When soldiers come home from war

By Carolyn Yoder | May 30th, 2012

Soldiers come home from war with visible and invisible wounds. Here are four common realities veterans face, and nine suggestions for support.

Reality #1: Returning to civilian life involves a number of significant changes. In a short period of time, service personnel may go from the discomfort and close quarters of military life to the comforts of civilian life, from an environment of danger the safety of home, from a situation of receiving and giving orders to the give and take of family life.[i]

How to be supportive:

  • Expect that finding the new normal will take time. During the time away, the soldier has changed. So has the family who stayed behind. Roles have shifted. Family dynamics are affected. The readjustment won’t happen overnight.
  • Refrain from playing down problems or needs that emerge. Long-term distress in trauma survivors is strongly linked to others expecting the survivor to recover more quickly than is realistic. [ii] At the same time, don’t excuse or tolerate abusive behavior.
  • Seek help from a member of the clergy, mental health professionals, or trusted family members if issues are difficult to talk about. Even if the veteran refuses to go for help, family members can benefit from seeking advice and support for themselves.

Reality #2: Soldiers expect to experience the fight-flight response when undertaking dangerous missions or coming under attack.  But in the safety of home, battle-similar sights, sounds or smells can trigger outbursts of irrational and erratic behaviors that are distressing to both the veteran and to loved ones.

How to be supportive:

Practice the following physiological first aid techniques during times of calm so that everyone is prepared when this type of brain hijacking occurs. They interrupt intense hyperarousal. Even if the veteran opts not to participate, the rest of the family will benefit by using the exercises to keep them calm and centered.

  • Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) short-circuits hyper-reactions simply by tapping acupressure points.  This calms the emotional centers of the brain and balances the nervous system and body’s energy system. Instructions for this simple but effective practice are at  www.eftuniverse.com
  • Autogenic breathing is taught to law enforcement officers, Green Berets and other elite forces to help them perform well under high stress: Breathe in to the count of one-two-three-four. Hold, one-two-three-four; Breathe out, out-two-three-four; Hold, one-two-three-four. Repeat three times, or as often as needed.
  • Get professional help. Hyperarousal and flashbacks are signs of trauma. EFT is a research-supported trauma resource that is available throughout much of the world.  The DVD Operation Emotional Freedom follows the experiences of a group of veterans as they use EFT to recover their lives. The Veterans Stress Project www.stressproject.org offers information and free confidential EFT sessions in the USA.

Reality #3: Participating in harming others, even in the line of duty, can result in post-traumatic stress reactions.[iii] When those who were harmed or killed were civilians or prisoners, veterans often feel they can’t tell anyone at home and thus live with soul-wrenching secrets. [iv]

How to be supportive:

  • Believe what the veteran tells you even if it is difficult to hear.  Resist the urge to change the subject and listen. Safe people–family members, faith leaders, mental health professionals–are needed to assure the veteran that he/she is not alone and that all things are hearable and healable.
  • Acknowledge that this is also a systemic issue even though it is individual solders who live with the consequences. Blaming atrocities on “a few bad apples” or “a rogue solder” allows cultures of impunity to operate in secret. Join with others working to expose the truth.
  • Explore restorative and creative justice processes that provide ways to make things “as right as possible” while leading toward a path of forgiving oneself and others.

Reality #4: Veterans who escaped death or serious injury while on duty may harbor feelings of guilt and shame over thoughts of relief that they are safe.

How to be supportive:

Recognize that the “Thank God it wasn’t me” response is a universal reaction most people never voice. Naming and normalizing it goes far to lift the shame.

Above all, the strongest message you can convey is, “Welcome home.  You are not alone.”


iiNATIONAL CENTER for PTSD http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/pages/effects_of_disasters_risk_and_resilience_factors.asp

[iii] MacNair, Rachel M. Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing, 2002, Praeger Press, Connecticut. NOTE: MacNair uses the term “perpetration-induced traumatic stress.” This term can be problematic because it calls up an implicit accusation of wrong-doing by implicit reference to “perpetrators” a term used in legal terms to describe criminals. We prefer the term participation-induced traumatic stress because it separates the experience of participation in activities that harmed others from any implicit moral or legal judgment.

[iv] Personal communication of MacNair quoted in Grossman, page 9.

Grossman, Dave, The Psychological Consequences of Killing, www.killology.com/art_onkilling

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