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Mental Health Center

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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.

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.

While most children do well, military parents are advised to watch out for signs of stress. Infants lose their appetite in the absence of a caregiver, while children under six may regress to bedwetting, thumb sucking, and tantrums. Older children can regress as well and show serious fear for their deployed parent; teenagers are at risk of rebellion and falling grades. Children of all ages need a readjustment period when parents come home, according the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Many military spouses, like Greentree, are determined to “thrive, not survive” deployments. Greentree instills pride in her sons and says, “We serve, too,” echoing the title of a popular storybook for military children.

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