What does PTSD in veterans really look like? Here's one man's story. John served as a combat officer in Vietnam. John was a friendly, interesting individual, but he was unable to work because of his extreme PTSD symptoms. He also lost all of his family's support. John has alcohol use disorder as well.
John directly experienced destruction, death, and horror in combat. But he refused to talk about those experiences. He boiled them down to one simple phrase: they were horrible. In tears, he told me, “Carol, I like you too much to tell you about the things I saw, and worse, the things I did during battle. I did horrible things to people.”
No matter how often I reassured him I could handle anything he would tell me, he was unable to discuss these atrocities. John lived with these ongoing flashbacks throughout the day and was terrorized nightmares. He was always “on guard,” waiting for the next battle. John also suffered from day-mares, where these flashbacks took on the intensity of nightmares, although he was wide awake. He felt he was actually in combat and was not in the here-and-now reality of being safe back in his hometown. Other times he would dissociate by leaving his body and being a viewer of the horrors.
John's PTSD symptoms fall into these four categories:
Although he was coming for counseling, he refused to examine the trauma. Avoidance is often a part of PTSD. It allows the person to try to stop any reminders or situations that bring back the distressing events. Unfortunately, by not addressing the PTSD, John continued to have severe trauma responses. Sadly, his responses may have been lessened through therapy. This led to psychic numbing where he struggled to feel attachment to others or to life in general.
John had intense anger outbursts and hyper-vigilance regarding everyone and everything surrounding him. By being constantly on guard, he was never able to relax. Everything was a threat. He also had an intense startle response. On day, I ran across John and his inpatient psychiatric social worker taking a wake outside. For some reason, when I came up behind them, I called his name and touched him on the shoulder. He whirled around and was ready to hit me until he saw who I was. I apologized profusely and he was upset that he nearly struck me. I tried consoling him with the fact that it was my fault, but he couldn’t be consoled.
Like many others, John struggled with loud noises. Unfortunately in his home town, the Blue Angels participate an annual, four-day long festival. Every year during the festival, John “hits the deck” and re-enacts being back in combat while these exceptionally loud military planes flew overhead. For John and other vets, this demonstration of military prowess brings back some of the worst symptoms of the PTSD. Every year, he is terrorized by reliving Vietnam for four days.
Another common aspect of PTSD is self-destructive behavior. John's PTSD is so intense that he uses alcohol to try to cope. John is an alcoholic and was never able to stay sober although he tried. Tragically, like many veterans, John died from a combination of his mental health issues, not complying with taking his psychiatric meds (so he could drink), and his alcoholism. John drank himself to death in a slow suicide. What a tremendous loss. Here was someone who fought for his country but was terminally affected by this duty.
John Isn't Alone - Thousands Have PTSD
For thousands of other veterans, this story is all too familiar for PTSD is a horrible, difficult mental illness to overcome and alcohol and drug abuse often go along with the PTSD. Learn about ways to help our vets to not only survive from PTSD, but to thrive by finding ways to heal through various medical and psychological treatments, find housing and employment, and recover with their loved ones.
PTSD may develop when someone is exposed to horrors or traumatic events outside the norm of typical crisis events, such as combat veterans, who have some of the highest rates.
In exploring a number of studies, the risk for PTSD varies between 7 - 20%, while on average, 22 veterans commit suicide daily, and a high percentage of vets are homeless, addicts and alcoholics.