According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, approximately 10% of veterans of the war in Afghanistan are diagnosed with PSTD, 11% from Iraq. In “the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 1 in 10 (10%) returning soldiers seen in VA have a problem with alcohol or other drugs.” It seems like an easy match, if you were to attribute one directly to the other–but the truth is more complicated than that.
The VA also estimates that more than only “2 of 10 Veterans with PTSD also have SUD (Substance Use Disorder),” which means that the other 8 out of 10 got it from somewhere else. Of course there is a lot of ambiguity when you consider that not all cases of PTSD are reported, that people enter the military with issues in the first place, and that this could also be attributed to internal issues that go unidentified, like sexual assault, hazing or other serious internal problems.
Still, a lot of veterans struggle with something that is rarely identified.
If you’re in the military, you probably have either experienced something profoundly traumatic or know someone who has. You may have been neck-deep in firefights on the mountains of Afghanistan, or barreled through the streets of Baghdad in humvees under fire. Maybe you got blown up or shot or had something unforgettably gruesome happen right before your eyes. Those are the people we hear about. Studies are conducted and doctors are consulted, and rightfully so. Many of these people have serious issues with that they will struggle with for the rest of their lives–it will keep them from falling asleep, affect their relationships and impact their careers.
But what about the ones who get out without ever having seen combat?
When I got out, I remember talking to a friend who had gotten out just before me. He was having a casual conversation with a psychiatrist who knew nothing about the Army, and she asked him what he did there. He was a medic and he told her; she smiled and nodded. But when she heard that he was airborne, well then it seemed like all sorts of bells started ringing in her head. She insisted that because he had deployed and because he was airborne, he must have had PTSD. He must have had serious, devastating injuries to his psyche. Suffice to say, he did not agree.
My friend had seen combat, but she didn’t know that. All sorts of people are chomping at the bit to ascribe “PTSD” to everyone that struggles as they exit the military. I’m not sure I can really blame them, as there don’t seem to be many popular terms to put in its place. There is definitely some overarching difficulty with transitioning out of the military that can be, but is not limited to, PTSD.
And that’s what I’m getting at: leaving the military is difficult for everyone, heavy combat experience or not. It’s a drastic lifestyle change that smacks you in the face the moment you ETS. You go from someone holding your hand–not in a nice way, but holding your hand nonetheless–to the civilian world where you’re responsible for every facet of your own life, down to making sure you eat that day.
Most of all, you go from going to have a clear sense of direction and purpose to the great undefined path of civilian life. “What do I do now?” is a question that dawns on many veterans, months or even years into their civilian lives. “I made my decision to leave the military, but am I ready to pick some random field to do for the next 20 to 30 years?”
Questions like these can really eat at your soul. Maybe you were responsible for the health and welfare of 4, 20 or 100 men and women; now you’re only in charge of you, and you’re hoping that in 20 years you can be in charge of the guy at the front desk in your office.
I have seen many veterans struggle with these issues and disregard them because they didn’t see significant combat. Who cares? A problem is a problem, and ought to be resolved no matter what the cause. Realizing that is the first step to seeking actual help with these legitimate issues.
Featured image courtesy of AFRICOM.