Veterans in Pain: Trauma, PTSD & Substance Abuse

Serving your nation is one of the most truly noble acts that a person can do in life. Setting aside your own desires, dreams, and plans to help secure the future of someone else’s way of life is an act that many people are unable and unwilling to perform. But for those who make the sacrifice, their return to the civilian side of life can be a major adjustment. Friends and families left behind during a soldier’s tour of duty feel their absence and miss their loved one, but they continue with the monotonous routine of everyday life; dishes, groceries, bills, and carpools don’t get put on hold. When their soldier returns, they often expect that person to step right into the “normal” everyday life they have been experiencing.

But for that returning soldier, their everyday “normal” didn’t include ball practices and dance recitals, math homework and leaky roofs. The everyday experiences they had included roadside bombs, always being on the lookout for tripwires, feeling distrust of any unknown individual, sleeping in terrible conditions, and being subjected to all elements of the weather. Witnessing close comrades being killed or seriously wounded changes someone; they cannot simply walk back into the life they knew without learning how to accept that things are different and a healthy way to decompress. Unfortunately, the number of returning troops with some of the most serious and life-altering injuries is staggering. Injuries both seen and unseen are reaching an all-time high. And the main resource for the U.S. Military, the Veteran’s Administration, is struggling immensely to keep up and provide the services these soldiers and their families need. Many soldiers have turned to alternate means to try to function and deal with the emotions they experience. Substance abuse is at a record high among soldiers. Depression and suicide are at crisis levels. More and more soldiers are coming home only to realize that they feel completely out of place and at a loss on how to function in civilian society.

Soldiers are experiencing a trauma in various forms; themselves, other soldiers, and civilians. Many have TBI’s (traumatic brain injuries) which can have an altering effect on personality and mental acuity. Soldiers with multiple amputations is at another all-time high. Young, otherwise healthy men and women are returning home having to face a future far different than what they envisioned. While their peers at home are concerned with what college or vocation to pursue, what newest restaurant to try, or contemplating childcare options, they are having to relearn how to walk, talk, and function. Many have experienced injuries causing infertility. Some addictions may start out with medications prescribed to help ease pain received from traumatic injuries and proceed to abuse. Many soldiers are facing multiple tours of combat, leading to even more exposure to traumatic events.

Why are we seeing such a large number of people who are having such extreme difficulty returning to civilian life? Four letters: PTSD. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Those four words have changed thousands of lives and without proper acknowledgement and treatment, a person may never regain a functional life. PTSD is talked about across news stations and in training sessions around the country. But what does it mean for the person struggling to get through a day? PTSD differs from encountering a traumatic experience, feeling shaken but walking away from that situation with anything more than added caution and gratefulness. PTSD can occur after a person experiences one single traumatic event or a series of events. Symptoms can appear soon following the event(s) or years later. It all relates to the physiological effects of the body’s “fight or flight” response. It is a protective measure your body uses in stressful situations to insure the best chance of survival. Your body dumps massive amounts of adrenaline, your blood flow increases, and you become alert; literally ready to stand and fight or flee from imminent danger. In PTSD, your body doesn’t turn off that fight or flight response. You become constantly on edge, awaiting whatever is coming. PTSD can exhibit itself in various ways. Some people experience anxiety, a restless sensation, constant fearful feeling, difficulty sleeping, lack of concentration, and increasing frustration or temper, guilt, or apathy¹. So how does this relate to substance abuse in veterans? The National Center for PTSD estimates that 1 out of 3 veterans who are struggling with substance abuse also have PTSD². “

So, with so many veterans struggling with these problems, why aren’t more coming forward for help? Why is the suicide rate so high? An overall culture of discouraging soldiers to ask for help and repercussions of being labeled as a drug-user keep many from stepping forward³. The VA is starting to issue campaigns, encouraging those struggling to come forward for help. But do the veterans actually have accessibility to that help? The numbers of suicide, drug abuse, and homelessness are not decreasing. Per the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 70% of homeless veterans were fighting substance abuse⁴. Families are not immune to the issues their returning soldier is facing. Spouses and children are dealing with the effects of substance abuse in their daily life.

What options exist for a veteran and their family? Where can they go to get the help they deserve? Church sponsored support groups offer a community for veterans to turn to; local governments can connect veterans to sources. Private treatment centers can offer a private and focused plan that includes the veteran and the family. New programs are being developed, many by veterans themselves, to provide realistic, affordable, and relevant care. Therapy with animals, from adopting rescue dogs to working with horses, has shown very positive results. Outdoor related activities, like hiking, camping, hunting, and fishing, offer real-world environments for a veteran to adjust to civilian life. 

The mission of the Association of Traumatic Stress Specialists (ATSS) is to organize, educate, and professionally certify our world-wide membership in order to assist those affected by trauma. We encourage all members to share with us any trauma resources available for the brave men and women of the military.

Author: John Becker Jr. MHS-C, CTR (Former Detective Sergeant)

John Becker Jr. has experience as a police officer, clinician, and outreach professional. John also possesses a personal understanding of substance abuse among first responders, having overcome addiction in his own life. He is the Treatment & Outreach Administrator for the First Responder Addiction Treatment (FRAT) program at the Livengrin Foundations. John holds a B.S. in Behavioral Health Counseling and a Master’s Degree in Human Services. John is an active member of the Montgomery County (PA) Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Team and certified by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF) for individual and group interventions. John is a Certified Trauma Responder (CTR) and board member for the Association of Traumatic Stress Specialists (ATSS). He is also a member of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) and the National Police Suicide Foundation. John continues to provide training and education to agencies and organizations throughout the United States, on topics such as stress, trauma, suicide, and addiction, as they relate to first responders. He can be contacted at 215-833-1572 or [email protected].






More Posts

Sergeant Adam Carter, C.ST.J.

Sergeant Carter started his policing career with a large municipal police agency in Ontario in 1998, after graduating with a Bachelors Degree in Physical Education

Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge, a film that will debut November 4, 2016, will spark discussion about war, PTSD, faith and combat. One of our certified members, Chaplain

Maintaining Routines after Trauma

Should emergency services workers maintain work routines after exposure to trauma? As a police manager I’ve thought about this question because I’ve seen officers who