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Returning U.S. Soldiers, Trauma and the Job Market

The trauma of war can cause several problems to the brain and associated functions in thinking and feeling. Here are some of the changes anticipated and what they mean for returning soldiers.
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With the impending return of soldiers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, do we need to prepare for another war? This time in the U.S.? As work opportunities dwindle, resources diminish and immigration battles escalate, do we need to be concerned about what returning soldiers are facing and should we prepare them to be fairly competitive in the workplace? Why should we be concerned about this?

A notable proportion of returning soldiers from the various wars will likely return with psychological challenges that are based on what has happened to their brains during the war. The trauma of war can cause several problems to the brain and associated functions in thinking and feeling. Here are some of the changes anticipated and what they mean for returning soldiers:

1. Trauma may decrease the size and functioning of the long-term memory centers in the brain: When long-term memory is affected, returning soldiers are likely to experience their identities as fragmented. After all, we rely on our memories to create an internal sense of coherence. If you are entering the workforce with a disrupted sense of identity, how will this affect your interview anxiety? How might this affect how you appear when you apply for a job? What can we do about this?

2. Trauma may disrupt the brain bridge that connects the left and right hemispheres: When trauma disrupts the connection between thinking and feeling centers in the brain, one of the effects is also to worsen a sense of "wholeness." People can't quite feel what is going on; they feel less than human. How do we think this is going to impact relationships at home and at work?

3. Trauma increases dissociation but this defense has no impact on the unconscious brain: When people dissociate, they do so because they cannot deal with the intensity of emotional turmoil. While dissociation turns the conscious fears off, it has no effect on the unconscious brain -- it simply does not touch the fear center of the brain. Thus unconscious fears are rampant in the brain of the trauma survivor. This state of heightened fear is contagious and is bound to affect more people around. How will we deal with this when we need some fear stability in the stock market? (This is not a theoretical joke; it is based in brain science.)

4. Trauma disrupts the attentional brain and short-term memory as well: When trauma impacts attention in such a profound way, it will be difficult for returning soldiers to concentrate at work. Productivity will be affected and the quality of work will also be affected.

So why worry about this if it is inevitable? I think that we can be wiser in setting up early intervention centers for vulnerable people. Rather than scuttling them through an aged veterans system, we can recognize likely neuropsychological deficits early and integrate these into rehabilitation programs targeted toward focused work capabilities. As I explain in my book: "Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary lessons To Overcome Fear" we need to teach these soldiers to develop emotional superglue. We can focus on techniques that enhance attention and memory, therapies that help people integrate thoughts and feelings, helping people understand worry through greater mindfulness and therapies based on metacognitive therapy, and offer well-matched solutions from meditation to intense psychological interventions so that this greater support can get the soldiers back on track to compete fairly in the workforce.

This, however, will only happen if we take these issues seriously and wise up about early intervention with distinct focused training and occupational rehabilitation through resiliency enhancement that improves the functioning of our remarkable soldiers and gives them a fair chance at living a comfortable work life - for themselves, and for the country at large.