(74) What Does Your Navigation System Say About You?

Molly, the service dog

Golly, Miss Molly

A blog about a service dog and her veteran with PTSD

(Supporting the veteran and the family caregiver)


GPS Navigation Orientation 

My husband installed a GPS navigation system on his truck. This week, we took a short trip to one of his favorite communities. Wrapping around mountains, his navigation system guided him smoothly through our trip. I tried helping but found myself dizzy from the switchbacks. If I could get my bearing north, I knew my navigator instincts would kick in.

I never found my bearings—at least until the Denver skyline appeared on our way home. My husband always sets his navigation system to rotate with the direction of the vehicle. I always set my navigation system with the orientation fixed northward. My orientation drives him nuts and his orientation makes me nauseous.

Gender Differences or PTSD 

I wonder if this orientation preference rests in our genders. Perhaps I can blame it on PTSD. These differences extend beyond GPS. My husband loves to move after two or three years in a house. I want roots; I long to watch neighbor kids grow up and see them return to their homes with their children. My husband loves the chase for anything new. I prefer repurposing something old. He drives fast while I cry out for him to slow down, clenching the armrest until my knuckles turn white. The Hobbit, Game of Thrones, and anything fantasy thrills his soul. I prefer FBI stories, political suspense, and non-fiction. The list of differences goes on.

The Need for Speed

Trying to sort out what is gender-driven and what results from PTSD makes me as dizzy as his navigation setting. I searched the literature for symptoms of PTSD. My hunt ended with references to the Veteran needing the adrenaline-rush to feel alive after returning from war. A video on the National Center for PTSD featured an Afghanistan Veteran complaining that his wife always criticizes him for driving too fast, ignoring traffic signs, and driving dangerously. The need for speed is identified with the hyper-vigilance warriors needed to survive in war. Returning home, hyper-vigilance remains, showing up in other ways, including speed behind the wheel and road rage.

Although Charles Figley’s book, Stress Disorders Among Vietnam Veterans, focuses on a war long past, the symptoms identified in Vietnam Veterans remain the basis of today’s PTSD findings.

The atmosphere of terror and counter-terror saturated the lives of the GIs as well—though its impact on them was seldom officially acknowledged. This led to sensory dislocation. Emotionally anesthetized, ethically immunized, without bearings, disconnected from any human reality, our anti-guerilla warriors existed in a dreamlike sleepwalker’s no-man’s land. (Figley, 45)

A Veteran’s Perception of the World

To make a warrior and equip him/her to survive, the old perceptions of reality must be broken down—just as the individual must be broken to serve. A new reality emerges that makes the warrior combat-ready. Once returning home, the old perceptions again resurface but are distorted from combat. Often, the warrior retreats to his/her isolated world of disturbed perceptions.

Reading through Figley’s book, I saw fragments of my husband’s unusual behaviors in a new way. I became less judgmental, more understanding, and learned to approach him gently with what I observed. This opened the door to dialogue and brought positive changes in behaviors and attitudes to both of us.

The journey of marriage to a disabled Veteran with PTSD promises a life of challenges. Often frightening in the beginning, as a Veteran adjusts to life back at home, he/she works through the oddity of behaviors and perceptions, struggling to make sense of them. With medical help and the love of a supportive family, the Veteran’s perceptions begin aligning closer with reality and less with the isolated world he or she retreated into when returning from war.

Backseat Driver

Molly must have taken PTSD 101 with her service dog training, as William’s symptoms never bother her. In fact, she follows his direction without challenge, never passes judgment, and clings to him when his moods shift with the wind. Maybe on our next mountain excursion, I will give Molly the navigator’s seat up front and I’ll chew on her rawhide bone while retreating to the safety of the backseat—oh, no, then I’d really be a backseat driver.

Post your Comments: 

Can you identify with any of the PTSD symptoms mentioned as a Veteran, caregiver, or friend of a Veteran? Please comment below.  

About the blogger 

Dr. Penelope “Penny” Culbreth-Graft is a retired city manager and graduate professor. She lives with her disabled Vietnam Veteran husband, William, and his service dog, Molly, on Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. She writes, paints, cares for her husband, and spends time with her grandchildren.