Is that stranger a suicide bomber? Is traffic slowing for an ambush ahead? Is that an ordinary dead deer on the roadside — or is the carcass loaded with explosives?
Soldiers in war zones are trained to a heightened level of awareness, keen to spot signs of danger. And while most returning soldiers readjust to the everyday demands of civilian life, some can't turn off the hyper-vigilant switch, says Thomas Murray, readjustment counseling therapist for the Harrisburg Vet Center, a Veterans Administration counseling facility.
Vietnam veteran Murray has counseled combat veterans since 1982. He recalls the client who was compelled to get up and scrutinize every person passing his home. "It was almost an automatic thing," says Murray. "It's hard to disconnect from that and allow the home to be a safe place."
Sleep doesn't come easily because, now, no one is on guard duty. A couple of beers make a good sedative, but "after a while, two doesn't work, then three, then four, and you're developing a reliance." Even veterans without combat wounds can become dependent on pain medications meant to ease the musculoskeletal conditions developed from patrolling in 60 or 70 pounds of gear.
Murray and others who counsel returning vets stress that the maladjusted veteran is the exception, and the Veterans Administration, Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, and others offer comprehensive support for those in need.
Early treatment of budding problems is critical for a successful transition, says Murray. "If you don't begin to say, I have a problem,' what you say is, Everything else is the problem. My boss is the problem. My wife is the problem. People walking by my house is the problem.' You're looking to manage the rest of the world, which you can't do."
Capt. James Joppy, behavioral health officer for the Pennsylvania Army National Guard's medical detachment, oversees health assessments of deploying and returning soldiers from his Fort Indiantown Gap office. He says deployment has benefits — it's a boost for self-awareness, self-worth, appreciation of family and friends, and spiritual connections — but returnees are often "trying to make sense of what happened."
Joppy cites a range of symptoms that provide "a good snapshot of the challenges that some people face when they come back" — trouble sleeping or concentrating, aggressive driving or sudden anger, less enjoyment of favorite things, not seeming the same person, tension or anxiety, unpleasant thoughts or dreams, drug and alcohol misuse.
Some veterans become mired in feelings of hopelessness, says Murray. They're certain their nightmares will never fade. They feel trapped, and that's when they begin to see suicide as a way out. "To have some of those feelings is not unusual for most people, but we have reasons why we don't hurt ourselves. Sometimes when the pain gets too great, we find reasons to dismiss those reasons. We think the family will be better off. That's when people are at higher risk, and when they're using alcohol and other drugs, rational thinking is dismissed."
For those soldiers, Murray says, the VA has assigned suicide-prevention social workers at every hospital, alerted doctors to watch for warning signs and established a suicide-prevention hotline, 800-273-TALK. Every National Guard soldier gets suicide-prevention training, says Joppy.
Even well-adjusted veterans grapple with the challenges of exchanging one daily routine for another. "All veterans coming back from a war zone have some difficulty getting their footing, finding their way back in," says Murray.
Sgt. Tatum Hassler is readiness NCO for a Pennsylvania Army National Guard aviation unit, Detachment 22, Operational Support Airlift Command. The full-time Guard member served two tours in Afghanistan, doing paperwork in the mornings and flying in a video imagery plane in the afternoons. On her first return home, she was single mom to her two sons. "You get so set into the routines when you're deployed, to come back home and be into the kid routine and the mom routine, it's two different worlds," she says.
Deployed soldiers miss out on changes in the home and family, says Hassler. She's "blessed," she says, because she had married by her second deployment, and her husband is a fellow soldier who understands the pressures of deploying and coming home. For others, though, the return creates tension. "You've got to get back into trying to share the duties back home, with the bills and managing the household again. Being gone for a year, naturally, you left everything on somebody else, so trying to take back control, it gets difficult sometimes."
Families, co-workers, employers and friends should recognize that the veteran's life has changed, even when tensions are high, says Murray. "It's not appropriate to say to the person, You're messed up.' There's a loving, supportive way to begin a discussion about the family, their level of discomfort or their confusion about how to reconnect. You can't go back to the way it was."
A job can give the returning vet a sense of purpose, but the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are no likelier to find work than their civilian counterparts, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Murray looks forward to a world where civilians recognize that the military provides excellent job training and leadership opportunities. "They do have good skills, but civilians don't know how to compute them," he says.
The word "no" is a valuable tool for the readjusting soldier, who hears, "You've got to go here, you've got to go there, you've got to see this person, because we've all missed you," says Hassler. She returned from her second deployment on December 23, 2010. "You just want to come home and relax and try to get back with your own family. The first month or two, you're torn every which way."
But December's return might not be Hassler's last homecoming. Her unit is on a two-and-a-half year deployment cycle, and the daughter of a military family is proud to serve. "No sooner do we come back," she says, "than we're getting ready to go again."
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