With the headlines of U.S. Navy Fleet Commander Scott A. Stearney’s untimely death earlier this month, it is just another tragic reminder of the toll combat takes on these brave men and women even after they come home.
The numbers are mind-blowing. The Department of Veterans Affairs recently reported that more than 20 veterans and active duty service members, guardsmen and reservists commit suicide every day in this country. That’s nearly one suicide every hour, and more than 80 percent of them are veterans.
There aren’t enough people and systems to help veterans, and they keep falling through the cracks. I consider these people a vastly underserved and unreached community.
The effects of combat-related trauma run deep, down to the warrior’s very heart and soul. I know this from personal experience, having served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
War keeps you running at full speed, always on guard, ready to fight at a moment’s notice. After enduring such extreme conditions for long periods of time, returning to the normality of civilian life is not easy.
When I came home, nothing felt real to me. Watching TV with my wife didn’t feel real. Walking through the aisles of the grocery store didn’t seem real. My feelings were not easy to identify at first. I just felt “off,” but I didn’t always know why. I didn’t know what was happening to me.
This is common among veterans who struggle after returning home. We can’t always draw a straight line from how we feel back to the experience of combat. We don’t want to believe that the fighting affected us.
I was in denial. I didn’t want to acknowledge the strange sensations for what they were. But eventually, I couldn’t ignore what was happening. I was struggling with the after-effects of combat.
Everyone experiences this differently. There are, however, a few classic signs — anger, insomnia, obsessive-compulsive behavior and flashbacks. At one point or another, I have suffered from all of them.
Eventually, I got help, and there are some wonderful organizations that help veterans, but many veterans aren’t as fortunate as I was. Typical interventions such as clinical treatments and group therapies are inadequate and usually ignore the spiritual dimension to trauma. The spiritual dimension to trauma includes topics such as grief, guilt, and shame. It can manifest through things that the warrior has experienced or done on the battlefield.
Many veterans dealing with these challenges isolate themselves from friends and family. They don’t think that people understand what they’ve been through. It’s hard for veterans to communicate to non-veterans about combat experiences and post-combat struggles. A common complaint from family and friends is, “I can’t reach him or her” or “They won’t talk to me.”
Veterans do want help. But sometimes they just don’t know how to communicate it. And once they’re able to speak out, they don’t always know how to connect or who to connect with. That’s why it’s very important that when veterans reach out, especially to a church or nonprofit, the organization is ready to receive them.
These organizations should have a program to get the veterans connected with a small group of people who understand and appreciate the veteran and his or her family. Belonging to a community with a sense of camaraderie is key. It’s something veterans had while in the service and something they are looking for when they get out.
It is crucial that when our veterans return home that they have available to them a support group that will help them walk through everything they have experienced on the battlefield. Even more so, these groups are imperative to helping these brave men and women begin the healing process, pointing them in the right direction to restore broken relationships and begin to knit together the wounds of the heart. Ultimately, that is what will assure a successful transition back into mainstream society.
Air Force Special Operations Lt. Col. Damon Friedman is the founder of SOF Missions, a non-profit organization aimed at helping veterans. He is the executive producer of the award winning film, ”Surrender Only To One,” which is now available on Amazon and iTunes.