Less well known is the harsh relentlessness of daily life (war-zone) in a returning Iraqi veteran’s, which slowly chips away at one’s sense of safety, emotional resiliency and character. For the soldier, war is his drug. Life back home becomes dull and frustrating. Normal situations make one feel a sense of anxiety, of desperation, as if constantly hoping for a sudden horrible rage to sweep across and take normal “right down to hell.” For soldiers who were on constant alert in Iraq & Afghanistan, it is not easy to turn off the habits of wartime survival, as the experience of hyper-vigilence can interfere with life back home.
All wars are hell. Iraq is a unique brand of horror…a confluence of environmental, political, and cultural factors that make it the “perfect festering pot of psychological damage. Some 70% of Iraq soldiers suffer from major depression, generalized anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] which is the emerging signature disability of this war experience.
PTSD, is characterized by: flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, anxiety, and social withdrawal which can manifest itself months or years after the trauma. The DOD estimates that between 15-29% of veterans from the wars in Iraq &Afghanistan will suffer with PTSD.
Combat PTSD is hard to define; those who have it or are susceptible to it are hard to identify, and not everyone agrees on who should be treated, when they should be treated, or which interventions are most effective for veterans. At this time, there are no standard treatment protocols. It’s a war few who haven’t seen combat can truly understand, and it poses a dilemma in treatment. The soldiers believe that unless you have been in the horrors of war, you just do not get it.
According to Charles Figley, director of the Traumatology Institute, a “tsunami” of mental health problems will result from the current wars. He states that “neither the government, nor society, nor the mental health community is prepared to handle it”. This is a result of the troops’ experiences such as: guerrilla tactics, roadside IED’s, suicide bombers, nipper fire, an undistinguishable insurgency. There is no rest or relaxation for these soldiers who are sleeping, eating, and living in war.
Nearly 90% of troops are involved in some kind of firefight. Many have seen their buddies blown to pieces and more than half of the soldiers have had to handle human remains [which is incomprehensible]. The soldiers are all at risk from the insurgents who have an ability to retaliate against, and come out of nowhere, in an indiscriminate manner. All of this increases the risk for PTSD because they all live with the constant threat of their own demise, as well as your peers.
The physicality of the area the troops are subjected to include:
- average temperature of 126 degrees [130 in the ‘steaming latrines’]
- limited ability to shower
- blistering heat and blowing grit, fine sand like talc floats in the air
- limited access to latrines
- drenched in sweat leading to dehydration
Many soldiers feel shamed by their wartime acts and fear misunderstanding and harsh judgment. Civilian therapists must be extremely knowledgeable about the war experience if they are to help veterans. There is a cultural gulf between those who have been socialized to survive in combat and those who have not. To heal a psychologically wounded veteran requires an intimate understanding of what is like to have been to hell and not fully come back.
Submitted by: Iris Richman Pappalardo, R.N., LCSW
If you are looking for a therapist who is experienced in working with veterans and families of veterans you may contact the Crossroads Counseling Center by phone or email and we would be happy to assist you.