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Things to Remember About PTSD

  • Jim Daly Jim Daly is president and chief executive officer of Focus on the Family, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping families thrive.
  • 2013 Jul 15

Colorado Springs is a military town. We have Army and Air Force bases here. NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, is located within our mountains. Every May, Focus employees stand on our ministry’s balcony and watch the Thunderbirds perform at the Air Force Academy graduations. Huge cargo planes fly overhead and rattle our houses.

It’s hard for us to forget the many sacrifices the men and women of our armed forces make.

Sometimes when I fly in and out of the local airport, I stumble on the happy, tear-filled reunions between the war vets who are returning home, and the families who waited months for them. The moms and dads, the husbands and wives, and the children who anxiously waited at home have made many sacrifices, too.

At Focus, we receive calls from these newly reunited vets and their families. They are happy to be together again, but are stunned at how difficult the transition home can be. How can a good thing be so challenging?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a contributing factor to the challenges many of these couples and families face. The National Center for PTSD reports that the condition occurs in:

  • about 11-20 percent of Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom);
  • as many as 10 percent of Gulf War (Desert Storm) Veterans; and
  • about 30 percent of Vietnam Veterans.

Our counselors here at Focus on the Family speak with families facing challenges associated with trauma, including military families facing challenges associated with PTSD. Over the course of two posts, I’m going to share some of what one of those counselors tells couples who are struggling to work through such trauma. 

Today’s post will concentrate on what military marriages should know about war trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It will mostly address the spouse who stayed home. What can they expect their spouse to experience? Why are they having such a hard time readjusting to civilian life?

Tomorrow I’ll share advice that helps struggling couples deal with the challenges associated with any type of trauma.  

1. Your loved one was exposed to extremely traumatic event(s) where their life and wellbeing were in serious jeopardy.
One veteran from Operation Iraqi Freedom described it like this: “You are under the threat of surprise. Car bombs, roadside bombs, suicide bombers, mortars. Looking at people everywhere who you can see absolutely hate you. In the worst case scenario, you actually fight. You might kill people. You might lose friends.”  

2. Your spouse experienced intense fear, helplessness or horror. This should never ever be minimized, such as saying something like, “You’re home now - get over it.”
Remember the horror you felt on 9-11? The sense of unease that followed you after the Boston bombings? This is what your spouse continuously experienced during his or her deployment to a war zone. It will take time to work through that, even from the safety of home.  

3. Your marriage partner may re-experience the trauma in dreams, recollections, and the feeling that this event is “happening again.”
This helps explain why a war vet might fall to the ground when a car backfires – these types of automatic responses were what helped keep him or her alive.

4. To cope, your loved one may use “avoidance” - like numbing out, or avoiding feelings or specific memories, or losing interest in normal life - and unfortunately may detach or distance themselves from you.
This avoidance can constitute a major marriage challenge. It’s difficult to work through an issue with someone who finds it tough talking with you or can’t put their experience into words.  

5. Your spouse may experience increased psychological and physiological arousal or sensitivity.
Examples of this heightened state include sleeping problems, nightmares, difficultly concentrating, hypervigilance, aggressive behavior and an exaggerated startle response. In other words, your spouse may seem uptight or on edge most of the time. He or she may also be extra irritable, and exhibit outbursts of anger that may be unfortunately directed at you.

My heart is heavy as I look over this list and realize the many challenges military couples may face. I’m encouraged by the fact that our God is bigger than these trials, and the knowledge that His will is for these marriage to thrive. Tomorrow I’ll share how couples can work through PTSD together in both military and non-military contexts.

In the meanwhile, please know Focus’ trained family help specialists and counselors are here for you. Contact us at 1-800-A-FAMILY (1-800-232-6459) Monday – Friday from 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. MST or via email at help@focusonthefamily.com.

Also, if you’d like to learn more about the struggles military marriages face after the return home, you can read our series of articles on post-deployment reality on our website. You can also listen to our two-day broadcast from a few years back, the Impact of PTSD on Military Families, Part I and Part II.

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