One of the most difficult aspects of serving as a soldier can be coming home.
With a complete U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq set for the end of 2011, and with a similar troop drawdown planned for Afghanistan, the United States is gradually ending its longest period of sustained military combat in its history.
For the more than 2 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who have returned home—or who are scheduled to return home—new challenges await them.
According to a Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) guide on integrating into civilian life after being in a war zone, often soldiers “find that coming home is, in fact, harder than going to war.”
The guide also states that understanding the most common issues veterans face is important, as “almost all service members will have reactions after returning from a war zone.”
Veteran suicides rose by 26 percent between 2005 and 2007, according to VA statistics. Nationwide, veterans account for 20 percent of all suicides, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, as reported by Veterans Today.
With the official end of Operation Iraqi Freedom set for Aug. 31, caring for returning veterans has become a critical focus of the Obama administration.
The administration “has embarked on one of the largest, most comprehensive programs in American history to support our returning veterans, and their families, long after their military service is over,” said Vice President Joe Biden during an Aug. 23, speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars 111th National Convention.
The VA received an additional $16 billion, raising its total budget to $114 billion—the largest increase since the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
Speaking to concerns about the budget increase, Biden said, “In my view, our nation’s obligation to veterans is not negotiable.”
Funds for returning soldiers have also been allocated through the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act, which will help fund and train relatives of wounded veterans who can act as caregivers. For many of the nearly 40,000 wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is welcomed news.
For many veterans, however, the most important change made is the revision to the rules for applying for treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) treatment.
Previously, veterans needed to provide evidence of “stressors”—incidents that would cause someone to have PTSD symptoms. Under the new system, the statements of the veterans themselves will be enough to qualify for treatment.
According to a VA document on the symptoms of PTSD, memories may cause soldiers to “feel the same terror and horror” they did when traumatic events took place, and the memories can be easily triggered by ordinary stressors or stimuli. The document adds, “People with PTSD often go to great lengths to avoid things that might remind them of the traumatic events they endured. They also may shut themselves off emotionally in order to protect themselves from feeling pain and fear.”
One of the most difficult things for veterans with PTSD is finding a way to talk about what they have been through. According to a VA guide for soldiers returning home, “You may be unable to tell your family about what happened. You may not want to scare them by speaking about the war. Or maybe you think that no one will understand.”
According to Vietnam veteran Jay Taylor, author of “Point of Aim Point of Impact,” friends and family of veterans often have a misconception that veterans don’t want to talk about what they have been through.
“I tell people most of the time, that could not be further from the truth. What we’re really afraid of is how we will be judged if we do talk about it,” Taylor said, adding that veterans sometimes have a feeling of guilt that they have difficulty expressing.
Taylor said, “One thing that I think everybody needs to understand—families, relatives, and the returning veterans—is you cannot go through something like that and not be affected by it. That’s normal, and they tend to think that after they come back, that there’s something wrong with them if they’re affected by it.”
According to army guides, a mentality the armed services have been working to change is that some soldiers “see seeking help for psychological stress as a sign of weakness or failing.”