Why veterans have intimacy issues

Story highlights

  • Lee Woodruff: For veterans, relationships and marriages are a private and a taboo subject
  • VA needs to discuss military families' needs regarding intimacy and fertility problems

Lee Woodruff is an author, journalist and co-founder of the Bob Woodruff Foundation. Her husband, Bob Woodruff, was seriously injured by a roadside bomb that struck his vehicle near Taji, Iraq, while reporting on U.S. and Iraqi security forces for ABC's "World News Tonight" in 2006. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)"I feel like I'm sleeping next to my brother."

The soldier's wife answered my "how are you doing" question with a mixture of sorrow and shame. Her husband had returned from Afghanistan with a traumatic brain injury and a missing limb. In an unguarded moment, she was mourning the loss of the emotional and physical connection they once enjoyed. Her achingly honest answer was my first glimpse into an aspect of war that no one really wants to talk about, sexual intimacy. Or lack thereof.
Thanks to 14 years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, we've become versed at discussing the wounds of war. Most of us have heard of traumatic brain injury and amputation, or the hidden wounds like post-traumatic stress disorder that change personalities and behavior.
    Lee Woodruff
    But the big shameful secret about coming home from war is what does, or what doesn't, happen when the bedroom door closes. That connectivity in relationships or marriages is both a private and a taboo subject in our society.
    For many couples, once the acute healing is finished, the impact of combat injury on sexual health, intimacy and fertility is perhaps the biggest heartbreak. While sexual health is a huge contributor to overall mental health, this is an often overlooked and uncomfortable subject.
    Until recently, VA physicians weren't required to include questions about relationships and sexuality in their checkups with injured patients. For many couples, starting that conversation without an entry point is impossible, laden with the shame of failure.
    When my journalist husband Bob was critically injured in Iraq in 2006, it took a full year before I let my breath out. I was pulled in so many directions as a wife, mother and with work, that sleep was my only constant craving. The concept of sex felt more like summiting Everest. In those early days, I was almost afraid to touch him, horrified by the metal staples in his head and the trauma of life interrupted as he lay in a coma for five weeks.