The impact of post-traumatic stress disorder on veterans

     United States veterans are known for the tough training they must go through and the sacrifices they make, leaving their friends, families and homes behind. They travel to many different places, like Kuwait, Iraq and South Korea. Veterans don’t come back until after long periods. When reunited, families might now describe their loved one as more mature and responsible. But now they start to worry because of how alert their loved one always is, not being able to sit still. With that newly found maturity, there is also now post-traumatic stress disorder.

     Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can show up in many different ways. From vivid flashbacks and physical sensations to nightmares, it can appear differently in one person compared to another. PTSD can also have many different triggers. Loud noises and visual images are common PTSD triggers, with the weather even being a common trigger. PTSD is a disorder someone develops after experiencing a traumatic event.  It can be complex (CPTSD) or acute (ASD).

     Former Army member Justin de León served as a Cavalry Scout. The veteran served for four years and exited the military with the rank of a specialist (E-4). Justin has described the military as behind the learning curve when it comes to treating its members that need mental health treatment.

     “I believe that military members and veterans still deal with more traumatic events than most professions. I feel that the military does not put enough effort into establishing and providing beneficial options and treatments that military members can use to better themselves,” de León said. 

     Dan Vera, who served in the Marine Corps on active duty from 2000-2014, says that Veterans Affairs (VA) has several resources to help veterans. This list ranges from one-on-one psychotherapy, which includes proven methods like cognitive processing therapy, group therapy and even medication. However, Dan mentioned that many veterans find their own ways to deal with PTSD, whether they be healthy or unhealthy.

     “Most veterans cope with PTSD in their own way. Most drown their experiences and guilt with alcohol, drugs or jail. Others make lifestyle changes such as interacting with other trauma survivors, exercising, eating healthy and just simply trying to keep themselves busy so their mind can drift away from the experiences,” Vera said. “Dealing with PTSD can be difficult at times to deal with because most veterans believe they do not have it.”

     Vera says that in the military environment, especially in combat jobs, you are taught to suppress what you’re feeling.

     “You need to be a ‘man’ about it and should not let it affect you,” Vera said. “It’s part of the culture to not express your feelings and to ‘shut up and move on.’”

     Another cause of PTSD can be military sexual trauma (MST). According to the VA, this is any sexual harassment or sexual assault that occurs while you are in the military. MST can happen to both men and women and can occur during peacetime, training, or war. 23% of women reported sexual assault when in the military. 55% of women and 38% of men also reported experiencing sexual harassment when in service. The VA also states that the number of Veterans with PTSD varies by service era; Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have between 11-20% of veterans with PTSD in a given year, the Gulf War has about 12% of veterans have PTSD in a given year and the Vietnam War has 15% of veterans diagnosed from the time of the most recent study in the late 1980s. It is now estimated that about 30 out of every 100 (30%) Vietnam veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime. A 2020 survey states that since the attack of 9/11, 83% of veterans have experienced some form of PTSD due to their service.

     De León explained some of the great values and lessons he was taught through his service. He mentions that although his service was brief that he learned to be more open and empathetic to others. As a military member, you end up meeting and working with many different groups of people. With that, de León has advice for high schoolers looking to serve once they graduate: If you’re planning to serve, be aware of the potential long-term physical and mental effects. Also, be sure to continue with your education while serving, having a plan or idea of what you want to continue with as your career. 

     Vera is no stranger to loss. He said he has had many personal experiences with PTSD due to his several combat deployments.

     “When you live your life surrounded by other service members… training, partying on weekends, meeting each other’s families… you tend to grow a close relationship [with them]. When you’re confronted with their death in combat, it’s not something you forget. One experience is when I lost five Marines to a suicide bomber,” Vera said.

     “There are many personal traumatic events I have experienced while being deployed to Iraq, but how I deal with those PTSD moments that trigger me is [by] acknowledging my feelings, dwelling on it for a few minutes and understanding that it is a feeling and not reality,” de León reflected.

     Although traumatic, the events he faced experiencing the negatives of war have supplied him with a positive outlook on life.

     “I have grown to cherish life more and not complain about what I have. This is because I have seen people in different countries barely able to provide for their families, suppressed by what they can think and do, not having the basic rights that all people should have,” de León said. 

     This leads to Vera’s advice to future military members.

     “I strongly encourage balancing positive and negative thinking. Find what motivates you and most importantly, take responsibility for things you can control and accept what you can’t,” Vera said. “Every military branch is slightly different from one another. This leads me to believe certain branches are mentally and physically easier than others. PTSD is caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events. Everyone has different experiences, and others may never experience PTSD.”

     Although military service can be traumatic and draining, it can also open one up to positive experiences and a community with a unique bond.

     “Serving in the military affected my views in a positive way. It rejuvenated my sense of optimism and passion to achieve lifelong goals. It changed me for the good which brought quality to society. The values it brought built a foundation of a culture of teamwork, excellence, respect, honor, pride and integrity,” Vera said. 

     As much an issue PTSD is amongst veterans, it also affects families and friends of said military members. Vera says that family members and friends may feel hurt and alienated by their loved ones. The effects of trauma due to their service may be hard for veterans to overcome. Communication, trust and closeness are all problems that these relationships may endure when dealing with PTSD. 

     “I feel that family and friends of veterans with PTSD have a difficult time understanding what a veteran is going through at times. It can be difficult for the veteran to express how they feel because most people have not been through what they have,” de León said. “Veterans can’t relate to their family and friends about what they went through. On the other hand, it can be difficult and stressful for family and friends to deal with a veteran with PTSD on a daily basis, which leads to them living difficult lives as well.”

     Basic training or boot camp is the preparation of recruits before their actual service. It lasts about 10 weeks depending on the military branch. De León says that while going through training, members are “broken down.” They are molded to be proficient both physically and mentally in their jobs and ready at a moment’s notice to go to war.

     “I have seen fellow military members I served with have a very difficult time with home and social life outside of the military because of the military lifestyle, environment and culture that they experienced while serving,” de León said.

     Through sacrifice and discipline, our military veterans become strong both physically and mentally. Although strong, they may also suffer due to the draining work they do.  Whether it’s the Air Force or Marines that they serve, a military member comes out of service being permanently affected. They leave with unique experiences and a different outlook on life than when they started.