Psychological Wounds Take Toll on Post-9/11 Veterans

On a sunny morning eleven years ago, the actions of terrorists opened America's eyes to unprecedented and complicated global challenges. As we remember the victims of those attacks, and honor those who answered our nation's call to serve in response, it's time to open our eyes to a new reality: Many of those who have served on behalf of our nation will need our help as they transition home to our communities.

The mental health providers who work with service members and veterans across the country every day hear it firsthand.

Tiffany Smith, a psychotherapist in Texas, has spent her career helping veterans recover from the horrors of war. Her patients have ranged from World War II vets in nursing homes to newly returned service members young enough to be their grandchildren. And though the name of the condition has changed (Shell Shock, Battle Fatigue), the symptoms they describe remain the same: Anxiety. Nightmares. Depression. Isolation.

Today we recognize these symptoms as the hallmarks of post-traumatic stress (PTS) -- the same symptoms burdening so many of the young service members returning from the Middle East. As Tiffany Smith knows, recognizing the symptoms is just the first step. Far more difficult is encouraging those who've served to reach out for help.

Since 9/11, more than 2.6 million troops have been deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, nearly 50,000 U.S. troops have experienced physical injuries during these conflicts, and tens of thousands more have experienced psychological symptoms directly related to their deployments.

The stress is palpable among those serving today. About 38 percent of soldiers and 31 percent of Marines report psychological symptoms after returning from deployments, according to post-deployment health reassessment data from the Department of Defense.

We know that returning combat veterans routinely fail to seek the mental health treatment they need, often because of the stigma associated with receiving treatment. According to a RAND study, only 53 percent of service members with PTS or depression sought help over the past year. Unfortunately, we are seeing the consequences of inaction. With 38 suicides on record -- 26 of which were among active-duty soldiers -- July marked the worst month for Army suicides since the Pentagon began releasing such data.

Fortunately, help -- and hope -- is within reach.

Give an Hour is a national network of (currently) 6,300 licensed mental health professionals who have pledged to give an hour of their time each week to support those affected by the stress and strain of military conflict. Since 2005, these volunteers have donated nearly 57,000 hours of free counseling to help veterans and their loved ones recover from the psychological effects of wartime service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A core part of this work involves helping veterans and their family members understand that they are not alone, that what they are experiencing is an understandable reaction to the brutality of war, that the issues they are grappling with are real, and that seemingly insurmountable problems can be overcome.

One client, told his therapist about a frustrating interaction with a bank teller that triggered a series of flashbacks. He said he was shocked by the "awful stuff" that hadn't surfaced in his memory in years. Another client, an eighteen-year veteran of the Air Force Reserves, struggled to manage feelings of guilt regarding five friends who had died in Iraq over the years.

Understandably, friends, family members, and communities are also affected by the issues coming home from war. One volunteer provider tells the story of a woman who was devastated when her son, an only child, returned from his second deployment to Iraq and would not talk to her.

The mental health challenges faced by returning veterans and their loved ones are not new -- they have affected warriors and their families for as long as there have been wars. But we can assist those affected, so that they can continue to be leaders and assets in our communities, and everyone can play a role:

  • If you know a service member, veteran, or military family member in need of support, encourage them to visit Give an Hour's website to find a listing of local volunteer service providers who are ready to help.

  • If you are a licensed mental health professional interested in donating an hour a week to support veterans, their loved ones, and their communities, register as a volunteer provider through our Web site.
  • If you are interested in doing more, visit the Community Blueprint Network, an initiative of the Points of Light that was developed by Give an Hour and 13 other national service organizations and designed to help communities and local leaders coordinate services to support veterans and military families.
  • As we remember and heal from the events of 9/11, let's help those who've served heal too.

    Barbara Van Dahlen founded Give an Hour in 2005. She is a licensed clinical psychologist and has practiced in the Washington, D.C., area for 19 years.