Vet Centers Are There For You

Vet Centers Are There For You, by Jill Drummond

Where can you turn when you’re struggling to readjust to life after a combat deployment? Who can you go to when you or a loved one are experiencing the distressing and often delayed impact of past combat experiences?  A Vet Center is a great place to start.

Many veterans and their families are struggling with the effects of wartime military service on their lives, careers and relationships.  And these effects can surface years, even decades after a combat deployment.

Military culture often encourages people to “suck it up and get on with it,” to ignore or deny distressing emotions.  In the heat of battle, of course it’s necessary to push feelings and normal human reactions aside, in order to survive and get the job done.   But while “Suck it up” is a good strategy for becoming an effective fighting machine, it’s a lousy strategy for becoming a healthy, fully-alive human being.

As a result of this way of thinking, it’s often hard for vets to admit to themselves, let alone to anyone else, that they could use help readjusting to life after combat.  Or that they are feeling just plain bad (anxious, irritable, depressed or numb.)

Many combat veterans experience a whole host of unpleasant symptoms once they return home.  The reason is that we are human.  Our human bodies are set up to function in certain ways, in order to ensure our survival.  When we experience or witness something life-threatening or terrifying, our bodies react to protect us.  This is the fight-or-flight response.  We react by fighting, fleeing or freezing.  Our bodies are supposed to work that way in order to survive a horrific event.

But if our bodies are just doing what they’re supposed to do, why do we suffer later?  As a result of accumulating research evidence, the Veterans Administration considers Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to be an actual physical injury to the nervous system, not just an emotional or psychological issue.  The reason is very simple.  In many cases, this fight-or-flight response, especially if it is intense, prolonged or continuous, leads to actual physical changes in the brain and nervous system.  (To learn more, read PTSD – An Injury To The Nervous System.)

The result is PTSD, a complex group of symptoms with the same underlying cause.  There is a noticeable difference between a “normal” brain and the brain of someone with PTSD.  The PTSD brain has a much higher base rate of arousal.  That means that when a vet (or any trauma survivor) with PTSD is “relaxed” and resting, their level of anxiety is already quite elevated.  It never gets back down to the same resting level it enjoyed prior to being exposed to the trauma.

Most early information on PTSD and trauma came from studies of male veterans of the Vietnam War.  Combat PTSD has been studied for years, but it may surprise you to know that it’s not only combat veterans who experience these aftereffects of trauma.  The traumatic event could also be a natural disaster, serious accident, violent crime such as rape or assault, childhood physical or sexual abuse, or even merely witnessing a horrifying event happening to someone else, especially a loved one.  And if you live with a spouse or parent who has PTSD, you may experience what is called “secondary PTSD.”

According to the Nebraska Department of Veterans Affairs, “About 30 percent of the men and women who have spent time in war zones experience PTSD. An additional 20 to 25 percent have had “partial PTSD” at some point in their lives. More than half of all male Vietnam veterans and almost half of all female Vietnam veterans have experienced “clinically serious stress reaction symptoms.”  It’s estimated that among people who are victims of a severe traumatic experience 60 to 80 percent will develop PTSD.

We now know that there are many people walking around with such an injury to their nervous system.  They may have flashbacks or nightmares, feel anxious, disconnected, depressed or generally terrible, and not know what’s happening to them.  (For a more complete list of symptoms of PTSD, read Recognizing PTSD.) They may not even be able to articulate how they feel. The good news is that the Veterans Administration has been studying the symptoms, causes and treatment of PTSD for decades and offers a variety of services to vets suffering from this painful but treatable disorder.

Within the VA there are large VA Medical Centers, smaller Outpatient Clinics, and the Vet Centers, which have been around since 1979.  They’re run “by vets, for vets.”  They are not run by the VA, although the VA funds them.  At a Vet Center, you can walk in at any time and find a warm welcome.  You don’t need to register with the VA to come to a Vet Center.  They’ll get you started and figure out what you need.  And you’ll meet other vets with experiences similar to your own.  Our local Vet Center in Lakewood, NJ provides readjustment counseling, veterans groups, psychoeducational seminars about PTSD, family groups, alcohol and drug assessment, suicide prevention assistance,  and specialized programs designed to help vets and their families.  They also have a food bank for vets who need this kind of assistance.

Take the first step by calling your local Vet Center now to find out how they can help you.  As my friend Sid, a therapist, tells his clients, “It takes courage and self-respect to ask for help.”  You’ve already demonstrated your courage in serving your country.  You can show the same courage in serving yourself and your family by calling a Vet Center now.  Remember, you are not alone.

To learn more about PTSD, its symptoms and treatment, see our article Recognizing PTSD.