August 29, 2011 12:00 PM

Bernadette Manning doesn’t want anyone to know she has been crying. She hides her swollen eyes behind sunglasses and lets her husband, Ian, do the talking. “I’m not saying a word,” she warns him before they head into a room full of strangers, all couples, here for the same reason: to try to heal relationships damaged by the separation and fallout of war-zone military service.

Bernadette had agreed to attend Project Sanctuary, a free, therapeutic retreat for military families, only for their 3-year-old son’s sake. “I wanted to be able to tell Aiden I did everything I could to save my marriage to his dad,” says Bernadette, 28. Still, the shy, soft-spoken woman adds when her husband is out of earshot, she doubts six days in the Rocky Mountains will make a difference. “Things are pretty bad between us,” she says matter-of-factly.

Ian, 30, a Marine corporal, knows his marriage is in trouble. Once madly in love-he and Bernadette got engaged after two weeks of dating and wed five months later-Ian now admits, “We aren’t talking.” In February, after a tense day traveling from Virginia together, when Ian, who is often anxious and pacing the room, arrives at the retreat, he writes on an intake questionnaire, “I want to see if my marriage is salvageable and if so how to accomplish that.”

More than just a vacation at the YMCA’s Snow Mountain Ranch in Granby, Colo., the retreat offers marriage and financial counseling and outdoor activities designed to help couples and their kids feel like a family again after deployments. (See box p. 100) “These families sacrifice so much,” says Heather Ehle, a registered nurse who founded Project Sanctuary. “They’re the last to ask for help.”

War had changed Corporal Manning. A former restaurant chef, he enlisted in the Marines five years ago, with dreams of a more “exciting life,” he says, and a secure job that would provide for his family. In October of 2007 he deployed to Iraq, where his 15-man unit came under attack. He suffered no visible wounds but was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and mild traumatic brain injury. Ian, who had been “fun and affectionate,” says Bernadette, grew increasingly volatile and withdrawn after his return to Virginia Beach in 2008. He suffered nightmares: “I’d wake up screaming, drenched in sweat,” he says. He began sleeping on the couch, and over time that became his permanent bed. Though he had missed his family, he now had difficulty being around them, even during the short 48 hours they had together each week before he would return to his base at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Even his toddler son noticed. “Every time I’d leave,” Ian says, “Aiden would ask me, ‘Dad, are you coming back?'”

Far from the reunion she longed for, Ian’s homecoming was also difficult for Bernadette. The granddaughter of a Naval officer, she knew the challenges of a military wife and was proud to have her husband serve. But after seven months as a single parent while working as a teacher’s aide, she hoped Ian’s presence would mean some relief. Instead it brought heartbreak. “I could tell he didn’t want to be here,” she says, her voice drifting off. “I tried to be patient,” she confides. The more Ian avoided spending time with her and the kids (she also has a daughter, Elizabeth, 8, from a prior relationship), the more “I got used to being on my own.” Ian doesn’t blame her. In fact, throughout the week in Granby he rarely challenges his wife’s complaints; he knows he has been hard to live with. “I’d get agitated really easily,” he tells the other couples during a marriage class. “So I’d isolate myself.”

The other couples nod and listen. These are military guys-not a touchy-feely crowd that easily opens up to strangers. But they share a lot in common: Several of the husbands have similar invisible injuries. “These are the signature wounds of this war,” Col. David Sutherland, Special Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tells PEOPLE. “We come home and look the same but act different. It’s hard for our families to understand.”

Ian admits that once he returned from Iraq, he often thought about his next deployment and looked forward to training for special operations, as his father, a Navy salvage diver had. “I wanted to be there as a team leader,” he says, adding: “It’s simpler over there. No worries like bills and family fighting. Just work.” But during a physical, he learned he had contracted hepatitis C in Iraq (possibly from handling bloodied bodies during intelligence sweeps) and was deemed unfit to return to combat. “Everything I worked so hard for was gone,” he says. “All I wanted to do was be alone.”

He would leave nights, to drink by himself in a bar. His drinking problem led to behavior that got him demoted from sergeant to corporal in April 2010. When his wife started talking about divorce, Ian quit drinking for good but still suffered mood swings and was prescribed seven medications. Bernadette was tired of walking on eggshells. “When his medication kicks in, he’s fine,” she says, “but by then I’m already upset over what happened before.” Admits Ian: “Our marriage was teetering on the edge of disaster.” When his care coordinator at Camp Lejeune recommended Project Sanctuary, Ian had to bribe Bernadette to come along with the promise of skiing.

Soon they were sitting in a cabin with five other couples. Over shared meals, with little attention to rank, the husbands and wives compare notes. Amid the chatter, Bernadette says that it feels odd to dine with her husband. “Normally Ian doesn’t eat with us.”

Later their progress halts when Ian decides to skip a bowling outing because he couldn’t cope with his son’s tantrum. “I just lost it,” he says. Bernadette watches the other fathers bowl with their children; a therapist approaches her. “I think Ian and I are worse off than the other couples,” she says. Later at a marriage class, Ian is among the first to speak: “I have no middle ground anymore. I just explode. I’m fidgety, anxious. I’m on so many medications, I feel like I’m losing my mind sometimes,” he says. “It’s been really hard on Bernadette.” Bernadette buries her head in her hands; this acknowledgement of her suffering comes as a relief.

Other stories pour forth. “I feel like I have a fifth kid,” says a 37-year-old mom of four married to an Army sergeant with traumatic brain injury and PTSD. “The best advice I’ve gotten is to grieve the loss of the man you married and learn to love the man he is.” Another wife says she misses her husband’s intelligence, a casualty of his brain injury; the wife of an Army major admits she resented being left alone to care for four kids. Listening to these women, says Bernadette, “for the first time, I didn’t feel so alone.”

The next day Ian arranges a ski trip for the two of them. His initiative reminds his wife of the young guy who proposed after just 14 days. That night at dinner he makes an effort to be part of the family, getting a napkin for Aiden and making a s’more for Elizabeth. When it’s time for a portrait, a photographer coaxes Bernadette to sit on her husband’s lap. “It’s the first time we’d touched in months,” says Ian. “It was strange but it was all right,” Bernadette adds cautiously. Later the couples go out on a date night, while Ehle’s band of volunteers watches their kids back at the main cabin. As they leave the restaurant, Ian’s arm is around Bernadette’s waist.

Having this time to focus on themselves seems to have helped. In an exit survey, Bernadette writes, “It gave me enough hope to fight a little harder for my marriage.” Adds Ian: “I fell in love with my wife again.”

Today, six months later, the couple are still together and making plans. Ian finalized his medical retirement and left the Marines in July. His mood-stabilizing medications are down from seven to four. And he has started taking college classes; he hopes to become a psychologist to work with veterans struggling with the issues that have plagued him. Bernadette is working toward a teaching degree. Ian, she reports, spends more time with the family on outings to the playground and water park, two places he used to avoid because of the noise and crowds. Now when Ian leaves the house, he says, “Aiden doesn’t ask me if I’m coming back.” But their marriage, both say, is not yet out of the woods. “We have good days and bad days,” says Bernadette. When Ian, in a fit of temper, punched a hole in the wall after the bathroom flooded, she says, “That was a bad day.” Later she decides to cover the holes by hanging photos from the retreat. Ian contributed a sign, which she hung over their bed. It says, simply, “I love you Bernadette.”

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