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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

One family's struggle with PTSD and life after war

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

There are many stories about how going to war impacts individuals. But what about the impact of overseas service on families? As we continue our series, Beyond the Battlefield, meet a family whose members have fought battles overseas and back home as well.

"No" is not an option

Simone Luu was a hospital corpsman with the Navy for 11 years, and if you ask her what she learned from her time in the military, her answer is short and direct: No is never a good answer for anything. "I won't say no just because I don't know how to do it. I will figure it out some way, somehow," says the 35-year old. "I will get it to work."

That was her game plan in the field; it’s how she responded to medical emergencies.  But she could just as easily be talking about her own family.

When Daddy has a sad day

Simone Luu has two daughters, seven-year old Eva and four-year old Grace. They’re total cuties who talk non-stop about everything -- from their favorite animals (Grace's is a zebra, Eva's is a panda) to their dog Penny, to what they want to be when they grow up.

We talk about "why Daddy's sad or Daddy's having a hard time."

When it comes to the topic of what their parents did in the military, they're a little less talkative. They know some stuff, like how both their mom and dad "were in the Navy, but they helped with the Marines," but that's about as far as it goes. Simone Luu says she sometimes talks with her girls about what it was like to serve in the military, especially when their dad is having one of his "sad" days. "We sit down and talk about why Daddy's sad or Daddy's having a hard time," explains Simone.

Grace and Eva’s dad, Simone’s husband, is John Luu, and he has PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

The aftermath of war

Like his wife, he was a corpsman with the Navy. But whereas Simone served mostly stateside after September 11, 2001, John went overseas to Iraq. During his first deployment he was exposed to more than 100 IED explosions, and he witnessed the death of his best friend.

When he came back home, Simone says John wasn’t “all there.” She knew something was wrong, but he didn’t get any help.

Then he went back overseas for his second deployment, where he missed the birth of his first daughter, Eva. When he came back home to his wife and new baby girl, he realized he was in pain:

"I may not understand exactly what it means to be in war, but I fought my own battle at home and keeping my home together, and keeping my husband a whole person." - Simone Luu

John Luu says he was "able to acknowledge the fact that the things I was putting aside were starting to affect our family," so he talked to Simone about it and said, "I've had some time to process this and it's time to move forward." He knew he needed help.

Since then, John has been through a lot of therapy – group therapy, art therapy, individual therapy. Some days he’d come home so emotionally and physically drained from all the medications and therapies that his wife says it was all he could do to walk in the door, say "I love you" to Simone and baby Eva, "and then he'd go straight to video games and wouldn't speak the rest of the night."

The last big therapy push John did came after the birth of his second daughter, Grace. It was a program in Kentucky that took him away from his family for two months. That was tough on Simone and the kids, but when he came back, he seemed better.

Every day is still a challenge. There are specific sounds, triggers that can throw him. This week in particular with all the Fourth of July fireworks is particularly hard, but they work through it as a family. "I may not understand exactly what it means to be in war," says Simone Luu, "but I fought my own battle at home and keeping my home together, and keeping my husband a whole person."

She says they have friends who have gotten divorced because of issues surrounding PTSD. Simone wasn’t going to let that happen. She took what she learned in the military and applied it to her life. She and John and Eva and Grace were going to get through it no matter what, as a family.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.