It’s 3:00 AM and you finally decide that it is safe to venture out to the 24-hour Wal-mart. Not totally safe, mind you, but at least almost no one will be there—less potential threats to worry about…
You get home, and sleep in your chair. Sleeping in the bed is too vulnerable…
You wake up, and hear a loud bang. Automatically, you know it’s a bomb, and grab the enemy by the throat…
Veterans may leave the war zone, but they can never escape the war. For those who return from war with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they constantly live as though their minds and bodies are still at war.
Fear of crowds and intense anxiousness around others. An inability to feel safe while sleeping. Flashbacks and nightmares, often triggered by sudden or loud noises. Always feeling like even the people closest to you are the enemy, poised for attack.
Veterans are living in this reality. As many as one in four veterans will experience PTSD, according to Dr. Michael Sheehan, a psychologist specializing in PTSD. PTSD is a disorder that can happen as a result of many kinds of trauma, and is especially prevalent in veterans of war.
People with PTSD may constantly relive the trauma of war (through flashbacks and nightmares), may try to avoid places and events that would cause memories, and may be easily startled and constantly feel on edge.
While PTSD is often not recognized as the same as other battle wounds, the experience of veterans verifies that PTSD is real. We hope that the information that we provide here will help you understand the experience of PTSD.
If you recognize the symptoms of PTSD as ones you experience yourself, please consider seeking help by joining a support group for veterans or talking to a psychologist or physician.
We are a group of five Notre Dame undergraduate students who, over the course of a semester, have interacted with a group of veterans with PTSD in an attempt to better understand the experience of PTSD.
Our research is based in anthropology, and because of that, we focused on people’s experiences and perceptions as our central data. The veterans that we worked with allowed us to attend their weekly support meetings, and graciously allowed us to interview them in group and one-on-one settings. Like previous student research on PTSD, the vets’ lived experiences form the basis for our information.
The interviews that we conducted showed us the reality of PTSD. After analyzing the data, four themes which are important to understanding PTSD emerged: getting help early, finding ways to escape the pain, the importance of friends and family, and the importance of feeling welcomed home.
1. Getting Help Early
“Heal it while fresh, like a cut” one veteran said. All the veterans we spoke to stressed the importance of new veterans seeking help for their PTSD as soon as possible when returning from war. Some veterans explained that when PTSD is diagnosed early, it is like healing a cut before it has scarred or become infected.
After returning from the war, “I just never felt normal,” another veteran told us. His mother told him that he was like another man in her son’s body; he felt like he was different but he did not know why. He, like other veterans, felt relief when he was diagnosed with PTSD. With the diagnosis of PTSD he was finally able to put a name to what he was feeling and realize that he was not alone in his experience.
Research and veterans agree: PTSD that is treated earlier has better outcomes. In addition, since PTSD tends to lead afflicted individuals into self-destructive behaviors such as alcoholism , drug abuse , and violent behavior that can lead to jail time, early detection of the disorder and learning how to cope with it can possibly prevent the occurrences of these destructive behaviors. “If I would have gotten help right away, I never would have gone to prison or ended up a drunk,” one veteran told us.
2. Escaping the pain
Dealing with PTSD can be a constant burden, from flashbacks to nightmares to constant anxiety. For this reason many veterans, especially those who don’t get help early, try to find means of escape.
“Alcohol allows me to go into a different world.” Vets may use a variety of ways to try to escape PTSD: alcoholism, seclusion, and suicide, to name three. Alcoholism is one way for veterans to temporarily escape symptoms of PTSD, including the haunting memories of war.
“I told her, ‘I don’t need you.’ I couldn’t have my wife stay. There was no way to make sure I didn’t hurt her,” said one veteran, Peter (a pseudonym). Veterans may hide their emotions and push their loved ones away from themselves, as a way to protect their loved ones and make their PTSD more manageable. For Peter and other vets, seclusion is one way to escape PTSD. Peter called his wife insulting names, forcing her from his life as a way to protect her.
“The most peaceful I ever felt was when I was drowning.” For some veterans, death is the only way that they can escape their PTSD. “The most peaceful I ever felt was when I was laying down in the back seat of my car, with the garage door down and the engine running.” PTSD is haunting and overwhelming. Veterans sometimes see suicide as the only way to end the nightmare. Many veterans revealed that just the idea of suicide brought a sense of peace. For them, suicide is a way to finally end their battle with PTSD when alcohol and seclusion are not enough.
3. Access to friends and family
We all know the feeling of being lonely or isolated but veterans with PTSD experience this feeling intensely. They have gone through a traumatic, life-changing event and struggle to find a way to deal with their resulting feelings.
Joel, a Vietnam veteran, told us, “You’re closest to your family, and you should have a sense of comfort when you spend time with them. If the families of the veterans are well-informed enough about PTSD to encourage them to seek treatment, they will help them to adjust back to civilian life and learn to live with their PTSD.”
Joel agrees with the many other veterans who admit that they first sought help for their PTSD because they were encouraged to do so by someone important in their lives, often a parent, spouse, or friend. Dr. Sheehan says that veterans with PTSD are able to cope better when they have supportive people in their lives willing to help them avoid triggers and understand their condition.
Veterans describe the experience of talking to a group of other veterans as “empowering” and “the first time they have felt understood” since the war. Sometimes, people in veteran’s lives want them to move on, adjust back or just stop talking about the war. Even when family and friends want to be fully supportive, it is hard for them to even imagine what the experience of the war was like. That is why veteran’s groups are such an important form of social support. Seeking help in a one-on-one setting with a setting with a psychologist can also help veterans understand their symptoms and learn how to cope.
4. Being welcomed home
“I just stood there and looked at freedom. Then I knelt and kissed the ground.” One Vietnam veteran George remembered that he was happy to be home at first. He got in a cab to go home, and, because he had a tan, the taxi driver asked him where he had been.
When he said that he had been in Vietnam, the whole attitude of the taxi driver changed. He pulled the car to the side of the road, and said, “Get out. I don’t want no baby killer in my cab.”
“I expected to be welcomed back and I wasn’t,” George recalls. While he was away at war, the entire attitude of the country had changed. His church, a place that he had always felt was important to him, did not welcome him back either, against his expectations.
The environment that the veterans return to makes an important difference on their mental health. It is important for them to know that their sacrifices and trauma are not ignored by the country.
Understanding PTSD is the first step towards helping our veterans, but it must be followed by action. Veterans need to feel welcomed home, supported and encouraged to seek help as soon as possible.
If you know a veteran:
-Learn about PTSD. Educate yourself so you can educate the veteran that you know. (For starters, click here and here to learn more about the relationship between Traumatic Brain Injury and PTSD, or here to see more research on stories of veterans with PTSD).
-Be supportive. Provide a safe environment, like our veterans told us was so critical.
-Encourage the veteran to seek help. PTSD does not have to control the lives of our veterans.
-Provide a welcome home.
Even if you don’t know a veteran, there are still many things that you can do:
-Find out when soldiers are returning home and greet them at the airport.
-Send letters and cards to soldiers in war, to show your support.
-Spread the word about PTSD. Talk to your friends and family. Together, we can create a more supportive country.
We must continue to support our brave men and women in the armed forces because they deserve much more and certainly no less.