real life

Paul returned from Iraq a different man. 5 years later, he said his final goodbye to Wanda.

This post deals with suicide and might be triggering for some readers.

Ever since Wanda Sprenger was young, Remembrance Day has always been important. But when she met Paul, it took on a whole new meaning, that would continue to transform in ways she wouldn’t have been able comprehend when she first met the passionate reservist.

As the Sprengers fell in love, married, and had two children, Remembrance Day was an important day in their calendar. One for the family to stop and reflect.

Paul went full time and was deployed to Iraq as an engineer not long after their second, Sarah, was born.

“Why do you have to go? Why is this so important?” Wanda remembers asking him.

On the 100th anniversary of Remembrance Day, it’s not just about those who served. It’s about those they loved. Post continues after video.

Video by Legacy Brisbane

“It’s like practicing in a football team all week and never getting on the field on Sunday. I want to use my skills,” was his reply. She wasn’t going to argue with that.

Paul was eventually discharged in 2008, but from the moment he came home, he was different.

“We sort of had this absence from military anything for a while. I still personally took time out on Remembrance Day but we didn’t watch movies, the news, anything where they talked about war. It was like a blank out zone,” Wanda told Mamamia.

Paul’s personality changed. He was stressed, irritable, and absent.

Paul Sprenger
Paul was determined to serve, and was deployed not long after his youngest Sarah was born. Image: Supplied.
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"He came back to a stressful work environment and two young kids and I didn't know any better," said Wanda. She just tried to give him space and time to readjust.

While he'd been away their eldest Dominic had been diagnosed with autism, and Wanda's days were too full to focus on her husband's needs.

"I was so wrapped up. That plays on my mind, why didn't I see it? How could I have missed it? But I was at speech therapy and occupational therapy and psychology and paediatrician appointments. I expected that my grown husband would take care of his own health needs," she said.

They had no idea he had PTSD.

Five years later, the Sprengers went on a holiday to New Zealand. They flew home in the August and what followed was eight weeks of hell.

sprenger
An early family photo of the Sprenger family. Image: Supplied.

"It was a nightmare, it was living a hell," said Wanda. "It's when his behaviour really changed."

He'd pick fights, he was verbally abusive, he'd storm out of the house. Wanda later learnt from a trauma counsellor that he'd been using military interrogation tactics on her.

"He'd flick the lights on and off and ask the same questions over and over again. It was really scary," she told Mamamia.

Eight weeks in, on a Thursday, was the first time he spoke about self harm. By the Tuesday, he was dead.

"He'd gone to work the Monday night after losing his shit again, he left about midnight. At 5am he rang and was still at work and I said, 'you've got to come home and get some sleep.' He was just sobbing," remembers Wanda. Her husband wasn't one to cry a lot, he sounded broken.

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"Sometime between then and 9am something happened. He rang me and he'd gone for a walk. He told me that was it, he'd called to say goodbye. By the time I had tried to get back to him he'd gone. I was driving like a mad thing trying to get home and I was about halfway there - five minutes away - when he hung up," she said.

It wouldn't be until the following morning that he was found, he died by suicide in the bushes at the end of their street.

Wanda found him about 5am after ignoring police pleas for her to wait for them. She'd left the house too stressed to sleep, and before daylight, when the search was to resume.

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The family, a few weeks before Paul's death. Image: Supplied.

It was the worst two days of Wanda's life. It's hard to decide if finding her husband, or telling her children was harder. Sarah had also been diagnosed with autism by this point, adding a whole new layer to that conversation.

"Does that mean you can get married again?" a then seven-year-old Sarah asked.

"Can I have his computer?" asked 10-year-old Dom.

"You have to keep your shit together and answer that logically. Because with autism, it's black and white," said Wanda. "Sometimes it's a blessing and sometimes it's a curse. But it sheltered them because they didn't have the comprehension in that moment. It took weeks for them to really understand what was happening."

After Paul's death, Remembrance Day took on new meaning again. It was another reminder to add to the list - another day like his birthday, Father's Day, Christmas, ANZAC Day. Another day that tore back open the wounds and reminded the Sprengers of their loss.

One of the hardest things about PTSD is that it changes a person. The Paul from those last five years, is not the Paul Wanda met 18 years prior. But the most recent memories are the most vivid.

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Dominic remembers his father as stern, while Sarah remembers him on the computer all the time - isolating himself and not 'playing' with her.

Paul and Dom
Paul and Dom, January 2013. Image: Supplied.

Wanda has so many more memories. She remembers the guy that would pack up the car spontaneously for a road trip, and can dissociate him with the man who'd freak out if she suggested a movie within the hour.

"I had all of these photos of him [at the memorial we held for him] in fancy dress and my friend was like, 'who is this guy? This is not the guy I met?' She met Paul after Iraq," explained Wanda. Before that he was funny, goofy, light-hearted and always smiling.

Treating his illness (once they knew what it was) was hard. They tried psychology, but Paul struggled to open up.

"With the psychologist he'd be like 'I can't talk about that, it's classified' and I was like 'babe, it's a psychologist there's confidentiality.' But it didn't work," said Wanda.

"If someone has a serious life threatening physical condition, doctors put them into a medically induced coma so they can heal the body. You can't do that with the brain, there's no way to turn it off while you fix it," she explained.

Over the years, Remembrance Day has transformed into something positive again.

"It's really hard for me, we don't have a graveyard to visit Paul, but I go to the War Memorial and put a poppy on the plaque there. That's the time when I can take time out to send my thoughts to wherever he might be floating around and everyone else who sacrificed to the country.

"As time goes on, I can appreciate his service in a more positive light instead of being resentful and hurt and angry," said Wanda.

Sprenger family without Paul
The family in 2019. Dom is now 16-years-old and Sarah, 13. Image: Supplied.
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Sadly suicide and PTSD is a common story among war families. Wanda finds comfort in a community of other war widows, and in Legacy Brisbane, who were the ones who helped her fight for compensation after Paul's death.

It took a good 18 months for the reality to truly sink in for Wanda.

"I couldn't stop leaking. I lost it. I would cry randomly at work," she told Mamamia. 'What is my future now?' was the question she couldn't quite grapple with.

They'd had plans for retirement, plans for renovations, and for the kid's education. "Suddenly I have to do it all myself, which is probably the hardest part. Not having a sounding board," said Wanda.

"I like to think there are days when I am okay. I am doing okay," she said of life now, in 2019. "There's always that awkward moment when people are like 'when are you going to move on and find someone new?' Yeah no, maybe never. I am okay with just being alone."

Instead she's throwing herself into her passion - travel. She and the kids have been to New Zealand, Mexico, Haiti, Fiji, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, America, Jamaica... with plans to tick so much more of the world off their list.

As for Remembrance Day, it's now a day where Wanda can find peace.

Today marks the 100th anniversary, and with over 3,000 ADF personnel currently still serving both overseas and in Australia, she implores you to take a moment to pause.

"That minute of silence and hearing the Last Post, it touches your soul. It's a sense of connectedness with our servicemen and women," she told Mamamia.

For Wanda, it's also a moment that allows her to be closer to Paul.

You can dedicate a poppy in Legacy's virtual poppy field at www.domore.org.au. Lest We Forget.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, please contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

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