Although U.S. military personnel receive extensive pre-combat training, war-zone experiences tax soldiers physically and emotionally. Transition to civilian life can lead to various challenges, including academic, social, physical, financial, emotional, and relational. Many returning soldiers will make a successful return to civilian life. However, studies by the U.S. Army Mental Health Advisory Team and by U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs suggest that somewhere between 11 and 17 percent of these soldiers will meet medical symptom criteria for acute war zone stress reactions to include depression, anxiety, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms in addition to social adjustment problems. Some other estimates are even higher. The psychological reactions to the extreme stress of the war zone environment frequently cause an array of symptoms and reactions in returning veterans.
Common symptoms may include the following:
- Recurring and intrusive memories and/or dreams of the event
- Acting or feeling as if the traumatic event were happening
- Intense distress in response to cues resembling some aspects of the event
- Efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations related to the event
- Diminished interest in participating in important or previously enjoyable activities
- Feeling detachment or estrangement from others
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Irritability or outbursts of anger
- Difficulty concentrating
- Hypervigilance and being easily startled by noises and movements
- Abuse of alcohol or other drugs
- Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness
- Suicidal thoughts, feelings or behaviors
- Feelings of paranoia without any real evidence that others have ill intentions
- Excessive anxiety and worrying
If you experience one or more of the above signs of distress, your academic performance, daily functioning, relationships or your general enjoyment of life may be negatively impacted.
Tips for a Successful Transition
There are a number of steps that veterans can take to put their military experience into perspective and facilitate their transition to civilian life. The following is a list of tips for returning veterans:
Establish and maintain relationships: Combat experiences often leave veterans feeling alienated from others, and they must make active efforts to connect with others on campus. Getting involved with clubs and organized activities can break down walls and connect the veteran with others having similar interests.
Work to reestablish existing relationships: Deployment can cause significant changes in the family structure, such as others adopting new roles and taking on new responsibilities. While both returning veterans and family members eagerly anticipate their reunion, changes in the family structure that have occurred during the deployment period often lead to unanticipated stresses and challenges. Veterans and family members must reexamine how responsibilities will now be divided and communicate openly about roles they want or do not want to play.
Emotional control involves both holding in and expressing emotions: Unlike what is expected on the battlefield, expressing and showing emotions does not indicate weakness and is critical to sustaining meaningful personal relationships in civilian life.
Develop good academic habits: Start with a manageable course load and set reasonable goals. Go to class and take comprehensive notes to improve focus on course materials and lectures. Establish a daily schedule to maximize organization.
Pay attention to physical well-being: Eat well-balanced meals, get plenty of rest, and build physical activity into daily life.
Seek balance in life: The experience of combat can affect how veterans perceive the world, often causing feelings of pessimism about the future. Balance that viewpoint by focusing on people and events which are meaningful, comforting, and encouraging.
Limit use of alcohol and drugs. Use of these substances increases the likelihood of depression, insomnia, relationship problems, academic difficulties, legal troubles and a host of other negative issues.
Limit exposure to war-related news reports (e.g., news channels, newspapers, websites, etc.). While keeping informed of developments is important, the 24/7 media machine typically ignores stories of heroism, resilience, and sacrifice and instead focuses on the most horrific images and troubling accounts.
Connect with other veterans. Veterans often report that the friendship and support of other veterans is critical to effectively transitioning to civilian life. Other veterans have an intuitive understanding of the experience and impact of being in combat and of the additional challenges that veteran students face on college campuses.
Grieve for and honor those who did not make it back. It is important for veterans to grieve the loss of friends and to experience and work through the emotions that are understandably attached to these losses. Work to live a life worthy of the ultimate sacrifice made by fallen comrades.
Treatment Options and Resources
Psychotherapy can be effective in helping veterans to deal with their thoughts about their experiences, and to change their behaviors in order to reduce distress and increase levels of functioning. Talking to a therapist or counselor may help to ease the transition to civilian life and college. All university students are entitled to 6 free counseling sessions at the OU Counseling Center and $12.00 a session for the subsequent sessions. To schedule an appointment, call 248-370-3465.
Medication may also be helpful in alleviating some of the symptoms experienced by individuals following a trauma. Consultations to find out if medication may be helpful can be scheduled by calling the OU Counseling Center (248-370-3465).