Hunter, 32, worked as a roughneck on an oilrig in the Gulf of Mexico. Married to Jennifer for seven years, they are the parents of an 18- month-old daughter, Casey. Unlike our other group members, Hunter’s PTSD was caused by a natural disaster: a rain-wrapped F2 tornado that struck at night, destroying their mobile home and nearly killing his infant daughter.
Hunter was in the middle of a two-week stretch on the rig when he was called to the office for an emergency call. His heart raced as he reached for the phone: was it his dad’s heart? Was the baby all right?
His worry turned to ire when he realized that Jennifer was sobbing because of a storm.
A storm. Seriously?
She babbled, “ . . .the trailer was moving! I’ve been up all night holding Casey so I could save time getting out the door and I had my car keys and my purse and then I thought, ‘Maybe we’ll be okay here,’ and we got into the bathtub a few times when the rain stopped and it got real quiet and I thought, ‘This is it!’ I mean, if you’d been here, you’d have felt this house moving… I think it was stupid not to leave; we could have been—”
Hunter sighed loudly, hoping she’d pick up on his irritation, but his wife didn’t stop talking. He made a face at the office clerk across the desk from him, rolled his eyes, held the phone away from his ear, and rocked his head side-to-side as he mouthed, “Bitch, bitch, bitch.”
The other guy snorted and turned back to his computer monitor.
Hunter put the phone to his ear again: “ . . .and I know you hate it if we go to my mom’s when it storms since she thinks our trailer is dangerous, but I was so scared, and the windows were rattling, and—”
He cut her off. “You called me off the job at four-fucking-o’clock in the morning to tell me that it rained?”
Jennifer was silent a second, then picked up where she left off, as if she’d practiced what she would say. “I wanted to ask you, because, you know… we’re all caught up on bills now and your truck’s just about paid off, and”—she talked faster—“I’ve figured out our money and I called and asked this realtor and she said we can buy a house in that new development in town with just a small down payment, so can we please move into a—you know—a regular house… so you can be sure Casey and I are safe when you’re not home?”
That again? Hunter crossed his arms, leaned against a desk, and gave Jen his usual shut-’er-up talk in his most biting voice: “You know, it sure would be nice if you appreciated what I do for you instead of being a spoiled princess, always wanting more. If you’re so unhappy with what I give you, take your shit and get out, but leave my daughter with my mother, because if you think I’ll leave her to be raised up to be a spoiled bitch like you, you’re crazy.”
Hunter knew which buttons to push with Jennifer: You grew up privileged; I didn’t; I had to work for everything I have; nobody gave me anything; I didn’t get a brand new car on my 16th birthday; your mama never worked a day in her life; my mom raised us on her own… ”
But this time was different. Instead of retreating when he verbally beat her down, Jennifer’s words turned slow, deliberate, and cold: “You don’t understand. You are there, and I am here. Watch the news when you get a chance, and you’ll see how close it came to hitting us. I love you, Hunter, but, please . . . I can’t keep living this way.”
“Then don’t!” Hunter slammed down the receiver and went back to work.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky when Hunter pulled into his driveway. It hadn’t stormed again since Jen’s panicked phone call; at least he assumed it hadn’t. Their only communication between that early morning phone call and the moment Hunter shifted into Park had been an email in which he sweetly suggested that she have a girls’ night out when he got home.
“You’ve been doing everything,” he wrote. “I think a break would be good for you. Get your friends together and go to Dallas. Love you…” He figured the offer would guarantee they wouldn’t fight the entire time he was off, and, hopefully, he’d get laid, too.
Her response was two letters: “OK.”
When he made the offer of a night off to Jennifer, he had no idea that Casey had an ear infection; he only found out when he was handed the medication schedule as Jennifer walked out the door with her overnight bag.
To say that Hunter was irritated would be an understatement; however, he soothed his mood with the fifth of Jack Daniel’s whiskey that he put away after Casey’s pain medication finally kicked in and she dozed off. Halfway through it, he raised the bottle in the general direction of Casey’s nursery and gave a toast: “Here’s to difficult women.”
He made his way to bed, clicked on the ball game, and promptly passed out.
Jennifer made at least twelve panicked calls from her hotel room in Dallas. The text alerts interrupted her night out and made her so queasy that she’d left her friends at the comedy club to return to the hotel and watch weather reports. Doppler radar showed a hook echo in the red blob centered over their town, and Jennifer nearly fainted. She left messages for Hunter and tried to call everyone she knew, until a recording told her that all circuits were busy.
Hunter never even heard a thunderclap. The F2 tornado lifted his home and slammed it to the ground. Regaining consciousness, he wasn’t sure if he was inside or outside; it seemed there was no difference in the two. He raised his head and gasped at the pain in his right temple. Pinned in place by what he guessed was his chest of drawers, a blurry feeling of dread crystallized into horror: Casey.
Hunter roared with frustration and agony as he extracted himself from the obstruction. What felt like hours was only moments before he was free, and sharp hail pelted him as he tripped and limped through the remains of his home.
Morning was breaking when kitten-like cries attracted the attention of a firefighter searching for survivors. He found 18-month-old Casey under debris a hundred yards away from the decimated mobile home. She was unresponsive and near death.
Hunter, his face ashen and his head bandaged, could barely look at Jennifer and her parents when they entered the pediatric ICU waiting room. Casey was on life support; the swelling in her brain needed to recede before surgery could be performed. If she survived, it was almost certain that she would be severely developmentally delayed.
Although Jennifer refrained from recriminations, her mother did not. In no uncertain terms, she made clear that she held Hunter responsible for her granddaughter’s condition.
Uncharacteristically, he had no response.
Hunter returned to work on the offshore oilrig a month later, but he was not the same guy who cracked jokes with the office clerk and rolled his eyes at Jennifer’s tornado concerns. Fearing the inevitable nightmares, Hunter did not sleep willingly. Even when exhaustion insisted on surrender to sleep, he startled awake multiple times.
Loud sounds, especially crashes, caused Hunter to wince and hunker down, and it did not matter where he was or what he was doing. He had no control over his response to his surroundings. Rainy weather undid him, and he became obsessive about knowing exactly what he would be doing every moment of the day. Unexpected changes to his schedule triggered irritability, but Hunter was short-tempered even when things went as he thought they would.
He communicated with Jennifer only when absolutely necessary, and always through email. Maintaining focus while communicating with her was hard enough, but when Hunter had to discuss his daughter, words were especially difficult to find.
Three months after the tornado, Casey was released from the hospital. Jennifer brought her severely injured toddler to her parents’ home, where they set up a crib in the corner of Jennifer’s childhood bedroom. Divorce proceedings began shortly afterward, and Jennifer’s request for full custody was uncontested. Hunter could not even bear to visit his child, much less consider raising her alone.
Time-off created anxiety in Hunter, and he felt as if he had been dropped into the middle of a horrible dream. The realization that his life was real, not a nightmare, enraged and destroyed him. He crashed at his sister’s house when he was off, but he drank whiskey from the moment he crossed her threshold until twenty-four hours before he had to report for his next shift on the rig.
Five months after Hunter lost his home and family, a rigger was nearly killed in a workplace accident, and Hunter was determined to be at fault. He failed a blood alcohol test and was fired on the spot.
Unable to find employment in the oil industry, Hunter returned to his sister’s house, where he spent his days watching Animal Planet and his nights at Rita’s, a bar in the next town over, where he occupied the third barstool from the right at a long table the locals called “Asshole Alley.” Hunter lived up to the label. Following an incident in which he held a knife on the bar’s namesake and threatened to slice her head off, his lawyer advised him to hightail it to a counselor, in hopes the trial judge would go easier on him.