Check out the app: No Warriors Left Behind. Now downloadeble on IPhones and Android.
Helping prevent suicide among veterans. Because ONE suicide among veterans is too many.
The free book is located under PTSD Facts
Check out the app: No Warriors Left Behind. Now downloadeble on IPhones and Android.
Helping prevent suicide among veterans. Because ONE suicide among veterans is too many.
The free book is located under PTSD Facts
Perl’s findings, published in the scientific journal The Lancet Neurology, may represent the key to a medical mystery first glimpsed a century ago in the trenches of World War I. It was first known as shell shock, then combat fatigue and finally PTSD, and in each case, it was almost universally understood as a psychic rather than a physical affliction. Only in the past decade or so did an elite group of neurologists, physicists and senior officers begin pushing back at a military leadership that had long told recruits with these wounds to “deal with it,” fed them pills and sent them back into battle.
If Perl’s discovery is confirmed by other scientists — and if one of blast’s short-term signatures is indeed a pattern of scarring in the brain — then the implications for the military and for society at large could be vast. Much of what has passed for emotional trauma may be reinterpreted, and many veterans may step forward to demand recognition of an injury that cannot be definitively diagnosed until after death. There will be calls for more research, for drug trials, for better helmets and for expanded veteran care. But these palliatives are unlikely to erase the crude message that lurks, unavoidable, behind Perl’s discovery: Modern warfare destroys your brain.
The physics behind blast forces was almost unknown until the modern era, and it remains so mysterious and terrifying that scientists sometimes invoke the word “magic” when talking about it. A blast begins simply: A detonator turns a lump of solid matter into a deadly fireball. Within that moment, three distinct things happen. The first is the blast wave, a wall of static pressure traveling outward in all directions faster than the speed of sound. Next, a blast wind fills the void and carries with it any objects it encounters. This is the most manifestly destructive part of the blast, capable of hurling cars, people and shrapnel against buildings and roadsides. The remaining effects include fire and toxic gases, which can sear, poison and asphyxiate anyone within range.
The effects of all of this on the human body are myriad and more complicated than the blast itself. People who have been exposed to blasts at close range usually describe it as an overpowering, full-body experience unlike anything they have ever known. Many soldiers do not recall the moment of impact: it gets lost in the flash of light, the deafening sound or unconsciousness. Those who do remember it often speak of a simultaneous punching and squeezing effect, a feeling at once generalized and intensely violent, as if someone had put a board against your body and then struck it with dozens of hammers. From a distance, a blast makes a distinctive thump, the sound of air pressure clapping outward. When I lived in Baghdad, reporting for this newspaper, I would sometimes be awakened by that sound early in the morning. I would sit up in bed, instantly alert, with a surreal and awful realization: Someone who was just as healthy as me 30 seconds ago has been shredded to pieces.
Credit Greg Kahn for The New York Time.
Trinitrotoluene, or TNT, was first used in artillery shells by the German Army in 1902. Soon after the First World War started in 1914, a rain of these devices was falling on the hapless men on each side of the front. It was a level of violence and horror far beyond the cavalry charges of earlier wars. Very quickly, soldiers began emerging with bizarre symptoms; they shuddered and gibbered or became unable to speak at all. Many observers were struck by the apparent capacity of these blasts to kill and maim without leaving any visible trace. The British journalist Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett famously described the sight of seven Turks at Gallipoli in 1915, sitting together with their rifles across their knees: “One man has his arm across the neck of his friend and a smile on his face as if they had been cracking a joke when death overwhelmed them. All now have the appearance of being merely asleep; for of the several I can only see one who shows any outward injury.”
For those who survived a blast and suffered the mysterious symptoms, soldiers quickly coined their own phrase: shell shock. One period lyric went like this:
Perhaps you’re broke and paralyzed
Perhaps your memory goes
But it’s only just called shell shock
For you’ve nothing there that shows.
One British doctor, Frederick Mott, believed the shock was caused by a physical wound and proposed dissecting the brains of men who suffered from it. He even had some prescient hunches about the mechanism of blast’s effects: the compression wave, the concussion and the toxic gases. In a paper published in The Lancet in February 1916, he posited a “physical or chemical change and a break in the links of the chain of neurons which subserve a particular function.” Mott might not have seen anything abnormal in the soldiers’ brains, even if he had examined them under a microscope; neuropathology was still in its infancy. But his prophetic intuitions made him something of a hero to Perl.
Mott’s views were soon eclipsed by those of other doctors who saw shell shock more as a matter of emotional trauma. This was partly a function of the intellectual climate; Freud and other early psychologists had recently begun sketching provocative new ideas about how the mind responds to stress. Soldiers suffering from shell shock were often described as possessing “a neuropathic tendency or inheritance” or even a lack of manly vigor and patriotic spirit. Many shell-shock victims were derided as shirkers; some were even sentenced to death by firing squad after fleeing the field in a state of mental confusion.
This consensus held sway for decades, even as the terminology shifted, settling in 1980 on “post-traumatic stress disorder,” a coinage tailored to the unique social and emotional strain of returning veterans of the war in Vietnam. No one doubted that blasts had powerful and mysterious effects on the body, and starting in 1951, the U.S. government established the Blast Overpressure Program to observe the effects of large explosions, including atomic bombs, on living tissue. One of my uncles recalls standing in the Nevada desert as an Army private in 1955, taking photographs of a nuclear blast amid a weird landscape of test objects: cars, houses and mannequins in Chinese and Soviet military uniforms. At the time, scientists believed blasts would mainly affect air pockets in the body like the lungs, the digestive system and the ears. Few asked what it would mean for the body’s most complex and vulnerable organ.
Only after yet another European war broke out did scientists begin looking again at blast’s effects on the brain. When the Balkans collapsed into fratricidal violence in the early 1990s, Ibolja Cernak, a small, tenacious woman who grew up in the countryside of what is now Serbia, was working as a doctor and researcher at a military hospital in Belgrade. She soon began seeing large numbers of soldiers with blast trauma, usually from mortars and artillery fire, a common feature of that war. As in World War I, the men often suffered from striking mental impairments but few visible wounds. Cernak, whose colleagues call her Ibi, has an appealing blend of briskness and warmth, along with a clinician’s conviction that you must listen to your patients. It is easy to imagine her running around the battlefields of Bosnia and Serbia, collecting blood samples from soldiers. That is what she did for several years, at no small risk to her life, for a study cataloging the neurological effects of blast on 1,300 recruits. “The blast covers the entire body,” she told me. “It has a squeezing effect. Ask soldiers what they felt: The first thing they say is that their ears were popped out, they were gasping for air, like some huge fist is squeezing them. The entire body is involved in that interaction.”
Cernak became convinced that blast ripples through the body like rings on a pond’s surface. Its speed changes when it encounters materials of different density, like air pockets or the border between the brain’s gray and white matter, and can inflict greater damage in those places. As it happens, physicists would later theorize some very similar models for how blast damages the brain. Several possibilities have now been explored, including surges of blood upward from the chest; shearing loads on brain tissue; and the brain bouncing back and forth inside the skull, as happens with concussion. Charles Needham, a renowned authority on blast physics, told me post-mortems on blast injuries have lent some support to all of those theories, and the truth may be that several are at play simultaneously.
A decade after her initial battlefield surveys in the Balkans, Cernak took a position at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where she did animal research that bolstered her conviction about blast’s full-body effects. She found that even if an animal’s head is protected during a blast, the brain can sustain damage, because the blast wave transfers through the body via blood and tissue. Cernak also came to believe that blast injuries to the brain were cumulative and that even small explosions with no discernible effects could, if repeated, produce terrible and irreversible damage. Much of this would later be confirmed by other scientists.
Even Cernak’s limited conclusions about blast injuries were heresy to much of the military-medical establishment at the time. She presented some of her findings at a conference in Vienna in the late 1990s, and before she was even finished, “an older gentleman stood up, a military doctor from the U.S.A.,” she recalled. “He said: ‘Stop with this nonsense. If you give soldiers fluid replacement, they’ll do fine after 24 hours, so it’s not this.’ … I was taken aback. It’s been an uphill battle.”
Credit Australian War Memorial
It was not until 2001, when America embarked on what became an era of constant warfare, that doctors began to move slowly toward Cernak’s way of thinking. A new generation of more powerful roadside bombs — improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.s, in military parlance — became a signature of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, yielding an epidemic of blast injury. Medics soon noticed an oddity of blast: It reflects off hard surfaces and multiplies, so that people who appear to be protected inside an enclosed space like a Humvee often suffer much worse brain injuries than those outside. Military and civilian researchers began focusing their work on the brain rather than just the body. But it was still very difficult to isolate blast from all the other physical and mental effects of being exposed to an explosion in a combat zone.
A landmark advance came in 2007, when an engineering firm called Applied Research Associates received a call from the SWAT team of the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado. The officers were worried about possible neurological effects from breaching, the practice of blowing open doors with small explosive charges. Almost every major city in the United States has breacher teams, as do militaries in war zones. The Applied Research team quickly recognized that monitoring breachers would allow them to observe blast in its pure form, because the charges are too small to knock soldiers over or give them concussions; they are subject to the blast wave only. Plus, the researchers could bypass any ethical concerns about running tests on human subjects, because the breachers were doing it anyway.
The Applied Research team quickly designed and led a study on military breachers, rigging its own blast gauges and subjecting the recruits and trainers to neuropsychological tests at the beginning and end of a two-week breaching course. The resulting report, circulated in 2008, found a small but distinct decline in performance among the instructors, who are exposed to far more blasts than students. It was only a pilot study, but one author, Leanne Young, told me it added to “converging evidence that there is a cumulative effect with chronic exposure to blast,” even at relatively low levels.
The military was still reluctant to take blast seriously or even to concede that the symptoms it caused were a matter of physical harm. As late as 2008, researchers at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research published a paper suggesting that the symptoms of traumatic brain injury could be caused in large part by PTSD and brushing off “theoretical concern” about neurological effects of the blast wave. By that time, American doctors who had gained Cernak’s unusual blend of medical expertise and battle experience were starting to draw their own conclusions.
One of the first to challenge the military from within was a 44-year-old Army lieutenant colonel named Christian Macedonia. In March 2008, Macedonia was in Arlington, Va., listening to a group of scientists and government bureaucrats talk about roadside bombs. The talk was dry and technical, and finally Macedonia, a square-jawed man with an air of urgent candor, could no longer contain himself. He lashed out against the military’s inaction on brain injury, using what he recalls as “some pretty salty language” to make his point. “I see no movement, and I’m kind of sick of it,” he concluded. As the meeting broke up, Macedonia expected other participants to politely avoid him. Instead, a younger aide approached, gave him a business card and urged him to get in touch with Adm. Michael Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Macedonia contacted Mullen and repeated his pitch. To his surprise, Mullen hired him.
At the time, “you had an entrenched military-medical community that did not want to go down that road,” Macedonia told me. “They didn’t want to give any credence to the idea that these symptoms were anything other than emotional difficulty.” Macedonia, an obstetrician as well as a soldier, knew otherwise. He did a tour in Anbar province in Iraq in 2004 and 2005 with soldiers who were being targeted frequently by mortars and roadside bombs. As an officer and doctor, he felt responsible for younger soldiers and their injuries. “Kids exposed to explosions were asking for help, and I was mouthing the party line: ‘You’ll be O.K.’ I was part of the machine that didn’t help. That’s what haunts me.”
Like Macedonia, some senior officers, including Gen. Peter Chiarelli of the Army and Gen. James Amos of the Marines, were also frustrated. They had seen too many soldiers discharged for disciplinary issues that were related to brain injury. Mullen hired several other experts to join Macedonia, asking them to monitor and improve the treatment of brain injury across the entire military. They called it the “Gray Team” — partly a play on gray matter and partly because the men were mostly in their 40s and going gray. They were an extraordinary group: mostly military officers, all of them had advanced degrees in medicine or science. And almost all of them had seen combat.
One of them was Jim Hancock, an emergency physician and Navy captain whose main qualification, he told me, was that he had suffered a traumatic brain injury himself, in southern Afghanistan. He also suffered concussions twice as a college athlete, so he had a basis for comparison. “The theory at the time was, it was a concussive event,” Hancock told me. “I said, ‘B.S.’ I’ve been concussed. I’ve never had anything like blast.” Like other members of the team, Hancock had noticed that soldiers exposed to blasts often had memory and focus problems that did not go away and that seemed distinct from battlefield trauma. If the blasts were repeated, the lapses sometimes devolved into career-ending mental and behavioral struggles. The Gray Team shared a gut-level belief that a blast wave’s effects on the body were far more extreme, and more complex, than the concussion model could account for. But their main task was to push the military to take brain injury more seriously, whatever its causes.
In early 2009, the Gray Team’s first five members traveled to military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, meeting with trauma surgeons and other doctors to see how they handled brain injury. They found a wildly inconsistent picture. There were three extraordinary doctors who understood brain trauma and how to handle it. But “our fear was, those three rotate out, and it disappears,” said Dr. Geoffrey Ling, another member of the Gray Team.
Credit Nick Oza for The New York Times
When they got home, the team identified the most valuable practices and, along with Chiarelli and Amos, had them codified. Any soldier who was within 50 meters of a blast or who was in a vehicle behind or ahead of one struck by a bomb would have to be screened for brain injury. Anyone who suffered a concussion would have to be pulled out of combat. The Gray Team used a checklist to help identify concussed soldiers, although they were soon forced to write six different versions of it, because so many Marines memorized the correct answers to avoid being pulled out of combat. They also found a civilian contractor to build blast gauges, like the ones used in the breacher study. Every recruit or officer in a combat zone now wears three of these tiny devices, which weigh 20 grams each. The gauges are designed to turn red if they register a force of more than 12 pounds per square inch, the lower limit indicating a possible concussion or brain injury. The soldiers can no longer brush it off: If your sensor is red, you must be screened for brain injury.
The military has taken the new rules seriously. Less than a year after its first tour, the Gray Team went out to the field again and found that 90 percent of the bases they visited were in compliance. Still, the larger question of blast’s residue inside the skull remained a mystery.
Brandon Matthews is built like a tank, with huge humps of muscle outlining his back and shoulders. Ugly scars run down his biceps and forearms, cutting deep creases into the muscle. Others line his legs and sides, the legacy of an 11-year career as an Army Ranger. Matthews, registered with the military as Brandon Matthew Sipp, was exposed to so many blasts, in Iraq and other places, that he cannot count them all. The worst was a suicide bombing that sent him flying down a corridor and left him in a coma. He was hospitalized for months, and his military career was over. But his struggles with brain injury were only starting.
“I have moments when I forget everything: who I am, where I am, what I’m doing,” he told me. “It happens almost every day,” sometimes while he is driving. Decisions, once easy, have become impossible. He turns the kitchen burner on and then walks out, returning to discover a fire raging.
Matthews has 24 names tattooed down the center of his back. Eighteen are former war buddies who were killed in action. The more painful losses, in a sense, are five others: friends who have killed themselves since returning from the war. One of them, another Special Operations veteran with an undiagnosed traumatic brain injury, threatened his wife and children with a gun six months ago, Matthews told me, then shot himself in the head. Matthews spoke at the funeral. Undiagnosed blast injuries are common among the Special Operations soldiers, he said, because members of this military elite prize their toughness and do not want to risk losing their careers. “Here’s the harsh reality,” another veteran told me. “In the Special Forces especially, if I fail my physical, I’m done. That’s all there is to it. My cool-guy stuff is done.” So they keep their heads down, say nothing and suffer more blasts. Until one day, like Brandon Matthews, they are too damaged to fight.
I met Matthews at a hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he now lives, and within an hour he had consumed several vodka-and-waters. He was warm and talkative, but every now and then he got a lost, plaintive look in his green eyes; I had the impression of a man who is clinging to a precipice. Before I could turn in, he insisted on steering me to a series of nightclubs, where he drank round after round and regaled strangers with his war stories. I asked him about friends, and he told me that almost all of them were dead. He lives on his military pension, and at 33, seems to have given up on holding down a job.
All this is fairly typical of service members and veterans who have suffered serious or repeated blast injuries, I was told by Susan Ullman, who runs an outreach network called Warrior2Warrior. (Ullman’s own husband, a Green Beret who suffered a traumatic brain injury, killed himself in 2013.) When I asked Matthews about other veterans and suicide, he grimaced and unleashed a string of obscenities about the cowardice of taking your own life. It felt cruel, and a little unnecessary, to ask if he had been tempted that way himself. (He has his own name tattooed on his back after those of friends who have killed themselves.)
Even if the underlying wounds of men like Matthews cannot be treated, the symptoms of brain injury, like those of trauma, can often be alleviated. The distinction between organic and emotional injury can be very blurry; trauma changes neuronal patterns, and therapy can alter a brain that has been physically damaged. “Everything we know suggests that people with structural lesion will also respond to pharmacological and psychological treatment,” said David Brody, a neurologist who has worked extensively with the military. Finding the right treatment is the key. Many veterans told me that they had gone to the V.A. and been handed pills indiscriminately. A number of mostly untested treatments have gained traction in the past few years, from hyperbaric chambers to ergonomic mouth guards, and some veterans swear by them.
For all his mental confusion, Matthews told me that he thinks he can now distinguish between the emotional wounds he suffered — the survivor’s guilt, the bad dreams and night terrors — and the more concrete cognitive problems that he traces to his blast exposure. A number of Special Operations soldiers said the same thing. They also said it makes a big difference to be told they have a physical wound rather than a mental one, even if it is incurable. Some brain injuries can now be seen on M.R.I.-type brain scans of living people, though precise diagnoses remain elusive. Matthews told me he would find some solace in simply being able to see what was going on inside his head.
Daniel Perl is continuing to examine the brains of blast-injured soldiers. After five years of working with the military, he feels sure, he told me, that many blast injuries have not been identified. “We could be talking many thousands,” he said. “And what scares me is that what we’re seeing now might just be the first round. If they survive the initial injuries, many of them may develop C.T.E. years or decades later.”
Perl takes some solace from the past. He has read a great deal about the men who suffered from shell shock during World War I and the doctors who struggled to treat them. He mentioned a monument in central England called “Shot at Dawn,” dedicated to British and Commonwealth soldiers who were executed by a firing squad after being convicted of cowardice or desertion. It is a stone figure of a blindfolded man in a military storm coat, his hands bound behind him. At his back is a field of thin stakes, each of them bearing a name, rank, age and date of execution. Some of these men, Perl believes, probably had traumatic brain injuries from blasts and should not have been held responsible for their actions. He has begun looking into the possibility of obtaining brain samples of shellshocked soldiers from that war. He hopes to examine them under the microscope, and perhaps, a century later, grant them and their descendants the diagnoses they deserve.
While it’s something that many people don’t want to talk about, sex matters to people. Sexual function and sexual desire can be important parts of a person’s life, particularly if he or she is in a relationship. And, unfortunately, what we know is that combat posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects a veteran’s sexual desire and sexual function in negative ways. In fact, some studies have showed such a correlation between sexual dysfunction and PTSD that some have proposed making it an official, diagnostic criteria.
Sexual desire, is, of course, one’s desire for sexual relations and whether one has a partner or not, this can be important. In a 2014 study, Problems in Sexual Functioning among Male OEF/OIF Veterans Seeking Treatment for Posttraumatic Stress, 63% of male veterans in the study reported sexual desire problems. Of those with partners, 72% reported a lack of sexual desire. According to the study, white race, combat exposure, social support, and avoidance/numbing symptoms predicted a lack of sexual desire. The 2008 study Sexual Functioning in War Veterans with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, found that veterans with PTSD had significantly reduced sexual activity including sexual fantasies, foreplay, oral sex, and intercourse, in the previous month. Veterans cited their own health problems as the reason for reduced sexual activity.
It’s not clear why veterans with combat PTSD experience a loss in sexual desire but I suspect the above study may have hit on one main reason: the PTSD symptoms of avoidance/numbing. These symptoms often produce a lack of emotional intimacy in relationships and it only stands to reason that sexual intimacy would also be reduced.
Several studies have focused on physical, sexual dysfunction in combat PTSD veterans. In Problems in Sexual Functioning among Male OEF/OIF Veterans Seeking Treatment for Posttraumatic Stress, an official erectile dysfunction diagnosis was present in 12% of male combat veterans while sexual arousal problems were present in 62% of partnered veterans.
In the 2002 study Sexual Dysfunction in Combat Veterans with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, “patients [combat veterans] with PTSD had poorer scores on overall satisfaction and orgasmic function and showed trends toward poorer scores on intercourse satisfaction and erectile function.” In this study, erectile dysfunction rate was 85% in veterans with PTSD while it was 22% in veterans without PTSD.
It is not known why sexual desire and sexual function are so impeded in veterans with combat PTSD but part of the reason may be medication-related. Antidepressant therapy is common in combat PTSD treatment and this medication may impact desire, arousal, and sexual functioning.
Medication can address some sexual dysfunction issues and if the sexual function or arousal is being impacted due to a PTSD medication, a change in medication can often solve the problem. Many choices of medication exist so, in general, veterans should not have to live with this side effect.
Additionally, there is research that suggests that treating the underlying combat PTSD will correct the problems in sexual desire and function. This makes perfect sense. As other PTSD symptoms lessen, so do these ones.
Psychotherapy for combat PTSD is also often helpful in addressing these types of issues.
However, none of this help can be employed if the combat veteran is not open about what is happening for him or her so my biggest piece of advice for veterans experiencing reduced sexual desire or functioning is to be open with his or her healthcare provider so that you can look for a solution together. And remember: this, too, can be a symptom of combat PTSD and is not your fault.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sometimes known as shell shock or combat stress, occurs after you experience severe trauma or a life-threatening event. It’s normal for your mind and body to be in shock after such an event, but this normal response becomes PTSD when your nervous system gets “stuck.”
Your nervous system has two automatic or reflexive ways of responding to stressful events:
Mobilization, or fight-or-flight, occurs when you need to defend yourself or survive the danger of a combat situation. Your heart pounds faster, your blood pressure rises, and your muscles tighten, increasing your strength and reaction speed. Once the danger has passed, your nervous system calms your body, lowering your heart rate and blood pressure, and winding back down to its normal balance.
Immobilization occurs when you’ve experienced too much stress in a situation and even though the danger has passed, you find yourself “stuck.” Your nervous system is unable to return to its normal state of balance and you’re unable to move on from the event. This is PTSD.
Recovering from PTSD involves transitioning out of the mental and emotional war zone you’re still living in and helping your nervous system become “unstuck.”
While you can develop symptoms of PTSD in the hours or days following a traumatic event, sometimes symptoms don’t surface for months or even years after you return from deployment. While PTSD develops differently from veteran to veteran, there are four symptom clusters:
It’s common for veterans with PTSD to experience suicidal thoughts. Feeling suicidal is not a character defect, and it doesn’t mean that you are crazy, weak, or flawed.
If you are thinking about taking your own life, seek help immediately. Please read Suicide Help, talk to someone you trust, or call a suicide helpline:
As well as helping to burn off adrenaline, exercise can release endorphins and improve your mood. By really focusing on your body and how it feels as you exercise, you can even help your nervous system become “unstuck.”
Pursuing outdoor activities in nature like hiking, camping, mountain biking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and skiing can help challenge your sense of vulnerability and help you transition back into civilian life.
PTSD can leave you feeling vulnerable and helpless. But you have more control over your nervous system than you may realize. When you feel agitated, anxious, or out of control, these tips can help you change your arousal system and calm yourself.
Mindful breathing. To quickly calm yourself in any situation, simply take 60 breaths, focusing your attention on each out breath.
Sensory input. Just as loud noises, certain smells, or the feel of sand in your clothes can instantly transport you back to the combat zone, so too can sensory input quickly calm you. Everyone responds a little differently, so experiment to find what works best for you. Think back to your time on deployment: what brought you comfort at the end of the day? Perhaps it was looking at photos of your family? Or listening to a favorite song, or smelling a certain brand of soap? Or maybe petting an animal quickly makes you feel calm?
Reconnect emotionally. By reconnecting to uncomfortable emotions without becoming overwhelmed, you can make a huge difference in your ability to manage stress, balance your moods, and take back control of your life. See our Emotional Intelligence Toolkit.
Connecting with others face to face doesn’t have to mean a lot of talking. For any veteran with PTSD, it’s important to find someone who will listen without judging when you want to talk, or just hang out with you when you don’t. That person may be your significant other, a family member, one of your buddies from the service, or a civilian friend. Or try:
Volunteering your time or reaching out to someone in need. This is a great way to both connect to others and reclaim your sense of power.
Joining a PTSD support group. Connecting with other veterans facing similar problems can help you feel less isolated and provide useful tips on how to cope with symptoms and work towards recovery.
You may feel like the civilians in your life can’t understand you since they haven’t been in the service or seen the things you have. But people don’t have to have gone through the exact same experiences to be able to offer support. What matters is that the person you’re turning to cares about you, is a good listener, and a source of comfort.
No matter how close you are to someone, PTSD can mean that you still don’t feel any better after talking. If that describes you, there are ways to help the process along.
Exercise or move. Before chatting with a friend, either exercise or move around. Jump up and down, swing your arms and legs, or just flail around. Your head will feel clearer and you’ll find it easier to connect.
Vocal toning. As strange as it sounds, vocal toning is a great way to open up to social engagement. Sit straight and simply make “mmmm” sounds. Change the pitch and volume until you experience a pleasant vibration in your face.
Without the rush of still being in a combat zone, you may feel strange or even dead inside and find it difficult to relax. Many veterans are drawn to things that offer a familiar adrenaline rush, whether it’s caffeine, drugs, violent video games, driving recklessly, or daredevil sports. However, the symptoms of PTSD can be hard on your body and mind so it’s important to put a priority on sleep, healthy food, and calming activities.
Take time to relax with relaxation techniques such as massage, meditation, or yoga.
Avoid alcohol and drugs (including nicotine). It can be tempting to turn to drugs and alcohol to numb painful feelings and memories and get to sleep. But substance abuse (and cigarettes) can make the symptoms of PTSD worse.
Find safe ways to blow off steam. Pound on a punching bag, pummel a pillow, sing along to loud music, or find a secluded place to scream at the top of your lungs.
Support your body with a healthy diet. Omega-3s play a vital role in emotional health so incorporate foods such as fatty fish, flaxseed, and walnuts into your diet. Limit processed and fried food, sugars, and refined carbs which can exacerbate mood swings and energy fluctuations.
Get plenty of sleep. Sleep deprivation exacerbates anger, irritability, and moodiness. Aim for 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep each night.
Flashbacks usually involve visual and auditory memories of combat. It feels as if it’s happening all over again so it’s vital to reassure yourself that the experience is not occurring in the present.
State to yourself (out loud or in your head) the reality that while you feel as if the trauma is currently happening, you can look around and recognize that you’re safe.
Use a simple script when you awaken from a nightmare or start to experience a flashback: “I feel [panicked, overwhelmed, etc.] because I’m remembering [traumatic event], but as I look around I can see that the event isn’t happening right now and I’m not in danger.”
Describe what you see when look around (name the place where you are, the current date, and three things you see when you look around).
Try tapping your arms to bring you back to the present.
Tips for grounding yourself during a flashback
Movement – Move around vigorously (run in place, jump up and down, etc.); rub your hands together; shake your head
Touch – Splash cold water on your face; grip a piece of ice; touch or grab on to a safe object; pinch yourself; play with worry beads or a stress ball
Sight – Blink rapidly and firmly; look around and take inventory of what you see
Sound – Turn on loud music; clap your hands or stomp your feet; talk to yourself (tell yourself you’re safe, you’ll be okay)
Smell – Smell something that links you to the present (coffee, mouthwash, your wife’s perfume) or a scent that has good memories
Taste – Suck on a strong mint or chew a piece of gum; bite into something tart or spicy; drink a glass of cold water or juice
Feelings of guilt are very common among veterans with PTSD. You may have seen people injured or killed, often your friends and comrades.
Healing doesn’t mean that you’ll forget what happened or those who died. And it doesn’t mean you’ll have no regrets. What it does mean is that you’ll look at your role more realistically:
Honestly assessing your responsibility and role can free you to move on and grieve your losses. Instead of punishing yourself, you can redirect your energy into honoring those you lost and finding ways to keep their memory alive.
Professional treatment for PTSD can help you deal with the trauma you’ve experienced and may involve:
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or counselling. This involves gradually “exposing” you to reminders of the event and replacing distorted thoughts with a more balanced picture.
Medication, such as antidepressants. While medication may help you feel less sad or worried, it doesn’t treat the causes of PTSD.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). This incorporates elements of CBT with eye movements or other rhythmic, left-right stimulation to help you become “unstuck.”
When a loved one returns from military service with PTSD, it can take a heavy toll on your relationship and family life. You may have to take on a bigger share of household tasks, deal with the frustration of a loved one who won’t open up, or even deal with anger or other disturbing behavior.
Don’t take the symptoms of PTSD personally. If your loved one seems distant, irritable, angry, or closed off, remember that this may not have anything to do with you or your relationship.
Don’t pressure your loved one into talking. Many veterans with PTSD find it difficult to talk about their experiences. Never try to force your loved one to open up but let him know that you’re there if he wants to talk. It’s your understanding that provides comfort, not anything you say.
Be patient and understanding. Getting better takes time so be patient with the pace of recovery. Offer support but don’t try to direct your loved one.
Try to anticipate and prepare for PTSD triggers such as certain sounds, sights, or smells. If you are aware of what causes an upsetting reaction, you’ll be in a better position to help your loved one calm down.
Take care of yourself. Letting your loved one’s PTSD dominate your life while ignoring your own needs is a surefire recipe for burnout. Make time for yourself and learn to manage stress. The more calm, relaxed, and focused you are, the better you’ll be able to help your loved one.
More help for PTSD and trauma
PTSD Program Locator – Find specialized VA PTSD treatment programs near you. (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs)
Veteran Combat Call Center – A 24/7 hotline where you can talk with another combat veteran: 1-877-WAR-VETS (1-877-927-8387).
Help for Veterans with PTSD – Learn how to earn how to earn how to enroll for VA health care and get an assessment. (National Center for PTSD)
24/7 Outreach Center for Psychological Health & Traumatic Brain Injury – Get help for traumatic brain injury and other psychological health issues. Call 1-866-966-1020 or connect through chat or email. (DoD’s Defense Centers of Excellence)
Vet Centers – If you are a combat veteran or you experienced sexual trauma during your military service, you can speak with a therapist at your local Vet Center for free, without an appointment, and regardless of your enrollment status with VA. Just bring your DD214. (U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs)
StartYourRecovery.org is a free, confidential tool that helps individuals take steps toward a healthy relationship with drugs and alcohol. It was developed with the input of leading clinicians, experts from the White House and SAMHSA, and people in recovery themselves.
Canadian veterans: visit Operational Stress Injury Social Support (OSISS) or call 1-800-883-6094 to talk to a peer who has been through similar experiences.
UK veterans: visit Combat Stress or call the 24-hour helpline 0800 138 1619.
Australian veterans: visit Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service (VVCS) or call 1800 011 046.
National Center for PTSD – A comprehensive, helpful resource for veterans with PTSD and their family members, from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
About Face – A website dedicated to improving the lives of veterans with PTSD. Learn about PTSD, hear real stories from other veterans, and get advice from experienced clinicians.
Make the Connection – Learn about PTSD in veterans and other related issues. Includes honest and candid descriptions from veterans about their experiences.
What Can I Do if I Think I Have PTSD? – Outlines the steps you can take if you think you may have PTSD, as well as the reasons to seek treatment early. (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs)
Understanding PTSD Treatment (PDF) – Explore proven treatment and therapy options for PTSD, hear success stories, and debunk common treatment myths. (National Center for PTSD)
Dogs and PTSD – Learn more about service dogs and how they can help you manage PTSD symptoms and boost your emotional well-being. (National Center for PTSD)
Mindfulness and meditation training could ease PTSD symptoms, researchers say – Research shows that mindfulness meditation can help vets with PTSD. (The Washington Post)
Post-Traumatic Stress’s Surprisingly Positive Flip Side – This article explores the positive growth and resilience that can come as you work through PTSD. (The New York Times Magazine)
Sierra Club Military Outdoors – Sign up for outdoor trips and other services for veterans and their families in the U.S. (Sierra Club)
Mission: The Veterans Airlift Command provides free air transportation to wounded warriors, veterans and their families for medical and other compassionate purposes through a national network of volunteer aircraft owners and pilots. Our priority is on the veterans of Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan). As capacity allows, our mission will expand to serve veterans of other conflicts.
Geographic areas served: National
Programs: The purpose of the organization is to provide free air transportation for medical and other compassionate purposes to wounded warriors, veterans, and their families through a national network of volunteer aircraft owners and pilots. Such air transportation will be provided to these individuals when other practical means of transportation are inadequate or unavailable.
organization provides transportation to wounded veterans from their homes to various medical facilities around the country as deamed necessary by the military medical staff.
Our mission is to provide support to the families of those who have been wounded, injured or killed during combat operations. The families of our casualties suffer in many ways: some financially, some psychologically.
“When America Goes to War…
Our Families Go to War”