The Consequences of War: A Veteran’s Story
I am an Army brat. My father entered the Army in the enlisted ranks and 20 years later retired as a Major, so he had a very successful military career. He deployed to Korea for two tours during the Korean Conflict when I was very young.
I am also a retired Navy Captain. I spent 24 years in the Navy as a social worker. I had various duty stations in the continental United States and outside of the U.S and traveled to military installations worldwide. I retired in 2004, which was in the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).
In this article, I discuss my personal observation of how war affected someone I love and of how that same experience is playing out today with veterans of current conflicts and their families. I offer two perspectives: that of a daughter of a soldier who returned from war with invisible wounds, and that of a retired Navy social worker who has worked with many military personnel and veterans and their families.
When my father returned from Korea, I was still very young. Most people, and I am no exception, generally don’t have a lot of memories from those early ages. Therefore, I can’t say if I was aware that he was different when he came home, if I identified difficulties with reintegration into the family, or if I knew the toll the deployments had taken on my parents’ marriage. It is likely I knew all of these things because children are generally quite aware of what is happening with their parents. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to verb
alize any of this back then, but I can look back on it now and know that all of these things were true.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized my father struggled with his combat experiences for the rest of his life after returning from Korea. I understand now that he had undiagnosed and untreated combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression that he self-medicated with alcohol. I realize that he was plagued with survivor’s guilt for the men he lost while fighting in Korea. I understand now that, like many combat veterans, his unresolved combat-related issues triggered again during Operation Desert Shield/Storm. He attempted to deal with his PTSD by making audio tapes in which he talked about his combat experiences in excruciating detail. It was his version of prolonged exposure therapy, one of the evidence-based treatments for PTSD.
I came to realize that my father was thinking about suicide. I remember the day he called me and told me that he had a gun and was going to shoot himself. I knew he had a gun, and I could tell that he had been drinking. I was horrified then relieved that he did not kill himself that day. Although he did not commit suicide, he continued to be depressed and
took his unresolved combat-related problems to the grave when he died of cancer at the age of 66. I know that he went through Hell throughout his life as he tried to work, raise a family, and live some semblance of a normal life while continuing to experience the aftermath of his combat experiences.
You might be thinking that my father’s experiences happened such a long time ago that there is no relevance to the experiences of our veterans from more current conflicts, such as Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I would say that my father’s story could be the story of any veteran from any of these conflicts. I remember seeing a Navy Chief corpsman for counseling following an incident of domestic violence. He was a Vietnam veteran and the only surviving member of his Corps School class. The rest died in Vietnam. He had undiagnosed PTSD, was depressed, and was experiencing survivor’s guilt. These issues contributed to excessive drinking and violence in his marriage.
Most people who return from combat have some problems with reintegration and experience some combat stress reactions (e.g., bad dreams and nightmares, sleep disturbance, short temper, anger and rage, increased drinking and drug use) when they first return but do not go on to have PTSD. The number of veterans from OEF and OIF who have PTSD varies depending on the source of the data. I have seen estimates ranging from 15 to 35 percent. What we do know is that PTSD is one of the invisible signature wounds of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of these veterans are depressed and contemplate, threaten, or attempt suicide. Some of these veterans are becoming involved with the criminal justice system for a range of crimes, including drug offenses, driving under the influence, domestic violence, sexual assault, murder, etc.
How are these veterans different from my father? They really are not different. They too are struggling with their combat experiences. They too have children who are growing up impacted by a parent who is impaired. Like my father, many of these veterans do not seek help and are trying to cope with their issues by themselves. They are going through Hell as they, too, try to work, raise families, and live some semblance of a normal life while continuing to experience the aftermath of their combat experiences.
People who have been in combat are changed forever by that experience, as are their families. We can’t totally understand what they have been through even if they do talk to us about it, but we can be there to love and support them, help them get the assistance they need, [i] and let them know that they are not alone.
Glenna Tinney, MSW, DCSW, Captain U.S. Navy (Ret.), is the Military Advocacy Program Coordinator for the Battered Women’s Justice Project. She was one of the original 12 Navy social workers recruited for active duty in 1980. Tinney served for 24 years working with military families and managing worldwide family violence and sexual assault programs.