By Benjamin Wells, M.A.
Sustained combat operations in Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom, OIF; Operation New Dawn, OND) and Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom, OEF) represent the longest military campaign in United States history. Spanning 17 years, these combined operations known as the Global War on Terror (GWOT), have resulted in 4.3 million veterans (US Census Bureau, 2017) returning to life as civilians. This return comes with major changes in the service member’s life. These changes encompass all aspects of the individual including occupation, community, culture, language and title. With this large population of individuals returning from war, there is a great need to understand the psychological challenges and effects of this transition.
Research conducted in 2010 found that an estimated 25-56 percent of combat veterans who use Veteran Affairs (VA) services reported “some” to “extreme” difficulty in one of the several domains involved in reintegration including: social functioning, productivity, community involvement and self-care (Sayer et al., 2010). This study collected survey responses from 754 OIF/OEF veterans aged 22-62. A majority of the sample was married (61 percent), White or Caucasian (51 percent) and female (55 percent). The study assessed veteran demographics, physical and mental health, perceived community reintegration problems and treatment interests.
The results of the survey showed a majority of respondents had experienced extreme difficulty in social relations. Of those included, 56 percent of respondents endorsed extreme difficulty confiding in others and 42 percent had extreme difficulty getting along with their spouses (Sayer et al., 2010). Slightly fewer endorsed extreme difficulty getting along with their relatives (34 percent) and their children (29 percent). Close to half (49 percent) of all veterans surveyed had experienced extreme difficulty taking part in community activities. Another heavily endorsed (49 percent of respondents) item was extreme difficulty with belonging in “civilian” society.
The authors point out that the challenges faced by returning veterans were often across multiple domains of functioning and community involvement. Veterans that had a probable diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder were, unsurprisingly, experiencing a higher number of reintegration problems. Sayer (2010) states that many of the reintegration problems fall outside the scope of traditional medical practice. Constructs of social functioning, employment issues, anger control and spiritual struggles are not typically addressed with medical intervention.
This is something that is not just unique to veterans. Most people when looking at these items would indorse similar problems. The difference is the sense of belonging where one is. In the experience of many veterans they find that the system they return to does not have a place for them. They return to a society that often has two preconceived images of them: the Hollywood hero or the irreparably damaged.
When trying to answer the question of why that might be, ask yourself if you’ve ever paid to watch a movie about war? What can anyone do about issues like these? One of the most important parts is recognizing these problems in yourself. Being honest about these challenges and understanding that they are not abnormal is key. Recognizing also that everything is on a continuum; Some veterans will experience these issues while others will have a very easy and successful transition to civilian life. Reaching out through the Veterans Resource Center, University Health and Counseling, faculty and peers are all excellent first steps.