The concept of what it means to be a veteran is foreign to the great majority of us. We cannot begin to understand what the men and women in uniform go through while in service. Nor can we understand what it means to them when they come home.
I do not know about all of you, but my experience of war is just about as sheltered as it can be. The worst I've ever experienced is the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan and for the most part, war has been glorified in film and television. Even in movies that are vehemently anti-war, we are still treated to happy endings, sad endings, conclusion, closure...but that's our privilege isn't it? We, as the citizens of our country, the ones who have been protected by the armed forces, are able to walk out of a theatre, maybe have a day or two of lingering emotions if the movie was REALLY good, but that is essentially the end of it for us. We go back to life, we see our friends, we love our families, and we sleep easily in our beds.
This is not the case for the veterans. For these men and women, for many of them at least, there is no closure. There is no happy ending that ties it all together and culminates with them returning to their warm homes and the gentle embrace of a country that loves them.
The average age of an enlisting soldier is just 20 years old. 20 years old is the beginning of the development of the man or woman. 20 years old is the first time in our lives that we begin to form who we are, and to create our own standards for life and existence. So what happens when a 20 year old enters combat? What happens when the development of the self is violently arrested and in its place, combat places mortal fear, self-preservation, survival? When survival dominates, self-regulation and development get pushed aside. When all you can think about is your constant state of terror, and never feeling safe, you retard the developmental process, and self-preservation becomes your persona.
In a post on the website Military with PTSD Justin Gourley writes:
"PTSD replaces the “me” who was still growing, learning, and becoming a unique person before the trauma(s), leaving only a desperate survivor who may have no clear sense of identity and who may even hate or loathe herself or himself."
So what happens when this "desperate survivor" returns home? This soldier who never had the chance to properly develop an adult personality comes back to civilian life. And in the place of a functioning member of society, one who has had a normal development, we have a person who knows only that their survival instincts have carried them this far, and thus, will continue to work for them.
But that's a problem isn't it? We, as a society, do not allow violence. We do not allow the kill or be killed instinct to dictate our daily behavior. And so when a soldier returns with this personality, we can't understand why they are so quick to turn to violence when they feel threatened...even in the most minor way. They have spent years, for many a quarter of their life or more, living in a constant state of "survival mode".
And they come home to be outcasts.
They cannot hold jobs because they may be too inundated with a need to follow rules. Or perhaps, someone startles them and it ends in violence. Or maybe they just can't focus on anything because their minds are still thousands of miles away watching their brothers and sisters die right in front of them.
They can't love their families because they are numb. They look at their children, their husbands, their wives, and feel nothing because feeling things was something that could get them killed. And it makes them angry. And the anger makes them act impusively, immediately jumping to screaming and aggression because for the last 4 years, that's what has kept them alive. Their brains have been programmed to believe everyone is trying to kill them, and it can't just change overnight. They will snap, and they will not start slowly. There will be no escalation. They will simply go to the most extreme, because that's what has worked for them and kept them alive.
They escape into video games because it's an escape, and it's the only world they can control. Some escape into drugs, or alcohol which only exacerbate their already volatile personalities. When you never know if you're going to live to see tomorrow, why hold back on the booze tonight?
PTSD is a real thing. PTSD effects so many of our veterans. And we civilians, we coddled and protected individuals who are so privileged, cannot begin to understand the internal pain that every single sufferer endures.
But we can help. We can help these men and women that we love by being patient, by being kind. We can help them by being observant and listening to them. Don't tell a vet they need help because to a vet, that means they're weak. Just give it to them. You don't need to be a psychiatrist to help a veteran recover. You just need to love them. You need to give them time and space. You need to not be the slightest bit selfish. You may feel that you have lost a loved one who is standing right in front of you, but keep in mind, they have lost themselves.
Veterans have given everything they had, including who they were and could have been, in order to protect you. So please, if you know someone with PTSD, put your pride on the shelf, stop thinking about you, drop all expectations, pick up the video game controller, and just wait for them to talk.
They need you more than you need them.