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What are the Mental effects of War?

As a military chaplain, I get to have some great and sometimes interesting conversations with soldiers and other servicemembers.

Usually, these conversations deal with life issues, marriage, finding balance in our hectic and fast-paced world, and the like. Sometimes, however, the conversations are about deeper and darker issues.

One time, I had a soldier come to talk to me because they were having nightmares about when they were serving overseas in the Middle East in a combat zone.

They were part of convoy operations (a group of vehicles that travel to get supplies and equipment from one area to another quickly) and they had to drive through many small villages to get to their destination and, while driving through one area, he had to make a choice when a young boy chased his soccer ball into the road.

He had to decide whether to stop and let the boy get the ball and risk an enemy ambush (enemy insurgents will sometimes use tactics like this to get convoys to stop and then attack them) or drive on.

He had a split second to choose between protecting his fellow soldiers or saving the little boy.

He chose to run the little boy over and protect his brothers-in-arms and this choice haunted his dreams every night since then.

  • The mental effects of war include PTSD, nightmares, Moral Injury, and even suicidal ideations.

Why Does this Problem Not Get Addressed?

Our military men and women go though traumatic events seeing the horrors of war and then must come back home like they never happened.

Sadly, our nation has become so accustomed to being at war that we don’t bat an eyelash when we see news articles describing rocket attacks or military battles. For our nation’s military veterans, however, these are real-life events that impact them on a personal level and will be burdens they carry for the rest of their lives.

Thankfully, we have been working to create an environment where our military servicemembers can discuss these issues and get help for the mental struggles they face daily as a result of war and combat.

This has allowed us to understand these issues better than ever before and can provide the care they deserve.

Key struggles with finding and addressing these issues:

  • Being in the military is a very small demographic; less than 0.5% of Americans are currently serving in the armed forces and approximately 3% of the total population are veterans (https://www.cfr.org).
  • Of this small group who serve in the military, a much smaller group will actually experience combat.
  • When a veteran goes through combat and returns home it is virtually impossible to connect with others who have experienced the same struggles. These feelings of isolation lead to a sense of alienation and “otherness” which most often leads to depression (Korinek & Teerawichitchainan, 2014).

Veterans and Suicide

It is an often-displayed statistic that 22 veterans commit suicide every day (cf. the VA’s 2012 Suicide Data Report).

This is a tragic situation that also does not consider the number of veteran suicides of those who are no longer active military which means the number most likely is higher than that.

Why is suicide so much higher among military veterans?

  • Veterans experience isolation and depression which creates a disconnect from the things in life that give us hope and meaning. When life has no hope or meaning the only logical step is to end struggle (Military Suicide Research Consortium, 2020).
  • Military veterans who experience combat and see unspeakable trauma carry these unseen burdens and then, when they return home again, often have no avenue to find their way back to the things in their lives that gave them hope and meaning.

Veterans and PTSD

A common after-affect of combat is another well-known acronym: PTSD. PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as combat and war.

Those who have PTSD have extreme, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to what they went through that continue months or even years after the experience is over.

Common effects of PTSD are:

  • Reliving the event through flashbacks or nightmares repeatedly
  • Feelings of sadness, fear or anger PTSD may also show these symptoms when there is a trigger event: a situation or event that reminds them of the traumatic experience, which often leads to strong negative reactions (fireworks, war movies, smells of burning, etc.).

Sadly, many who have PTSD will go undiagnosed due to a fear of stigma or detriment to a career, especially if the person is still serving in the military (American Psychiatric Association, 2020).

Veterans and Moral Injury

Moral Injury happens when a person is forced to do something that goes against their own values in such a powerful way that it causes long-term trauma.

Because events that cause moral injury go against the code of values each person holds, the result is long-term feelings of guilt, shame, disgust, and anger towards themselves and others.

Examples of Moral Injury:

  • Warfare and killing another human being
  • Harming children, killing of non-combatants
  • Desecration of dead bodies
  • Failing to save another servicemember
  • Survivor’s guilt

The greatest struggle to moral injury is that it causes the person to feel like they have compromised their own values and therefore are no longer who they thought they were (Shay, J., 2014).

What Can Be Done?

In all this darkness, there is hope! In today’s military and medical world, we have treatment plans and paths to wellness that did not exist during previous military campaigns.

A treatment plan that combines medical knowledge, spiritual guidance, and personal reflection can provide our military men and women who experience the horrors of war a way forward that leads to hope and peace.

Honey Lake Clinic is proud to offer these powerful services to our military veterans and their dependents.

As a Tricare provider, we can offer them these services at an affordable cost. If you or someone you know needs our help, please go to https://www.honeylake.clinic/tricare-veteran-treatment-program/

For further reading:

About the Author: James L. Johnson, MDiv. has been a chaplain in the U.S. Army Reserves for 12 years specializing in hospital chaplaincy. He has served in a variety of medical units in the U.S. as well as in military hospitals in Kuwait and Jordan. He is also the Chaplain and Director of Military Services at Honey Lake Clinic in Greenville, FL.

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