The military lifestyle offers both positive and negative aspects for those who select this career path. When I think of military mentors who have been influential in my life, I mostly think of their sacrifice, braveness, and leadership abilities.
However, you don’t have to look far to discover their many sacrifices. Families are required to relocate frequently, making it difficult to feel like they are a part of the community. Obligations result in a family member being away for months at a time, missing important holidays, milestones, and celebrations. The veteran lives with the thought process that “the mission must always come first.” Sometimes, the family member’s social significance is determined by his or her rank. Additionally, the veteran’s rigidity from the military lifestyle spills over into their family life. These authoritarian leadership characteristics do not always merge well with family dynamics.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is the most common mental disorder among veterans returning from military combat. PTSD results in increased stress and anxiety following exposure to a traumatic or stressful event. A person reacts to an experience with fear and helplessness. They struggle with flashbacks, where they repeatedly replay the events – sometimes experiencing night terrors, which interfere with quality sleep, complicating the diagnosis even more.
PTSD is most prevalent in young adults. The disorder is most likely to occur in those who are single, divorced, widowed, socially withdrawn, or from a low socioeconomic background, but no one is completely immune from this diagnosis. The most important risk factors are the severity, duration, and proximity of a person’s exposure to the trauma. According to the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS), 30 percent of veterans develop full-blown PTSD after having served in war and 22.5 percent develop partial PTSD. About 13.5 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were diagnosed with PTSD.
Mental health consequences of war extend beyond the veterans. PTSD impacts the mental health of their significant others and their relationships. Psychiatric studies indicate that PTSD and depression are associated with partner-reported relationship dysfunction, dissatisfaction, and communication issues. Major approaches in treatment for these veterans include support, encouragement to discuss the event, and education about a variety of coping mechanisms.
As we reflect on consequences of the battlefield, I can’t help but think of the “shield of faith.” The shield is the most important protective covering used when preventing injury from physical harm from direct contact weapons or projectiles during combat. As a spouse, what can we do if we find ourselves in this dilemma with our loved one? You must not lose your footing! You must prepare by studying and learning. You must have a vision to survive.
Spouses of service members affected by PTSD are fighting their own battles. I meet as frequently with spouses who are dealing with these indirect traumatic events as frequent as I do veterans facing their own demons. Once PTSD enters the relationship, only about 3 out of 10 marriages will survive long-term.
Early intervention for treatment for the family is crucial. After safety considerations have been addressed, there are a variety of psychological modalities that can be initiated. Cognitive-behavioral approaches are the most researched techniques demonstrating efficacy. This may be best accomplished with individual treatment, as well as family intervention.
Many veterans sustain injuries while they are in combat. Some have obvious amputations, many with scars or physical disfigurements, and others with inward injuries. It’s our obligation as Americans to intercede where needed. This includes assisting the family of a veteran struggling with PTSD.
Dr. Sheri Biggs, a graduate of Samford University, has her Doctorate in advanced nursing practice and is certified in Psychiatric Mental Health and Family Practice. She is an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel / Flight Nurse and is at Joint Force Headquarters where she serves in the position of Deputy A-3, Operations for the MS Air National Guard. She provides mental health services to veterans in the long-term care setting and works closely with a nonprofit organization, WLS. Her focus with WhenLifeSucks.org is to meet the mental health needs of veterans of all ages, with special emphasis on suicide prevention.