Veterans Back Home Again: Training, Transitions, Transformation

By: Dr. Denise Casey, Psy.D, CADC, NBCCHT, ACH, CCT, Founder and Director

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Since 1776, over 48 million have served in our armed forces. We give them honor, respect and gratitude. When they come home it is time for us to give them dignity. As we suit them up in uniform, place a badge, and arm them with weapons, we say go and serve. We develop codes of bravery and honor, but nothing can prepare them adequately for the human horrors they are about to experience. Our veterans witness trauma beyond belief. Many of us can hardly manage to brace ourselves to watch the images on the 10 o'clock news. Bombs, beheadings, torture, rape, and stories that are too brutal to tell. How do we take these young lives on a journey of epic proportions and then ask them to return to modern daily life without debriefing, counseling and support?

Returning home again these brave lives return to us as survivors, they made it back alive. We are grateful to have them safely home, but they are different, this journey has changed them. While the war is not something we talk about at cocktail parties or holiday dinners, the ghosts of the past are real and haunting. They intrude on daily life with images of horrors, interrupting sleep and thought patterns. Depressive moods cloud out life's joy; reactivity to environmental sounds keeps the central nervous system on edge. Alcohol and substances are within reach to soothe it all. Within a short period of time it is evident that while nothing has changed, everything has changed.

We knew they were going over to risk their lives, what becomes apparent is that they also sacrificed their sanity. Our veterans are not crazy. What they are experiencing is perfectly normal within the context of where they served. In order to survive in extreme circumstances, thoughts, behaviors and emotions become adaptive. However, upon returning, those survival strategies that work so well "over there" appear out of place "over here." Families and veterans try to begin to integrate what happened there with what is happening here. To truly honor our veterans and their families, we must begin the difficult conversations of understanding the brutal circumstances, situations and survival strategies that were employed for survival. We must readapt collectively to integrate the terror into our terrain.

Debriefing and Counseling are vital to the transition and transformation for veterans and families. It starts with education. We cannot deal with the things we do not understand. Knowing the "why" behind a behavior can often completely change our reaction to it. We call this empathy, to truly understand the life experience of another is what allows for compassion. Shared stories help both veterans and families to realize that they are not alone. Knowing that other people in the same situation experience the similar feelings can bring great relief.

We equipped our veterans with weapons to fight the enemy, now we must equip them with tools to cope. Alcohol and drugs are easily available for quick mood alteration and escape, however they can take on a cycle of their own spinning into addiction which is another war to fight. Once that cycle is established, intervention is required. Left to it's natural course, addiction will end in "jails, institutions or death." Treatment works and recovery is possible. Families can intervene with love and assist in breaking the cycle of addiction.

Mindfulness, meditation, and some martial arts or eastern traditions are gaining in popularity to assist veterans in coping with the symptoms of the traumas they've witnessed or experienced. At war the central nervous system has to stay in a constant state of arousal, it's on "high alert." Our bodies are not meant to stay in a state of hyperarousal all the time. On purpose, we can activate another aspect of our central nervous system that is designed to bring us back into balance. There is a lot of research on "the relaxation response" which can be implemented through some of the ancient arts and traditions to calm the mind & body. Breathing, meditation, body movements, etc. assist in obtaining this end goal. Some therapists are specifically trained to assist in this process.

Acceptance is often the hardest struggle for all of us, yet there is great relief in identifying that "it is what it is" (quoting DBT therapy). Fighting was necessary on the field of battle, but it can be destructive when the battle is carried within. Yet, how often do we fight circumstances, we fight that things should or shouldn't be, we fight ourselves and each other. Giving up the fight is often "half the battle." Learning to practice acceptance gives us a starting point to move from the problem to the solution. Sometimes it is easier to "act your way into a new way of thinking, than to think your way into a new way of acting." In other words, changes in behavior can lead to changes in attitude. And sometimes, changes in attitude lead to changes in behavior. But unless you are reflecting on these things, they will go unnoticed.

We equip our troops in leaving to serve, let's help them transition and transform when they return. Barrington Behavioral Health & Wellness is here to serve our veterans in redefining themselves and integrating all of their life experience for their highest calling. We invite families, friends, organizations and veterans to call or partner with us in this cause. Honoring all that was, is and will be for our veterans and their families.