Counseling Services

Resources For Returning War Veterans

Signs That Counseling Might Be Helpful

While many returning veterans will make a successful return to civilian life, research suggests that as many as 1 in 3 returning veterans experience a serious psychological problem related to their war zone experience. Combat and its associated horrors can traumatize and devastate service members physically, emotionally, spiritually, and morally.

Further, there is reason to believe that the nature of the war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq may be fertile breeding grounds for the mental health problems most commonly experienced by military personnel. Among the factors that may elevate the risk of psychological problems for returning veterans are:

  • Close-quarters, confusing battle environments with no front lines and no clear sense of who is friend or foe.
  • Greater sense of unpredictability and helplessness.
  • Service members remaining with their units throughout training and deployment. This familiarity develops close bonds and cohesiveness among the personnel in the unit, and the sudden loss of dear, devoted friends is more likely to occur and to negatively impact survivors.
  • The tasks required for survival in the war zone taking precedence over acknowledging and grieving the loss of friends.
  • Exposure to significant numbers of civilian casualties.
  • The existence of psychological problems present before the experience of combat.

The psycho-biological reactions to the extreme stress of the war zone environment frequently cause an array of symptoms and reactions in returning veterans. With the passage time and the opportunity to live in a civilian environment, these typically diminish. However, when symptoms and reactions last for more than a month or interfere with daily life and functioning, professional assessment and treatment may be required.

Among the signs that a returning veteran is experiencing a significant problem that may require professional counseling assistance are:

  • Recurring and intrusive memories and/or dreams of combat.
  • Acting or feeling as if a past traumatic event was happening in the moment.
  • Intense distress in response to cues that symbolize or resemble some aspect of combat.
  • Avoidance of anything associated with war-zone experiences.
  • Diminished interest to participate in important or previously enjoyed activities.
  • Feeling emotionally distant, detached, and/or estranged from others.
  • Difficulty having or expressing a full range of emotions.
  • Sense of a foreshortened future (e.g., not expecting to live to have a career, marriage, children, or a normal life span) or a heightened desire to "live for the moment".
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep.
  • Suicidal and/or self-injurious thoughts, feelings, or behavior.
  • Frequent experiences of irritability, anger, and/or rage.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Hypervigilance and being easily startled by noises and movements.
  • Abuse of alcohol and drugs.
  • Persistent difficulties with authority.
  • Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
  • Guilt or anger at oneself for being unable to prevent the death of others or committing a perceived error that resulted in harm or death.
  • Feelings of paranoia without any real evidence that others have bad motives.

The experience of one or more of the above signs of distress can significantly interfere with academic performance, daily functioning, motivation, relationships, and general enjoyment of life. During the period of their service, military personnel are often reluctant to utilize mental health services for fear of appearing 'weak' and/or negatively impacting their military career (e.g., potential loss of promotions, security clearances, etc.), especially because their confidentiality is not assured. While returning veterans often feel the continued need to appear resilient and unaffected by their experiences, the earlier they seek professional counseling, the greater the likelihood that their issues will be resolved and that their academic and personal goals will be achieved.

Resource:  James Madison University Counseling Center for Returning War Veterans