I recently joined the Facebook group Army Moms. It has been helpful to read the posts of the members and learn what life is like when your child is deployed. The posts about returning soldiers are usually very upbeat, but one recent post hinted at the struggles the returning soldier is having with the things he saw and experienced while deployed.
For the past 10+ I’ve studied traumatic stress, but as my own son approaches his deployment to Afghanistan, I read these posts with a different eye than I did when I began to study trauma.
Some days I fight the lump in my throat and the tears that are sure to follow. On an intellectual level I understand that feeling abnormal after a traumatic event is normal. I know there are many wonderful therapists and doctors in the field to help our returning soldiers. I also know the terribly high suicides rates of our veterans. I know these brave warriors hesitate to ask for help when they return and struggle with thoughts that haunt them, and nightmares that live within them.
And I know that I am a mom of a soldier that needs to use all the strength I can muster to support my son.
Dr. Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist and one of the founding fathers of modern psychotraumatology, is one of my mentors in the field of traumatic stress studies. I wrote to him after reading the heart wrenching post from the Army mom asking for help with how to support her veteran son.
As always Frank wrote back with a very thoughtful response. His letter is one that all military families need to read BEFORE their soldier returns home. Military families need to do research before their soldier returns. The family should know the local resources available and the online resources so that when their soldier returns home the process of adjusting is understood.
Dear Mom of a young Service Member,
We’re all in this together and it is good to realize that we have a large family of parents, friends, advocates, therapists, clergy, and others who care. When your son says to you, “You don’t want to know,” I assume he is looking out for you. He wants to spare you the images and the sounds and the smell of the place. I’d thank him for that. It is considerate of him. And it doesn’t mean he thinks you are fragile. Many of my patients, including those who know that I have heard hundreds and hundreds of trauma stories, try to spare my feelings. They don’t want me to hurt for them, and they don’t want to spread the horror that they have witnessed. When it feels appropriate, I might explain that I have learned how to listen without becoming damaged. But it’s a fine line. I can’t say I’m unaffected. I don’t want to suggest that these experiences are less profound and terrible than they really are. So step one, I’d suggest, is to express gratitude for his kindness and caring.
It is good for your son to have a person who can hear him out, a buddy or an older person who understands. Odds are he already has such a person in his life. You’ll feel reassured if you know that this relationship exists, and is being used appropriately. He may be willing to let you know. I’m very interested in the natural friendship network of my patients, and I do try to nurture good, supportive connections. Not too long ago, I had two Marines come for sessions together. One was married, the other wasn’t. There was a strong bond between the two. They let it all out in front of each other and in front of me. They kept most of this away from their closest family members –certainly their Moms. One had a military Dad and there was some sharing with him, but not all the detail.
We have good evidence to suggest that Service Members who have “seen some really bad stuff,” as your son reports, do best when they use normal networks to sort out their feelings. There is no need to think about mental heath professionals until and unless serious signs emerge.
These serious signs include nightmares and flashbacks persisting at least a month. They include serious drinking and drugging. They include shutting down and walling off from others so that family life and school or work are imperiled. They include shifts in character to an alarming extent, including dangerous outbursts of anger. Usually, this state of affairs can be avoided through peer support and healthy activity. But exposure to deadly conflict can produce PTSD, depression and substance abuse. So learning about those conditions is useful, for you, Mom.
Here is a page I have helped create. There are many, many more. Just go to Google, put PTSD Info in the subject line and have look. Sharing insights and concerns with others in the military support network is useful, too.
If your son does change his mind and chooses to tell you about his “bad stuff,” listen actively. Don’t interrupt and don’t rush to reassure and comfort too quickly. Here’s a good link on “active listening.” It isn’t easy to picture your son in harm’s way, or to realize that he may have been involved in lethal activity that causes him feelings of guilt and grief. I try not to say, “You have no reason to feel guilty,” or words to that effect. I might say, “Feeling guilty is the burden of having a good character, a conscience.”
After some painful memories are shared, it helps to move to other topics. But never too abruptly, giving the impression that you have heard enough and want to close him down. It’s best for him to set the pace and the duration. It’s best not to interrupt. In a therapy session, I have to establish a time limit. So I do change the subject well before the end of the hour. I ask about exercise or friends or family. I lighten the subject, but keep it relevant. You could do that, too, if the time together must end soon.
Everyone is different, so there are few hard and fast recommendations. You do want your son to feel comfortable being with you, knowing you love him, and trusting that you will honor his private experience of profound reality. You’ll know you are on target when he tells you, little by little, what he wants you to know. You’ll know you are on the right track when the two of you have fun together. You’ll know all is well as you see him move through those stages of transformation into adult life, with an occupation, a family, and friends who care.
Frank M Ochberg, MD
Most people do the equivalent of closing their eyes and hoping they never have to deal with the scarier parts of post deployment life. As hard as it may be to read some of the materials, being knowledgeable of the signs to look for, and how to best support your returning soldier , you can make the transition to civilian life easier for the soldier.
Additional resource links follow:
Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health & Traumatic Brain Injury
About Face – “Learn about post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD from Veterans who live with it every day. Hear their stories. FInd out how treatment turned their lives around.”