The Uncounted: A teenager’s private battle

Posted at 3:52 PM, Mar 21, 2014
and last updated 2014-03-21 15:53:57-04

Editor’s note: One tragic number is known: 22 veterans kill themselves every day. Another is not: How many military spouses, siblings and parents are killing themselves? What is war’s true toll? This is part of a CNN report by Ashley Fantz, The Uncounted.

(CNN) – Kristi Anne Raspperry, 19, lives with her mother and father, Heather and John Moates, outside Savannah, Georgia. Heather cares full time for her husband, John, an Army veteran who developed post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Iraq. The strain of that, coupled with fights with her husband, prompted the Army wife to try overdosing on pills in 2010. Heather didn’t tell her daughter about her suicide attempt. She told Kristi Anne that she had to go to the hospital because she was sick. Kristi Anne kept her suicide fantasies a secret, too. Mother and daughter only recently began sharing these painful experiences because Kristi Anne is seeing a counselor. The following is an edited transcript of Kristi Anne’s interviews with CNN’s Ashley Fantz. John Moates did not want to talk at length with CNN but responded to his daughter’s interview with a statement, which also appears below.

I was around 11 or 12 when my dad deployed. I was very sad because my dad was going, possibly, to die and it was just, I didn’t know what was going to happen to him.

I always kind of grew up in the military brat life, so I knew that sometimes when your parents deploy, sometimes they don’t come back.

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I’d given him a small little necklace that my grandma gave to me. That way I’d make sure he came back safe.

I talked to a few of my friends whose parents had also deployed at the time so they were always there for me. You know, ‘Yeah I think my dad’s doing OK. Is your dad doing OK? Yeah, I’m not really sure about that.’

When he came home the first time, I did notice there was something kind of off about him. He was a lot more aggressive, and he didn’t laugh as much as he usually did. He didn’t really trust people as much.

Going outside, going into public, I noticed that he was a bit more cautious around people. Any loud noises, he would immediately find where it was coming from.

At the time, I had no idea what PTSD was. I just thought this is what he’s really like, but I really didn’t know who this man was now.

I was pretty much afraid of my dad after he came back from Iraq. I really didn’t talk to him that much. He wasn’t my dad; he was some monster that took his place.

It was always very heavy-feeling in the air — like there’s a giant cloud of fog everywhere. I really didn’t want to talk to anyone about it. I just thought maybe it’s a normal thing that happens in the military because I hear a lot of kids saying, ‘My parents beat me. That’s why I live with my grandparents,’ or this or that. And some kids just don’t even talk to their parents anymore.

Sometimes you would hear about a kid that had gotten beaten by his parents severely, how his or her parents are getting a divorce now because their dad is too aggressive towards them. A lot of kids would actually run away from their parents.

Friends would be using drugs like marijuana and Ecstasy, that kind of stuff, LSD, because they didn’t want to live with the fact that their lives have pretty much gone to chaos because their parents came home from the war in Iraq. I didn’t really turn to drugs because it’s always been kind of ingrained into my mind that drugs are bad.

It was during middle school when I just kind of started de-attaching myself, like emotionally, from everything. I just kind of stopped caring about what was happening. I was numb to everything.

My mom and my dad had gotten into a serious fight. There was a lot more crashing. It really freaked me out. I saw my dad cornering my mom on the wall. So I said, ‘Should I call 911?’ and she’s like, ‘Yes, you should call 911!’ So I quickly shut my door and I pushed my dresser in front of it and I took out my phone and I went to my closet and that’s when I dialed 911. I told them that my dad is, he’s a soldier and he’s really freaking out. I kept on the line with the woman just trying to make sure that I was OK, nothing bad was going to happen to me, until the police arrived.

I’m not really sure what happened after that because I kind of blanked it out from my memories because it was a bit too much. All I remember is the police took him away. I was just crying pretty much because I didn’t know what happened to my life.

I felt like after this time that my mom, because he almost physically assaulted her, it’s not going to last, she’s not going to stay with him. But I guess she did.

Usually when I came home and my dad’s in a bad mood, I would just go straight to my room. I really couldn’t go out of my room because I felt like I was suffocating under, just, everything.

Just put on my headphones and kind of tune everything out. In my room, I was in different Internet forums. You know, places where no one knows who you are. I would be in my own fantasy world.

I would go on websites where you can kind of role play with other people, websites where you could have, like, your own little virtual pets, you could meet with other people in the community. Just kind of get a sense of like, you know, a family setting. It was pretty much I had a new family.

I would talk about, like, all these thoughts I was having in my head. I always had thoughts in my head saying, ‘You’re never going to make anything of yourself. You’re worthless. You have no reason to live. There’s no one that would really stop you.’

I was around the age of 13 to 14 when I started having these really powerful emotions and feelings.

During that time, I was very depressed and I had thought about, like, committing suicide, just like end everything. Just, like, if life’s this bad, maybe, you know, death, that would make everything better for me.

You know, I could take a couple of my mom’s pills, sort of fall asleep, never wake up. I always thought about — because Fort Riley has a train system that goes through it — I could stand on the tracks, get hit by the train. Just a quick, instant death.

They were just fantasies that I would have.

I never hurt myself physically.

I never really bothered telling anyone about my problems. My mom didn’t know anything about my suicidal thoughts.

I kept all of my emotions pent up inside to the point where I would explode on anyone. That anger, it just felt, it was just so much feeling that my heart was swelling. I actually kicked a door once, and it created a giant hole.

I would scream a lot — and just not outwardly. It was more an inward scream, just for something different, for a better life.

A lot of times, a lot of this anger would go onto my mom, and I would make her cry sometimes. I would tell her, ‘I hate you. This is all your fault. You don’t deserve me.’

I really do regret saying those kinds of things.

I just felt she was dealing with my dad at the time, like I should not burden her with my problems because she had enough problems. My mom would try to spend more time with my dad, would try to make sure that he’s doing alright, make sure that he’s taking his medication. A lot of times I felt ignored.

I really started to feel my anxiety problems coming on around freshman year of high school, because, you know, all your friends in middle school, they’re not your friends anymore. They don’t talk to you anymore. They have other friends they can talk to. A lot of my old friends started going into things like drugs and alcohol, and I just felt like that’s not me.

There’s always so much pressure to be pretty, to be popular, to wear the right clothes. When I was in high school, I never wore makeup. I never really did anything with my hair. I always felt that I was very ugly, that there was nothing special about me. I felt really self-conscious to the point where sometimes I wouldn’t eat anything for the day. All I’d eat was just a bowl of rice. A lot of my depression problems and anxiety started getting very high up there.

It just got to the point where my mom said, ‘Kristi, you need to stop this.’ That’s when I started going to therapy. My therapist, she really helped me with my emotions and feelings — especially with my mom. And I also started taking Lexapro for my anxiety and my depression. It really does help. I really feel like this is the happiest I’ve been since I was 10.

Art was the best release for me because I always had a big problem conveying my emotions. If I’m angry, I would draw gruesome things, add reds here and here, thick and thin lines.

I think I was 14 when I started to see my dad’s artwork. My mom and I were unpacking boxes in the living room — just stuff we’d never gotten around to organizing. I saw these drawings of men with giant muscles, skulls, a lot of tough, cool stuff. I was like, ‘Mom whose are these? Are these Dad’s?’ He came out and was like, ‘My old drawings!’

I said, ‘These are the most amazing drawings of all time!’

That kind of inspired me to do more drawing. He’s always been very supportive. Every year at the high school, they would have a little art gallery. He would look at all the drawings, and he would look at mine, saying, ‘Oh, yours is better than the rest of these.’

Knowing that he did art, it really helped connect us more.

I could take in a deep breath and just breathe out, and I was also starting to talk more with my dad.

There was one time me and my mom got into a really big argument. I was crying real hard. I started hyperventilating because I don’t like arguing. My dad just sat down and started to rub my back. He was like, ‘It’s going to be OK, Kristi, it’s not your fault.’ At that moment that’s when I started feeling that father-daughter bond. He’s not at all a touchy-feely guy. He was rubbing my back trying to get me to calm down. I was around 17.

Me and my mom can really pick up when he’s happy. It’s really hard to see the happiness because he has a permanent scowl on his face, but you can feel it in the air when he’s happy. You look at the way he’s sitting, if he has his head up or not. I like being around him when he’s in a happy mood.

I do feel that it is my responsibility as a person who’s very able bodied, that I need to help protect my dad from all these outside sources. Like, if I’m at a movie theater and there’s people talking and I know my dad’s getting agitated, I will pretty much tell them point blank to be quiet. If we’re out in public and there’s a screaming kid and people talking really loud, I’ll try to usher my dad away. I feel like it’s my responsibility now because I know that I never tried to bond with my dad all that much in the early years.

I sometimes feel like a parent to my parents. I felt that what my dad has become is, he’s kind of become like a toddler where they’re always full of rage sometimes, and they have hissy fits and meltdowns and tantrums.

A lot of times I blamed my dad for things that happened even though it was the PTSD that was making him do it. I always felt bad because I would blame him for everything. I would blame him and my mom. Everything my mom’s gone through, everything my dad’s gone through, I owe it to them to make sure that he’s OK, that he’s safe, in a safe, comfortable zone.

I really do feel deep down in my heart that it’s my job to make sure he’s OK.

I am still scared of him. I’m scared that the next day he’s going to blow up. I’m still scared of him, but I still do trust him.

Some nights, I don’t get that much sleep, especially after a really big fight. I usually just lock my door, stay on the back part of my bed, just stay close to the wall, just thinking, ‘Is he going to come in here tonight? Should I keep my windows unlocked?’ Just in case something happens, I can jump out the window. I have my phone on me. There’s definitely been nights where I didn’t get any sleep at all because I was just scared of what’s going to happen.

In the Army, you don’t get the feeling that these people really care about the families. They just need soldiers and bodies to send out. They really need to start having family therapy and group therapy to help these kids and parents try to connect more. Tell these kids, you don’t have to be afraid because even if there’s something wrong with your parent, he or she has PTSD. If they’re yelling at you, it’s not them; it’s the PTSD that’s yelling at you.

I really do wish that the military and the VA would give — not just the wives or husbands of injured veterans but the kids — a training course in, if your parents are having a really bad day, this is what you should do.

When they say the whole family’s going to war, they don’t mean in the way that we’re all in it together. Because we’re not. When they say a family’s going to war, it means they’re going to war with each other.

A statement from Kristi Anne’s father, John Moates:

I understand these things, and it is OK for her to feel the way she does. I am constantly trying to improve my conditions, which I believe have gotten much better since those years. I am trying to work better with other people. Yes, me and my wife had an altercation like she said, but at that time, I was completely lost, and I also had been drinking alcohol, which I did often to medicate myself. She has a right to say what she observed about what she experienced. I realize that it has not been just me who has been affected by my conditions. And I understand sometimes she may be afraid that the man that once was may come back again. But I assure you that man is dead and buried. I love my wife and all my children. They have stuck with me when other people would not have. And for that I am truly thankful and blessed.

By Ashley Fantz