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How We Can Honor Veterans

The mental health problems of those who served is often forgotten over time.

Key points

  • As the teenagers who fought in the war turn into adults, their mental health may impact them earlier than expected.
  • Mental injuries suffered on the battlefield may need more than 12 months to heal before soldiers are sent back into a combat environment.
  • Substance abuse is often used to mask the mental trauma that veterans have faced after serving in a combat zone.

When it comes to the mental health status of veterans, the issues run deep. For the past 20 years, veterans returning from the Middle East have been dealing with mental trauma. The average rotation for a unit during this period is 12 months in Iraq or Afghanistan, then 12 months back in the United States, then another 12 months in Iraq or Afghanistan. During the 12 months back in the United States, a service member is worked on to heal any physical aches and pains they may have suffered in combat. However, the mental injuries suffered on the battlefield often require more than 12 months to heal before a soldier is sent back into a combat environment.

I was injured in Iraq in 2007 and still have Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from my time there. Many veterans resort to substances (both legal and illegal) to cope with their mental trauma after combat. When I got out of the hospital after being injured, I developed a dangerous addiction to opioids. This addiction was so bad that my doctors told me that I could die because I was also on a blood thinner to prevent blood clots in my injured leg. I am far from the only one.

As the teenagers who fought in the war turn into adults, their mental health may impact their physical health earlier than they would have expected. Veterans may realize something is wrong, but because we think of ourselves as superheroes we often ignore the signs of mental illness. “I deployed 4 times, a little depression is nothing to me” is what some veterans say to themselves. It's a dangerous mentality. I’ve attended multiple funerals of veterans who died of suicide or an accidental death due to an overdose.

I do not want to forget about those who came before me. An unknown number of veterans from World War I and World War II suffered from mental health issues that went undiagnosed. These veterans likely dealt with PTSD before we even knew what PTSD was. World War II Marines returning from Guadalcanal, in the South Pacific, were treated for symptoms such as tremors, sensitivity to loud noises, and episodes of amnesia. Symptoms we might now associate with PTSD and seek treatment for were, at the time, called "Guadalcanal Disorder."

It has been well documented that veterans returning home from Vietnam were not received in the manner they'd expected. They, too, dealt with mental health issues and substance abuse. Research has shown a, "highly significant relationship between combat exposure and problems with drugs or drinking too much following discharge from the Armed Forces," in Vietnam.

November is also the start of the holiday season. Overindulging is a major part of this time of the year. From my experience, it gives those veterans who deal with substance abuse ample opportunities to drink and use drugs. Veterans tend to hang with other veterans that participate in the same activities they do, and these can include drinking and abusing substances. The substance abuse is used to mask the mental trauma that veterans have faced after serving in a combat zone.

As we come out of America’s longest war, veterans should expect better healthcare and better access to healthcare. There will be some veterans whose PTSD symptoms may manifest years after active duty. They may come across a sight or a sound that sparks memories from Iraq that were buried in their subconscious. The memory that they have repressed may be from early in the war, or from its very end. When these memories start to surface it's imperative that the friends and family members of the veteran get them the help they need.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Council on Foreign Relations. (n.d.). The Iraq War. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved November 5, 2021, from https://www.cfr.org/timeline/iraq-war.

Malloryk. (2020, June 26). WWII post traumatic stress: The National WWII Museum: New Orleans. The National WWII Museum | New Orleans. Retrieved November 5, 2021, from https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/wwii-post-traumatic-stre….

Fischer, V.J. Combat exposure and the etiology of postdischarge substance abuse problems among Vietnam veterans. J Trauma Stress 4, 251–277 (1991). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00977007

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