The emotional life of soldiers has long been pushed into the shadows. It seems to go with the territory. After all, acting as an effective member of the military requires following orders and doing whatever is required to defend your country against the enemy—at all costs.
”I think he was haunted by everything he experienced there. I think it changes you. I don’t know how you can go through what he went through and see what he saw and not have it change you or affect you.”
– Stepmother of Dioniso Garza, a 25-year-old Army veteran suffering from PTSD who fired 212 rounds during a shooting spree that left one dead and six injured in Houston.
These costs are extremely high, even when the missions are complete and the soldiers are returned safely home. As we have seen over the past few weeks, the impact resides long after the traumatic event itself. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by either experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. When these symptoms get increasingly worse, and interfere with everyday functioning over the course of a long period of time, it is a sure sign of PTSD.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 10 to 18 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans may have post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition to affecting the victim of PTSD directly, this condition can have a devastating effect on those around the person who has experienced trauma. This has been increasingly evident in the news broadcasts over the last few weeks. The cost is now playing out in a string of violent acts by returning vets who have not been properly nurtured by those around them, or by society at large.
Two recent mass shootings in Texas and Louisiana were enacted by returning veterans from Iraq who, more than likely, had seen enough horror in their lifetimes. This is the other side of PTSD: The numbness and the ease with which firing a shot can occur—not as an act of violence in the mind of the victim, but as an act of defending oneself against perceived injustice.
So what do we do in the face of this violence that is so devastating and yet so misunderstood? We need to take care of the emotional life of our returning veterans, honor them and nurture their souls back into being productive members of society. We need to recognize that our veterans come back wounded in more ways than physically, that they are not returning just as heroes, but as young men and women impacted by the violence of a faceless war. We need to recognize that this behavior has been taught, and we need to embrace these men and women and nurture them back into our society as the mentors and leaders their experience has qualified them to be. The perfunctory mental health check ups and lists of analyses won’t give them the purpose to leave their roles as soldiers and step into new roles that allow them to leave those experiences behind. According to a New York Times article: Those With Multiple Tours of War Overseas Struggle at Home, the problem is severely misunderstood:
“Their primary difficulty is not necessarily one of healing emotional wounds; they thrived in combat. It is rather a matter of unlearning the very skills that have kept them alive: unceasing vigilance; snap decision making; intolerance for carelessness; the urge to act fast and decisively.”
Awareness and patience is key to keeping these men and women returning from war safe, and to keeping those around them safe. It takes understanding family members and trained professionals in psychology and psychotherapy who have the emotional intelligence to recognize this. We will not be able to overcome the devastation of PTSD and moral injury until we stop pushing the emotional lives of soldiers into the shadows in hopes that they fix themselves.