIE PELKEY: When he came back, he wasn't the same person that left. His light was gone. That's the only way I know how to say it. He just didn't joke around anymore. He had a lot of anxiety. He'd shake his legs a lot while he was sitting there talking, like he'd tap his feet a lot. Also, he started sleeping with a gun, and he would sleep with it under his pillow, so he sought help. And probably about a month after, he took his life. He shot himself in our living room.

Does that sound familiar to you?

SERGEANT T.J. HART: Oh, yeah, it definitely does. I can tell you what was in your husband's mind 'cause it was in mine. I can tell you what it's like to pull that trigger. For me, the round didn't go off. I don't know why. There's no feeling. It's a numbness. I didn't feel like I was doing anything wrong. I thought I was doing my family the right thing. And it's so easy to justify and say maybe the right thing for me is to just disappear.

PELKEY: Well, I hope that I came into your life to show you that that's not the answer. I wouldn't have wanted to sit here and share this with anybody else because I know you understand.

HART: Stefanie, you are my little sister now. You remind me every day of what I could do to my family with one slip. Never once did I think about the aftermath - the sadness, the things that I would miss. And you've reminded me of that.

SIMON: Sergeant T.J. Hart with his friend, Captain Stefanie Pelkey, whose husband Captain Michael Pelkey committed suicide after he returned home from Iraq. He died in 2004. This interview was recorded in Houston as part of StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative. And it will be archived at the U.S. Library of Congress. You can hear more on the podcast. It's on iTunes and npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.