When Michael returned home after his third deployment, his family noticed troubling changes. He couldn’t sleep; he woke up in the middle of the night, sweating, with vivid nightmares. He acted distant, saying he just felt numb. He drank heavily, and felt irritable and angry. Michael and his wife fought more frequently, and their kids felt confused and struggled to adjust to the changes in their family.
Sara, too, struggled with her re-entry to civilian life. Any time she heard a loud noise, like a motorcycle’s engine, she would duck for cover, her heart pounding out of her chest. She felt tense and on guard, never able to relax. She had trouble concentrating at work, and didn’t find life enjoyable anymore.
These examples provide just a glimpse into the lives of veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD rates range between 10-18 percent of returning veterans, and are particularly high among those with combat exposure, lengthy deployments, and veterans seeking healthcare services (30 percent). PTSD can present differently, but often involve intrusive thoughts, nightmares, sleep difficulties, feelings of numbness, heightened startle responses, irritability and anger, and struggles with guilt and depression. PTSD deeply impacts relationships and the families of veterans.
Support, care, and advocacy for returning veterans with PTSD and their families is crucial. Although there are many effective therapies, programs, and services available to veterans with PTSD, many never seek outside assistance. Advocacy around the impact of war experiences and the pervasiveness of PTSD can help veterans find the support and services they and their families need.
For Michael, he and his wife sought couples therapy. His wife learned about PTSD and how to support him. Michael learned ways to manage his sleep difficulties and painful emotions without relying on alcohol. They rebuilt their relationship by learning more effective ways to communicate, support one another, and reestablish intimacy. It was a long road, but they both felt they grew in many ways through the process.
Sara learned ways to lessen her intense fear response, and worked in counseling to process the traumatic events she experienced. She gradually reconnected with valued directions in her life.
Support, education, and services for both veterans and their families can help lessen the burden of conflict-related PTSD. Recovery is possible, and advocating for those who served can provide hope and relief to the hundreds of thousands of veterans suffering from PTSD.