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Veterans' Health: Conditions and Stressors

An overview of what many veterans and their families experience after serving in war, including PTSD, traumatic brain injury, limb loss, and more.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) continued...

Major symptoms of PTSD are re-experiencing the trauma, through nightmares, memories and flashbacks; avoidance of reminders; feeling guilty for surviving; and hyper-vigilance, which means constantly checking to make sure you’re safe and having sudden outbursts of anger. 

Susan Hill, CISW, who is a social worker with the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, sees her young veteran clients scan the halls for danger every day before they step out of her office.

“It’s tiring, it makes you irritable, and it impacts your family,” Hill says.

About 150,000 veterans of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD by the VA, and approximately 113,000 with depressive disorders, according to the U.S. Veterans Health Administration. 

PTSD symptoms can be greatly relieved by early intervention, says Sonja Batten, PhD, Assistant Deputy Chief Patient Care Services Officer for Mental Health at the VA Central Office.  Still, clinicians counsel veterans from Vietnam, the Korean War, and World War II.   

"Some of these guys have slept with night lights since World War II, and they’ve never talked to anyone about what they saw and did. Now they have more time on their hands, and the devil starts to dance on the periphery,” Hill says.

Stresses on Military Families

While military family members are away, spouses absorb the responsibilities of the household and parenting. This alone is a tremendous stress, sometimes compounded by living in fear for a loved one’s life.  Like their service member partners, spouses, too, can have nightmares and avoid situations that may trigger fear or sadness, Hill says. These may continue after the veteran returns home, especially if the veteran is injured. 

“They are excited for you to come home, they imagine the same person is going to come home who has gone, and that’s just not going to be true,” Hill says. 

Pamela Stokes Eggleston, whose husband was severely injured in Iraq, describes her own response as secondary PTSD.  Upon her husband’s return, Eggleston’s anxiety, sleeplessness, and irritability mirrored her husband’s. 

Even spouses with the most positive outlook acknowledge the inherent challenges. “They’re gone so long and you change so much. You wonder if you’re going to be on the same page when they get back,” Vivian Greentree says.

Parents must also set the stage for their children’s responses to deployment, Greentree says. A study of 102 adolescent children of deployed parents found that adolescents who coped best with deployment were those whose parents had fostered the most discussion beforehand. 

A 2010 survey of 3,750 families conducted by Our Military Kids found that 80% of families reported increased stress and anxiety in their children during a parent’s deployment.  Symptoms reported were increased emotional reactivity, depression, and clinginess. 

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