Lots of stars and stripes are in view on days that honor veterans. Symbols of solidarity are powerful, and yet emotional support of a more personal kind may be more urgent right now. Nobody knows for sure how many military people are returning from service overseas with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but conservative estimates range from 20-35%. It may not show outwardly. Many will not receive treatment, either because of lack of access to mental health services, or because they are afraid that as a result of accepting help, they will lose the respect and confidence of their loved ones, peers, or employers. How sad is that? The Department of Veterans Affairs knows all this, and now refers to PTSD as one of the “invisible injuries” of war. The VA provides limited services for PTSD, along with more traditionally respectable disorders like depression, substance abuse, and traumatic brain injury. Excellent resource information is available on the site of theIraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).
Post traumatic stress is a normal emotional response to a violent, terrifying situation. Its most intense form, PTSD, tends to have long lasting consequences, if left untreated. Some PTSD symptoms are easy to recognize, such as nightmares or flashbacks, reliving the events over and over, or a tendency to be on edge or easily startled. Other symptoms are less obvious: for example, emotional numbness, becoming socially isolated and unable to trust anyone, or avoiding certain people or places, because they call up bad memories. Unfortunately, the attempt to avoid the disturbing emotions that come from living through hell, has unintended consequences. In order to numb PTSD-related anxiety, all emotions are numbed, making it hard to have experiences of intimacy; needless to say, that takes a toll on veterans and their families. Emotional vulnerability is complicated for all of us, and even more so when a person has been exposed to things no human being is designed to endure.
If you love a veteran, you can provide critical support. Allow the person to talk at his or her own pace; it is helpful to make it clear that you are available to listen, whenever they are ready to talk. Let them know that counseling is now considered a routine part of self care, and not a sign of a character flaw, or a statement of personal defeat. Let them know that their humanity includes both courage and tenderness, and that acknowledging one does not in any way diminish the other. We have created the Hollywood image of the stoic, fearless hero; our veterans have accepted it, and it does not serve them well. Let them know that we have grown up, and understand that they are human beings like the rest of us, in need of both nurture and respect. Encourage them to get counseling.