How to help returning soldiers recover from war

Posted Sept. 09, 2010, at 6:25 p.m.

After nearly 10 years of war, we have rediscovered a dubious fact: service members are changed by their experiences in combat. However, we must not let our fear of the past overwhelm our ability to re-connect with current service members when they come back to our communities.

This is not 1969.

Research from the National Center for PTSD encourages us that not all combat experiences lead to psychological disorders. The question remains: What makes the positive difference for our service members and their families? What allows one service member to manage stressors for long periods of time with limited readjustment issues? Yet, another person may experience threats on a more limited scale and still have difficulty upon returning from war? How come two people exposed to the same level of severe stress can respond differently?

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s research on the impacts of trauma in childhood has shown that the more stressors a person experiences relative to their age, the more likely they are to fare poorly later in life. This means that severe trauma in childhood predicts worse outcomes in adult hood.

It’s not rocket science. Service members with problems before deployment will more likely have more problems afterward. Issues that were there before deployment don’t magically disappear — they magnify.

Imagine a 19-year-old who entered active duty from any Maine town. Further imagine that he or she may have witnessed domestic violence and alcohol abuse as a child. So when this Joe or Jane returns home they “go to what they know” to manage stress.

Joe might avoid people, or he might drink to fight off insomnia and restlessness. Jane might drive too fast or fight more often to relieve a persistent sense of boredom. The problem is that any of those particular strategies are bound to help Jane and Joe lose whatever job and relationships they had to return to.

Worse even, they become labeled “angry veterans.” Then as 20-year-olds, they begin to live up to that identity. They may become what they believe society is ready to see them as.

How can society see them differently? How can each of us respect the changes in our military friends and neighbors and recognize their strengths? How do we do this for any young adult? How can we make a place in our communities for the talents, leadership skills and hot wiring that tours of duty strengthen in our returning service members?

Families, friends and co-workers are powerful forces of community engagement. It is in our communities’ hands to support, encourage and help our veterans find themselves again, so to speak. Inviting a friend or colleague who recently returned from the war to a sports league, church supper or hunting trip may be essential. Veterans may also choose to connect with other service members and families through the Military Family Assistance Center, veteran center or local veterans service organization.

Over the past couple of years, I have been told “you just don’t understand” by service members in every branch of service. That is absolutely correct. I don’t understand the war they way they see it. I can’t, I wasn’t there.

What I do understand is the need for acceptance of the murky water we all have to wade through to listen to each other’s story. I do have an understanding as a current military spouse and as a clinical social worker. I do know that family members need to be able to see and hear the changes and still recognize their loved one.

Each service member needs to see his or her own changes and find ways for those changes to be useful in his or her family and community. As civilians, what we can do is honor who they are, be grateful for their service and accept who they are becoming in a way that reconnects all of us.

Naya Clifford is a social worker in the Bangor area. For more information call the Maine Military Family Assistance Center at 888-365-9287, visit the Maine Military and Community Network website at www.mainemcn.org, or the National Center for PTSD website at http://www.ptsd.va.gov/.

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