By Stephanie Mitchell
January 25, 2011
When veterans return home from war, their worlds have completely changed. Whether you donate your time or your money, your support is priceless. Bill Wallace, veteran and clinical director of U.S. VETS in Long Beach, California, shares what you can do to help service members transition back into their everyday lives. What you need to know:
What's the Most Important Thing You Can Do for a Veteran Who is Returning Home from War?
It's important to remember that every soldier's experience overseas is personal and unique, so there's no set answer to the question, "How can I help?" "Some return home with physical and psychological injuries, such as traumatic brain injury, polytrauma (a multitude of physical injuries), PTSD, readjustment disorders, financial hardships, estrangement from family and friends and loss of housing," Bill says.
There isn't one answer to all veterans' problems, so the best way to help is to be educated. "If the American public can seek out knowledge about veteran specific issues, then they can understand a bit how they can help and who they can reach out to in order to
help," he says.
Also, showing love and respect for veterans is more powerful than you might think—even if the solider is a stranger. "Something as simple as walking up to a service member in an airport or on the streets who is in uniform and thanking them for their service or welcoming them home is so appreciated and helpful," Bill says. "It garners trust and lets the service members know that they
are not forgotten."
What Should You Know About PTSD?
PTSD is increasingly common among service members, but many are reluctant to discuss it. "It's especially a problem with service members who are in the National Guard and Reserves—who are still in service, they're not veterans yet, they're still on active service—they don't want the military to know that they're struggling with issues," Bill says.
Here are some things to know about those suffering from PTSD:
Veterans with PTSD may struggle to trust other people, especially those who haven't experienced what they've been through. But talking through the feelings and experiences is one helpful way to work through the pain. "It encourages them to address it now, while they can, so they can learn to live with their symptoms and not let their symptoms live with them," Bill says. "One thing we let everybody know is that PTSD doesn't go away; it doesn't disappear. The experience, the memories are not going to be erased. But you can learn to manage the symptoms."
Understand that each veteran deals with stress and stressors and traumatic events differently, but everyone is affected somehow. "I don't believe you can go to a hostile environment and not come back with some issues, some memories that change you," Bill says. "Everybody who goes to war comes back a changed person."
Letsoldiers know that their symptoms are common. "The issues and the feelings that you're feeling are to be expected. They're natural, and we want you to know that it doesn't speak to what type of person you are," Bill says.
Veterans with PTSD mayfeel shame. "They come back with guilt about some of the things they had to do or some of the things that they experienced," he says, "and they don't know how to let people know about it because they don't necessarily trust that what they have to talk about or how they're behaving is well received by others."
PTSD happens after the event. "Sometimes the triggering event can be months after you've deployed," Bill says. "I know for myself, I came back and for the first month I was in a pink cloud. I was just so happy that I was safe and sound and back with my family and back in America. But then, life comes at you and frustrations can build, anger can build, guilt can build, feelings of loss can build, and that's when you have to address it."
What Can You Do to Get Involved in Your Community?
If you want to support veterans, explore the organizations and resources available to you.
Contact a National Guard orreserveunit in your area that has or may deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan to ask how you can be of service.
Adopt a military unit or families within the unit through your church, service organization or social club. "Cook for them, provide transportation, organize social events and activities, and take up clothing, toy, school supply and food drives," Bill says. "For female service members, donate makeup, female products, clothes and, again, any item that their children could use or appreciate." With certain security clearance, you might even be able to babysit, offer childcare or after school activities.
Offer fellowship, bible study and spiritual comfort to service members or their families through your church group.
Donate time to your local veteran service organization. "We have many people donate their clothes and household items to our clothing room, and we are opening a food pantry and people are bringing us canned and dry goods for our veterans who live here and who are successfully transitioning to live in the community," Bill says. Volunteers at U.S. VETS also help the organization's administrative staff with filing, data input and office-related tasks.
Say thank you. If your friend or family member has returned home, let that service member know you care and support him or her. "This simple contact goes miles in letting them know [you] care, and again it develops trust and avenues of communication," Bill says. "So often a service member and their family would be ashamed to let their friends, neighbors, community and even other family members know that they are struggling, so simple contact ... helps so much in taking shame out of the equation."
Enroll involunteerservices at your local VAmedicalcenter. "They have wonderful opportunities for individuals who want to help and be involved," Bill says."
What Are Some Hardships Facing Veterans?
Many veterans experience tough times on a daily basis, and those who suffer from PTSD usually have difficulty trusting others. "They have a great deal of distrust with anyone who hasn't experienced what they've experienced," he says. "One thing that's been very helpful when we've been working with them is establishing peer support groups."
For the smallest comments can be a trigger for someone who is dealing with PTSD. "Some of the guys say they get really upset when friends of theirs or even family members say, 'I understand exactly what you mean,'" Bill says. "They [friends and family] can't understand. They get resentful when they get asked questions about it sometimes."
When this happens, Bill suggests you remember that sometimes ignorance is bliss. "What we tell them is, 'Look, you don't want your mom to necessarily understand everything that you went through,'" he says. "'You don't want to expose them to that. You have to give them a break. Know that they love you and care about you deeply. They're just trying to help.'"
Finding employment is difficult for many Americans, but it's even more difficult for veterans with PTSD. "It's very sad because a lot of people don't report that they have it," Bill says. In many cases, if veterans want jobs in law enforcement or security agencies when they return—and Bill says many of them do—being diagnosed with PTSD could ruin their chances of getting the job.
Should You Treat a Female Veteran Differently Than a Male?
More women are being deployed than ever before, and they're not being sheltered from the front lines like they used to be. "It used to be that women who were in Vietnam or women who were deployed ... had positions that kept them away from the front lines, but there really are no front lines in Iraq or Afghanistan now," Bill says. "Women are out there driving trucks, flying helicopters, flying jets, being medics, being military police officers, so they're exposed—just as the men are—to the stressors of the job."
Because female soldiers experience war differently than males, it's important that they get the services they need. "Female veterans or service members in particular can face specific issues such as military sexual trauma or harassment on top of the other psychological stressors from being deployed in a hostile environment," Bill says.
Also, soldiers who are mothers and go to war can bring many issues home. "They face the issues of having to leave their children behind to be raised by other family members, friends and even court-assigned foster families," Bill says. "Returning home and reunifying with their children and families can be very difficult. The stress of having to worry about your children while you are in a combat zone is so hard for any service member, but particularly so for a mother."
One program U.S. VETS offers is transitional housing program for women service members and their children. Not only do women like Mickiela receive housing for themselves and their children, there's also a transitional school and a daycare center on site. "A woman can come in, be homeless and have a lot of things that she needs to work on and know that her child is safe at the daycare or at the transitional school while she's out either looking for a job, dealing with her health issues at the VA, going to groups, doing whatever her action plan is," Bill says. "To keep women with their children and to try to nurture the family relationship is a huge part of it."
How Can You Help a Female Veteran Who's Experienced Sexual Trauma?
It's not always obvious when military sexual trauma or harassment has occurred. "It's probably not going to be revealed to the family," Bill says. "In many cases, a lot of the trauma, especially if it's a military sexual trauma, the victim's embarrassed by it. Sometimes they feel that they are to blame for it, which is tragic. So they're not necessarily going to reveal to their parents or their brothers and sisters that that happened to them."
If a loved one does share this news with you, shower her in love and offer to support her any way you can. Helping her seek professional care or referring her to a veteran organization are good ways to start.
Female veterans of the past wouldn't always seek out the VA for their services, but women are beginning to use the organization to deal with issues like military sexual trauma. "They didn't identify themselves as veterans as readily as males did," Bill says. "But now, about 15 percent of the service members are women. More and more, they are reaching out to the VA, identifying themselves as veterans, and if they have specific issues, addressing them."
Regardless of whether a female service members experiences sexual trauma before or during her deployment, being in a hostile environment like Iraq or Afghanistan can trigger the symptoms of military sexual trauma, he explains. "It can make the symptoms of PTSD that much worse," he says.