A small town celebrates a homecoming. Parties are given in honor of the combat veteran who has returned home triumphantly. Families and loved ones are reunited, and community leaders show honor to the warrior by offering laud in public ceremonies. All appears to be whole again.
But as the dust settles and the town returns to its normal quiet state, they emerge. Silence seems to activate them. Attempting to sleep exacerbates them. Panic, fear and horror accompany them. They are a reminder of personal losses, and they are joined by a feeling of intense guilt. They are war memories.
These memories are much different from the typical memories one might have about a past life event. For one thing, they are traumatic in nature and carry with them a tidal wave of emotional surge. They overwhelm the body with their intense physiological manifestations. They overwhelm the soul via spiritual and moral injuries. They overwhelm the mind with their unrelenting and intrusive presence. They demand full attention, often invading precisely when their host is trying to avoid them.
War memories are one of the hallmark symptoms of combat trauma and a primary stressor experienced by many combat veterans. Learning about common war stressors provides counselors with a necessary foundation for working with this population. It also helps counselors to better understand the military culture as it relates to the overall clinical context of combat trauma.
In the seminal work on combat trauma, Combat Stress Injury: Theory, Research and Management, William Nash, a U.S. Navy psychiatrist and director of a Marine Corps program to prevent combat stress injuries, speaks of war stressors and the critical role they play in modern warfare. He teaches that war stressors can be divided into five groups: cognitive, emotional, social, physical and spiritual. In this article, I will examine these five categories of combat stress mostly within the context of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF, Iraq conflict), Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF, Afghanistan conflict) and Operation New Dawn (OND, Iraq conflict since 2010).
Changing rules of engagement: A primary cognitive stressor that is common in operational conflicts is the ambiguous or changing “rules of engagement” (ROE). ROE include the standards that determine when military personnel are permitted to fire their weapons and at whom. In the OIF, OEF and OND conflicts, U.S. troops are not allowed to use deadly force unless a clearly armed adversary poses a clear and immediate threat to U.S. troops or civilian life.
As Nash explains in Combat Stress Injury (2006), “This is a laudable standard, one that all honorable warriors hope to meet at all times. But in the three years since the U.S. invaded Iraq, for example, a number of ambiguous situations have become almost commonplace for soldiers and Marines. One is the use by Mujahadeen of civilians, including women and children, as human shields. This was encountered in many areas of Iraq, particularly where fighting was the bloodiest and most contested, such as in An Nasiriyah during the initial push toward Baghdad and during the second battle of Al Fallujah in November 2004.”
These types of ambiguous situations were very common in OEF and OIF. Such impossible choices cause increasing cognitive stress burdens within the context of a traumatic combat environment.
Boredom: Another cognitive stressor of combat trauma is monotony or boredom. Military clients speak of this often when recalling their deployment experiences. They talk about how their day-to-day work was mostly boring and consisted of long periods (from several hours to several days) with very little action. Some military personnel may constantly patrol the same areas over and over again with nothing significant to report.
Often, the operational activities of a combat zone include a systematic monotony that provides limited recreational activity. However, it is important to note that during these periods of boredom, warriors are still expected to remain on “high alert” because the enemy could strike at any time. This state of being on guard even during periods of boredom and monotony has a significant effect on cognitive stress.
Fear and horror: Combat veterans often report that losing buddies and being killed or seriously injured are common fears that everyone experiences on the battlefield. Many of these veterans have directly experienced firefights and enemy ambushes or witnessed the death and injury of multiple buddies in combat. This fear exists on a continuum, ranging from the anticipation and dread of preparing to deploy into a combat zone to the terror that accompanies the threat of being severely injured. The greatest fear for warriors is not being killed or losing a buddy, however. The greatest fear is losing their honor on the battlefield. This kind of honor is upheld in the values and oaths of the different military branches.
The death of friends: Military personnel who deploy and serve in combat zones together form the most intimate of bonds. Nash explains that the emotional impact of losing a close comrade in war is not unlike the loss a mother experiences when her child dies. The levels of disbelief, shock, guilt, shame and longing may be much the same for both.
However, unlike the grieving parent, the warrior has little opportunity to fully experience the intense feelings that accompany the loss or to do the necessary cognitive work that might help him make sense of things. The warrior cannot allow himself to grieve; he must remain partially numb to the loss so that he can continue to do his job. Therefore, numbness becomes adaptive within the work environment of the combat theater.
Guilt and shame: Military leadership places a high priority on responsibility in decision-making because one wrong decision in combat can result in the loss of many lives. Even though this level of responsibility is adaptive and needed, it can contribute to the guilt a warrior experiences. It is not uncommon to hear military clients talk about this guilt, commonly referred to as survivor guilt, when describing their buddies who died in combat. Some warriors state, “I should have been the one who took the fall,” or “I shouldn’t be sitting here right now,” or “I should have done something different.” Sometimes the feelings of intense guilt are manifested in nightmares as the combat veterans’ war memories replay during sleep.
Although it is difficult at times for warriors to overcome this guilt, many of them do not have significant trouble acknowledging it. This acknowledgment should be viewed as a strength and can lead to growth and change when receiving counseling.
Other emotions are related to a sense of shame, such as feeling like a failure on the battlefield. These shame emotions are much more difficult for warriors to acknowledge or express.
Killing: In his masterful and insightful book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, first published in 1995, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman attests that the act of killing another human being is a traumatic stressor for many combat veterans. He writes that all humans may have an intrinsic aversion to killing members of their own species, an aversion that must be overcome on the battlefield to engage in interpersonal violence. Grossman explains the practical ways that the military desensitizes its members to achieve this purpose. Regardless, killing other humans still remains one of the greatest stressors in combat.
Relationship issues at home: It is well documented that families of military members experience significant stress when their loved one is deployed. It is especially stressful when they may not know where their loved one is or what kind of danger he is experiencing on a daily basis.
This situation is stressful for the warrior as well, especially if some sort of conflict is occurring within the family environment at home. Regardless of whether the issue involves a death in the family or a recent argument with a spouse, the warrior must attempt to continue performing his job well, even while knowing that he cannot address the problem when he “gets off work” later that night, like so many other Americans are able to do. It may be weeks or even months before he is able to fully process the loss of a loved one or address the conflict with his spouse.
Lack of privacy or personal space: Deployed warriors are commonly surrounded by a large number of their comrades, both when sleeping and working. Most of the time, this cannot be avoided, and this lack of personal space is often likened to being packed like a “can of sardines.” For the most part, this tightknit environment is a positive aspect because it enhances the cohesion of the group. This cohesion is vital in combat situations, where warriors must trust one another with their very lives.
However, it also means a near total absence of privacy and the need to share almost all equipment and spaces. This lack of privacy can be stressful, especially when the only items considered personal belongings are weapons and uniforms. Most other items are freely shared among the community of warriors.
Media, public opinion and politics: It is easy to see the devastating effects that the national media and public opinion had on returning Vietnam War veterans and their families. Many were mocked, ridiculed and spat upon in public and in private. Fortunately, the media and public opinion are much more supportive of combat veterans who have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
The national media and public opinion wield power to validate or invalidate the sacrifice and service of warriors. Furthermore, every criticism of these more recent wars or the way they were handled inflicts emotional and social wounds on the warriors who faced death each day. On a political level, when wars are not properly funded or when debates rage in Congress, it has a direct impact on the warriors who are fighting to uphold those same political freedoms. However, politicians and media members are rarely held responsible for the influence they have on warriors in theater.
Harsh conditions: Nash explains that certain regions in the Middle East and Southwest Asia can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, while lows in the winter can go below freezing. Furthermore, the effects of the heat are amplified by the body armor that military personnel wear, including Kevlar (helmet), flak jacket (armored vest) and new ceramic SAPI (small arms protective insert). Wearing this protective gear can raise the temperature underneath the body armor an additional 10-20 degrees. That level of heat makes staying hydrated a significant challenge, while simultaneously making both physical and mental exertion more difficult.
Sleep deprivation: Very few military personnel in a combat zone achieve six to eight hours of sleep every day. On average, combatants are forced to function on four hours of sleep or less. Some veterans in war zones become so sleep deprived that they experience visual and auditory hallucinations. Sleep deprivation affects many levels of functioning, including attention, memory and higher levels of thinking and decision-making. This combat stressor overlaps with many different elements and could also be placed under the cognitive or emotional stressors.
Pain or injury: During the course of a seven- to 14-month deployment, it is almost impossible to avoid occasional experiences of pain, illness or injury. In fact, many military personnel continue to work through pain and injury.
During a period from 2003-2006, the Department of Defense reported that 18,572 troops were wounded during combat in Iraq. More than half (10,064) returned to duty. According to Nash, this means they returned to their units in Iraq soon after their injuries, usually while still recovering. Some of those injuries were considered to be minor, such as lacerations or eardrum injuries from improvised explosive devices. However, some of those injuries were not so minor. I find the level of resilience and determination that combat veterans exhibit while serving their country in a hostile environment amazing.
Crises of faith: One common stressor that is rarely discussed is the crisis of faith that many combat veterans experience. Spiritual stressors sometimes occur when one is faced with life-or-death decisions, and this is particularly true in combat. Belief in God can be threatened or challenged when encountering the chaos and helplessness of combat situations. This is especially evident when the warrior has a belief in a benevolent God.
A common question is, “How can God allow this evil to exist when He is supposed to be good?” Some warriors find it impossible to continue believing in this view of God and experience a crisis of faith that affects them on many levels (cognitive, emotional and so on). On the other hand, some veterans’ faith and religious convictions are deepened by their experiences. But no matter whether their faith is ultimately strengthened or weakened, most veterans face spiritual stressors.
Struggle with forgiveness: Nash explains this concept, stating, “Awful things happen in war; they are often unavoidable. And even the bravest and strongest can be pushed to the point of acting in ways that later may be deeply regretted. Finding a way to forgive oneself … can be a significant challenge.”
I have also discovered this to be true in my work with military veterans. It is common for warriors to have an easier time forgiving others than forgiving themselves. Part of this may be attributed to warriors holding themselves to such high personal and professional standards or the level of responsibility that the military instills in them. However, further research is needed in this area before definite conclusions are drawn. An important part of treatment with this population should include a focus around self-forgiveness by the warrior.
Evidence-based treatments for combat trauma
What evidence-based treatments can counselors utilize for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related to combat? While various types of treatments can be helpful with this population (biofeedback and stress inoculation training, for example), there is not enough space to discuss all of them. Therefore, I will focus on the three empirically based treatments given an A-plus rating by the Army surgeon general in 2012 for reducing combat-related PTSD symptoms among veterans.
EMDR: Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is an evidence-based psychotherapy treatment that was originally designed to alleviate the disturbance associated with traumatic memories. The Adaptive Information Processing Model posits that EMDR facilitates the reprocessing of traumatic memories to an adaptive resolution. After successful treatment with EMDR, affective distress is relieved, negative beliefs are reformulated and physiological arousal is reduced.
During EMDR, the client attends to emotionally disturbing material in brief sequential doses while simultaneously focusing on an external stimulus. Therapist-directed lateral eye movements are the most commonly used external stimulus, but a variety of other stimuli include hand-tapping and audio stimulation (see emdr.com). A treatment course of 12 sessions is common. I utilize EMDR in my clinical work with combat veterans and have achieved some significant clinical outcomes over the past three years. For information on receiving intensive training in EMDR, see emdrhap.org.
CPT: Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) is derived from cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). According to the National Center for PTSD (ptsd.va.gov), CPT includes four main parts of treatment:
1) Having clients learn about PTSD symptoms and how treatment can help
2) Getting clients to become aware of their thoughts and feelings
3) Having clients learn skills to challenge those thoughts and feelings (cognitive restructuring)
4) Helping clients understand the common changes in beliefs that occur after going through the trauma
CPT puts less focus on the traumatic event itself and more focus on the beliefs resulting from the trauma and the impact those beliefs have had on the person’s life. From there, it is about the client deciding whether those beliefs are accurate or inaccurate. For a helpful and free web-based learning course, visit cpt.musc.edu/. For additional training, check the Center for Deployment Psychology at deploymentpsych.org/workshops.
Prolonged exposure: Prolonged exposure also has its roots in CBT. It focuses on repeated exposure to the traumatic event(s) and the accompanying thoughts, feelings and situations to reduce feelings of anxiety and disturbance.
The National Center for PTSD highlights the four primary elements of prolonged exposure:
1) Education: Having clients learn about their symptoms and how treatment can help
2) Breathing training: To help clients relax and manage distress
3) Real-world practice (in vivo exposure): Reducing clients’ distress in safe situations that they have been avoiding
4) Talking through the trauma (imaginal exposure): Helping clients get control of their thoughts and feelings about the trauma
Prolonged exposure typically involves eight to 15 sessions, with several homework assignments given in between sessions. For more information on trainings, refer again to the Center for Deployment Psychology.
Perhaps you are a professional counselor who has always wanted to serve veterans in your private practice, or perhaps you are a counselor who is already working with this population. Either way, given that it is estimated that up to 20 percent of combat veterans will develop PTSD, it is important that counselors acknowledge and understand the common stressors of war combat. In gaining this knowledge, you can better connect with the military client who is (or who will be) sitting in your office or agency. And by being familiar with the effective treatments and where to obtain training, you will be better equipped to effectively help this client deal with the effects of combat trauma and PTSD.
Keith Myers is a doctoral student in counselor education and supervision at Mercer University in Atlanta, Ga. A licensed professional counselor and intensively trained eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapist, he is also a member of the American Counseling Association’s Traumatology Interest Network. Visit his website at keithmyerslpc.com and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters to the editor: email@example.com
Related reading: See Myers’ piece from August 2013, “Effective treatment of military clients”: ct.counseling.org/2013/08/effective-treatment-of-military-clients/