Over the past 6 months I’ve been doing assessments with veterans who are suffering from various psychological concerns. The most common by far is PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). This disorder occurs when someone experiences something so traumatic (war, rape, attempted murders, 9/11) that their brain just doesn’t know how to cope with it. Symptoms include vivid nightmares, constant thoughts of the event/s, feeling as if the event were occurring in present time, attempts to avoid reminders of the event, use of drugs and alcohol to avoid thinking about the event, feeling as if you have no future, feeling detached from people and life in general, forgetting significant pieces of the event, and extreme anxiety when exposed to things that remind you of the event. People with PTSD often feel constantly on guard and edgy. They are often irritable and depressed, not to mention sleep deprived. Many of the veterans that I’ve been working with have been dealing with these symptoms for decades and feel like their lives have been destroyed. And who wouldn’t?
Can you imagine for even a moment witnessing people die horrific deaths and fearing that you could be next? On top of that experience, your brain then forces you to relive it in some way on an almost continual basis. It’s a horrible way to live and makes holding a job, taking care of children, talking with a partner, and even getting out of bed impossible at times. Unfortunately, this isn’t something we’re likely to see any less of in the future. Our soldiers are being asked to risk their lives everyday and they are witnessing terrifying events. For the most part, we don’t teach young men and women in their 20s how to cope with these situations. Why would we? Most of us never have to think about these issues, much less witness them.
Before I started doing this work, I didn’t give it much thought either. I knew about PTSD and I had seen the symptoms in the women I worked with who had been raped or abused. The fears of America’s soldiers were never really on my radar. And yet some of the hardest stories I have had the honor of hearing, have come from these men and women. The level of terror we ask our soldiers to endure is breathtaking. I, as most of us probably do, look at military officers as being brave and strong, able to handle anything that comes at them. We forget that they are also human.
It is that humanity that I have so connected with over the past few months. These veterans risked their lives so that Americans could feel safe. I have also learned that it doesn’t take much to help the veterans either. After most of my appointments, the overwhelming response I get is gratitude for being willing to listen. Most of these men and women have never shared their experiences with anyone – they feel that no one wants to hear it or that admitting they were scared means they are weak. If even one soldier feels this way, we are failing our veterans.
Being a witness to the fear and the horror has become my most important job. Working with these men and women has changed how I work with all of my clients. I have come to understand that most people simply want someone to acknowledge their pain and tell them they have every right to feel that way. I’m not suggesting that you sit down with your nearest soldier and start asking them about their experiences – you may hear some things that you truly aren’t ready to learn. However, what you can do is help them find someone who is able to hear their story and support them in the healing process. Rather than letting them withdraw or push you away, offer your support and caring. Being a witness – it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve had the honor of doing.