Memorial Day is a day to remember those killed in the nation’s wars.
But war has caused other kinds of death, and many veterans are living with the effects. They have suffered many kinds of loss — of limbs, faculties, comrades, physical or mental health, relationships, employment, hopes and dreams, or a former way of life.
Sadly, the suicide rate within all branches of the military is rapidly increasing among both active servicemen and women and returning veterans.
“Every serviceman or woman returning from a tour of duty will suffer post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Peter Kleponis, assistant director of Comprehensive Counseling Services in Conshohocken, Pa. Kleponis is certified to work with military personnel and has treated a significant number of them. “They’ve been through a lot, and they’re still working through it. The body comes home long before the mind does.”
Vietnam veteran Phil Lanphier pointed out that PTSD can be triggered years after the service member has returned home. The former helicopter pilot experienced this himself and has seen it in fellow Vietnam vets. “[Those who fought] in World War II came back by ship and had 30 days to decompress before they returned to their families. We came back on a jet; we went from one situation to another.” It’s the same for service members in recent and current conflicts, he added.
The picture painted by statistics and anecdotal evidence can seem bleak, but it needn’t be. While someone with suicidal tendencies must be professionally treated, there are things that we — as family, friends, neighbors, fellow parishioners, co-workers and concerned citizens — can do to support the military personnel in ways that can prevent the factors that can lead to suicide. That can be done in very simple ways.
“One of the most powerful things any of us can do for our servicemen and women is to say five little words: ‘Thank you for your service,’” said Christine Hoffmann-Bourque. Hoffmann-Bourque is married to Kyle, an Army mental health officer on active duty. Between her husband and extended family, she has weathered 10 deployments of loved ones to the Middle East. Hoffmann-Bourque knows from experience that family and friends play a vital role in the overall welfare of military personnel, and she’s developed a website to facilitate that cause: TheStrengthBehindtheStrong.com.
The primary way to offer support is through communication and active listening without judgment. That may not happen in the way we expect, though. “As much as we really want them to pour their guts out to us, they won’t,” said Mary Anne Mayer, mother of a recently returned Marine and co-author with Janie Reinhart of Love You More Than You Know. “They keep it close to the vest. We have to be patient. They’ll talk when they’re ready. In the meantime, we have to just let them know we’re there for them.”
Both Mayer and Lanphier have recommended striking up conversations that don’t directly deal with military experiences. Begin with general topics like sports or hobbies. Eventually, ask open-ended questions that relate to their deployment such as “Where did you sleep?” “What kinds of food did you eat?” “How did you wash your clothes?” “Did you get into town?” and “What kinds of people did you meet?” From there, you might move into questions dealing with their thoughts, impressions and feelings, depending on the service member’s receptivity. It’s essential never to be prying or pushy, because this violates the privacy of the individual and will cause him or her to close up rather than open up.
The second most important way to support our military service members is to offer understanding. They’ve lived a completely different lifestyle for an extended period of time; it will take time to adjust to civilian life. The routines and habits that have become engrained due to their military training and mission may not easily recede once they’ve returned home. They’ve lived for months at a time with their adrenaline running on high; they may find it difficult to settle down or concentrate on work or school. Their behavior may seem erratic or harsh at times. Don’t make them feel guilty or “odd” because of it. Rather, offer them the freedom to adapt in the way that’s best for them. It’s okay to address behavior that’s unacceptable, and occasionally that will happen, but it must be done in charity and not criticism.
It’s tempting to shower military service members with attention while they’re on leave or have returned home. However, this could end up being the worst thing we could do. Returning military personnel merely want to get back into normal life as quickly as possible, because that’s what they missed most while they were gone. They may have lost comrades and suffer from survivor’s guilt, or they may have felt they didn’t do enough while overseas. None of them see themselves as heroes. Ask first before making plans, and heed the answer you receive. Don’t assume they’re being shy or humble. If they say they don’t want special treatment, they mean it.
“We were planning a huge party,” said Mayer. “He didn’t want it. My daughter and I spent weeks making all this food and storing it away in the freezer. Here we had all this food in the freezer, and we never used it.”
Family and Friends
Family and friends also go through a transition when the service member in their lives comes home. The service member is a different person from the one who left for deployment, but so are they.
“It took me a year and a half before I began to feel like my old self again,” said Janie Reinhart about her son’s return from Iraq. “It was like a dance as we tried to readjust to being a family again — in and out, in and out. It doesn’t just happen automatically.”
Failing or unsupportive relationships are a main factor in the emotional health of military personnel and a main contributor to the rising suicide rate.
“Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce,” said Father Miles Barrett, chaplain for the U.S. Coast Guard stations in Cape May, N.J. Father Barrett has been a military chaplain for 28 years, including several tours of duty with the Navy and Marines. “In the military, 70% of marriages end in divorce.” He cites unrealistic expectations of love, marriage and family as a cause. “We need to learn to give free, total, faithful and fruitful love. When the family breaks down, the nucleus of society breaks down. When the nucleus of society breaks down, you’re left with nothing.”
Unconditional love is key to fully supporting our military service members. Few will seek the advice of a chaplain or counselor because of the stigma it carries. They fear it will signal to others that they’re weak or unbalanced. Sometimes this is a reason they don’t talk to family and friends either. Post-traumatic stress is a normal response to any unpleasant experience, such as a car accident or house fire, Father Barrett noted, and doesn’t necessarily mean a person is cowardly or mentally ill.
Above all, we can support the military service members in our lives through faith — faith in them as capable and admirable persons, faith in ourselves as crucial components to their successful service and re-entry into civilian life, and faith in God as the all-knowing, all-powerful and all-merciful Father. That’s best exercised through prayer.
“Prayer — that’s of the utmost importance,” said psychotherapist Phil Mango, president of the St. Michael Institute and founder of Warrior Brothers, a leadership-development organization for Catholic men. Mango frequently treats military personnel. “We must remember to pray prayers of thanksgiving and petition for our military service members, especially through the Rosary and the Eucharist. Truly pray for them. Have Masses said for them. Pray for their enemies. Prayer is the most powerful weapon we have.”
Marge Fenelon writes from Cudahy, Wisconsin.
Is It ‘Normal’ Behavior or a Warning Sign?
Returned military personnel might exhibit a variety of behaviors that seem out of the ordinary. Most of them are quite usual and are generated by military life and will dissipate with time. Some, however, are warning signs of suicidal tendencies. These are just examples. Every situation and every person is different. If ever in doubt, err on the side of caution and seek professional help immediately.
Sleep habits: Many returned military service members prefer to sleep on a couch or even the floor rather than a bed, even if it’s their own. This is harmless and usually the result of having to sleep with one eye open and in an action-ready location and position. They also may have unusual or interrupted sleep rhythms, which is also normal. Inability to sleep or severely altered sleep patterns are cause for concern.
Erratic behavior: Military personnel are on the go constantly, and their adrenaline runs on high for months on end. They’re trained to eat, sleep and work as a team, to be ready for action at any time, and to be on the move at a moment’s notice. They’re used to taking orders rather than making decisions for themselves about day-to-day activities. Because of this, they may experience difficulty concentrating at home, work or school. Many vets become discouraged by this and drop out of work or school. They don’t realize that it’s a normal behavior that can be helped and will pass with time. You might be disappointed that they choose to spend time with their buddies rather than with family or make sudden changes in plans. Have compassion. If the erratic behavior is coupled with anxiety, though, it’s cause for concern.
Risk taking: For the same reasons as altered sleep habits and erratic behavior, risk taking is an aftermath of high adrenaline levels over an extended period of time. This can be demonstrated in relatively harmless ways such as taking up a new hobby (motorcycling, climbing, water skiing), recreational alcohol use, a mild rebellion toward authority, an exaggerated sense of order and justice, or an attitude of invincibility. It can, however, be demonstrated in more serious ways such as substance abuse or self-medicating. As long as the behavior isn’t addictive or harmful to self or others, it can be considered normal and will fade with time. If it seems otherwise, it’s cause for concern.
Startle reflex: Returned military personnel may be easily startled by loud noises or the unexpected, such as firecrackers and speed bumps. They may even trigger flashbacks of their combat experience. Even a car fire along the road may bring back unpleasant memories. This is normal and may take some time to overcome. If the startle reflex or flashbacks seem to cause prolonged anxiety or an altered sense of reality, it’s cause for concern.
Aversion to attention: Those who have served in the military don’t see themselves as heroes, even if we do. They want to be respected and appreciated for who they are, but believe they were just doing their job like everyone else. Some may experience survivor’s guilt due to the death of one or more comrades. They may think that they don’t deserve credit because their deployment lacked any serious danger or adventure. Some may be unsure about the relevancy of the mission. Regardless, they prefer to slip back into civilian and family life without fanfare or special treatment. On the other hand, if they become despondent, antisocial or reclusive, it’s cause for concern.
Unrealistic expectations: Many returned military personnel become agitated when they hear others complain about something. This may be met with anything from a sharp remark to an outburst of anger. They may seem demeaning or overly critical of the feelings, difficulties and weaknesses of others. Usually, this is an expression of their longing for someone to be able to fully understand what they’ve been through and is a symptom of the pain and isolation they’re feeling inside. It will subside with time. If it doesn’t subside or accelerates, it’s cause for concern.
Mood swings: Every human being has his good and bad days. We all experience changing moods at one time or another. It may take a while before returned service members’ moods are on an even keel or before they learn to relax, laugh and smile again. Be patient. Things will improve eventually. However, if your loved one’s moods change to hopelessness, has lethargy, loss of appetite, despair, aggression, violence, preoccupation with death or disinterest in relationships and/or possessions, it’s cause for concern.
What We Can Do for Returning Veterans
As members of the Church, there are a number of things we can do to support military personnel:
— Pray for an increase in Catholic military chaplains. According to Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services USA, his archdiocese is responsible for the pastoral care of about 1.5 million Catholics in the military around the world and in Veterans Affairs hospitals. With 285 active duty chaplains for the military and about 150 chaplains working in the hospitals, “we are terribly undermanned,” he said in a Catholic News Agency interview on Jan. 24, 2010.
— Encourage the deacons and priests in your life, especially the younger ones, to join the Chaplain Corps.
— Suggest pastoral counseling training for all priests in the (arch)diocese so that they may better serve our military personnel.
— Facilitate confidential counseling services for military personnel and their families through your parish. There’s a stigma that military personnel cannot talk to Department of Defense-hired counselors because it would make them seem weak and would go on their record.
— Offer to pay for private counseling services for military personnel and their families, if you can, or hold a fund-raiser. Veterans Administration health clinics and counseling centers are severely understaffed, and military benefits won’t pay for services outside the system.
— Start a volunteer network for returned military personnel. This will help with the transition back into civilian life and give them skills that could be useful in the job market.
— Begin a parish-wide prayer circle for the parish’s military personnel and their families.
— Have Masses said for the service members in your life.
— Post pictures of service members in your parish vestibule or on the bulletin board.
— Pray the Rosary often for our military, its families and its enemies.
— Send cards, letters, pictures and care packages on a regular basis to the service members you know. Keep in touch.
— Offer sacrifices or Holy Hours for our military. You may even want to hold a prayer vigil at your parish.
— Adopt a military service member who has no one for support by corresponding and sending care packages. There are a number of online organizations that will help you.
— Use humor: Send uplifting, interesting and funny news items, photos, book excerpts or anecdotes. Laughter is a great morale booster.
— Make and distribute a list of military families who need special assistance while their loved one is deployed: child care, grocery shopping, lawn mowing, snow shoveling and so on.
— Take the opportunity — without a lot of hoopla — to offer a sincere thank-you to our men and women in uniform.
Where to Find Help
There is a multitude of resources available for military personnel and their families to help with the stresses and uncertainties of deployment and reintegration into civilian life. The following list will give you an idea of what’s out there:
Wounded Warrior Project: www.woundedwarriorproject.org/
Assistance for wounded and disabled veterans
The Mission Continues: www.missioncontinues.org
Community-service fellowships and skill-building volunteer opportunities to post-9/11 wounded and disabled veterans
Purple Heart Charity: www.purpleheartcharity.com/
Fund-raising and distribution for the service, welfare and rehabilitation not only of any wounded, disabled or handicapped veteran, but also of dependents, widow and orphans.
Fischer House: www.fisherhouse.org/
Proximate housing for families of wounded military personnel during hospitalization
St. Michael’s Institute for the Psychological Sciences: www.saintmichael.net/
Counseling services in keeping with the teachings of the Church
Warrior Brothers: www.warriorbrothers.org/
Resource for Catholic men seeking a fuller faith
Love You More Than You Know: neomilitarymoms.wordpress.com/
Book and blog: Stories of mothers about sending their sons and daughters to war.
Supportive Education for the Returning Veteran (SERV): www.csuohio.edu/academic/serv/
University of Ohio-Cleveland program designed to assist military veterans with their transition from soldier to civilian to student.
U.S. Department of Defense Military HOMEFRONT: www.militaryhomefront.dod.mil/portal/page/mhf/MHF/MHF_HOME_1?section_id=20.40.500.5184.108.40.206.0.0
Assistance and resources for suicide prevention and treatment including facts, risks and warning signs.
Department of Veterans Affairs: www.mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention/
Suicide prevention information, resources and counseling
Catholics in the Military (CatholicMil.org): www.catholicmil.org/
Information and resources for Catholic personnel, chaplains, and families of those in the military
Archdiocese for the Military Services: milarch.org/
Resources for Catholic military personnel
The Strength Behind the Strong: www.thestrengthbehindthestrong.com/
Support, advice and encouragement for Americans with friends and family in the U.S. military
Disabled American Veterans: www.dav.org/
Building better lives for disabled veterans and their families through a variety of services
Institute for Marital Healing: www.maritalhealing.com/index.php
Resources and counseling for strengthening Catholic marriages and families; certification to treat military personnel