PTSD is a mental health condition that affects a large proportion of America’s military members, which makes effective assessment and treatment crucial.
At home and around the world, members of the United States military sacrifice their well-being to protect the people of this country and ensure the safety of others in the global community. Military service is perhaps the most selfless contribution a person can make, but it comes with numerous risks.
People understand the possibility of physical harm and danger linked to military service, but there are additional risks. What people may not grasp fully are the adverse influences of war, combat and violence on the mental health of service members, which may result in veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD and the Military
PTSD is a troubling mental health condition that can develop following exposure to actual or threatened death, injury or assault. Contact with a trauma can happen by:
- Personally living through the traumatic event
- Seeing the events happen to someone else in real life
- Hearing about the death or traumatic experience of a close friend or family member
- Repeatedly experiencing exposure to traumatic events, like in the case of military service members
Unfortunately, people in the military confront all of these experiences, especially during active duty. During deployment or in combat, a person may be injured, see others killed and hear about the injuries and deaths of others. In the worst situations, a person will live through each of these events simultaneously or spread out over their time in war.
Even people out of the line of fire can endure repeated exposure to traumatic events and stories. A medic may have to care for those harmed in duty and consistently witness a great deal of pain and suffering.
Away from combat, a significant portion of the military faces another type of trauma in the form of sexual assault. According to the U.S. Office of Veterans Affairs, among veterans who use Veteran’s Affairs (VA) health care:
- 23% of women were sexually assaulted during their service
- 55% of women were sexually harassed when in the military
- 38% of men were sexually harassed while serving
- More than 50% of veterans with military sexual traumas are men
Symptoms of PTSD in Veterans
The signs and symptoms of PTSD in veterans will be the same as the PTSD symptoms people experience from car accidents, dog bites and other traumatic situations. PTSD will trigger four distinct symptoms:
- Reliving or reexperiencing the event
- Staying away from people, places or things related to the event
- Problematic feelings and beliefs about the event
- Feeling on-edge or keyed up
Each symptom may cause a variety of issues linked to the trauma and PTSD. In the case of reliving the event, the veteran could have:
- Frequent, vivid or frightening nightmares
- Flashbacks, which is the feeling that the event is happening all over again
- Triggers, which are sights, sounds or smells that remind the person of the danger, like a loud car triggering memories of gunfire
The symptom of avoidance can result in:
- Isolating and staying away from crowds because they create stress
- Being unwilling to drive if the event involved cars or some type of transportation
- Avoiding thoughts and feelings related to the trauma
The negative changes in beliefs and feelings can cause:
- The notion that the world or a certain group of people are completely dangerous
- Memory loss and forgetfulness about the event
- Decreased interest in forming relationships
- Anger or mistrust in people who they previously loved
Lastly, a person feeling on edge from the trauma could:
- Become highly irritable, angry and aggressive
- Struggle with sleep
- Become reckless and self-destructive
- Have difficulty concentrating
- Be more easily startled
Some people with PTSD could also note dissociative symptoms where they experience depersonalization, or feeling detached from their body or derealization, or feeling that the world is not real.
The symptoms of PTSD in veterans differ from person to person, so some people will have many unwanted influences of the condition while others only experience a few.
PTSD Risk Factors
A scary life-threatening event will cause PTSD, but not every person exposed to the same trauma will react in the same way. This difference is due to a variety of risk factors that increase the odds of a person having PTSD symptoms.
PTSD risk factors are complicated. Because of this, the risk factors for PTSD in veterans and others are separated into three groups:
- Risk factors before the trauma
- Risk factors during the trauma
- Risk factors after the trauma
The risks factors a person has before the trauma include:
- Childhood emotional and environmental problems like low socioeconomic status, poor education, family dysfunction and limited social supports
- Prior traumatic experiences
- Mental health conditions like anxiety and depression
- Gender and age, as younger females are at higher risk for PTSD
The specific traumatic event serves as a powerful risk factor for PTSD. More severe or intense events tend to produce a higher likelihood of PTSD.
For military personnel, additional risk factors during the trauma include:
- Witnessing horrible events
- Killing others in battle
- Causing the dangerous event either intentionally or accidentally
The person’s reaction and treatment in the moments and days following a traumatic event are also risk factors for PTSD. If a person blames themselves for the event, lacks coping skills, has limited support and is confronted by frequent reminders, their chances of developing PTSD are higher.
There is not one issue that causes PTSD in veterans. Instead, PTSD is caused by an interaction of pre-trauma, trauma and post-trauma factors that create symptoms or establish protection.
How Common Is PTSD in Veterans?
According to PTSD statistics, PTSD is all too common in members of the military. With military sexual trauma and the daily struggles of military life, all service members face exposure to traumas and PTSD.
PTSD becomes even more common for those who experience combat during war. These experiences put people in contact with terrible and threatening situations.
The impact of PTSD is nothing new, and it is likely some men and women from every war endured PTSD signs and symptoms. Experts became particularly interested in the diagnosis after the Vietnam War when many soldiers returning home showed the impact of their traumatic experiences.
According to the U.S. Office of Veterans Affairs:
- As many as 30% of Vietnam veterans had PTSD during their lifetime with about 15% having the condition during a study in the 1980s
- In any given year, about 12% of veterans from the Gulf War will have PTSD
- The rate of PTSD in Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans is between 11% and 20% in any year
The rate differences of PTSD by war are caused by:
- Politics of the war
- Location of the war
- Type of warfare
Treatment for Veterans with PTSD
The people who put themselves in harm’s way for the good of the country deserve the best, evidence-based treatments to diagnose and resolve symptoms caused by the trauma quickly. After decades of studies and trials, several psychotherapy and medication options have been proven as effective PTSD treatments for veterans.
Anyone looking to find help for a veteran with PTSD should consider therapy options like:
- Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT): A therapy that helps the veteran understand how their trauma changed their thoughts and feelings so they can process and reframe their experiences in a healthier way
- Prolonged Exposure: A talk therapy focused on the veteran repeating details about the trauma and visiting upsetting places until they are no longer distressing
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR for PTSD in veterans is a therapy that combines talking about the trauma with eye movement or tapping to help the brain process the traumatic memories more effectively
Medications for PTSD in veterans may be used in combination with therapy or alone as a way to reduce and resolve symptoms. A psychiatrist or other prescriber can offer several medications that help to increase the amount of two chemicals called serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain. Common medications for PTSD include:
- Sertraline (Zoloft)
- Paroxetine (Paxil)
- Fluoxetine (Prozac)
- Venlafaxine (Effexor)
Other treatments include alternative and complementary options, like:
- Trained service dogs for veterans with PTSD
- Medical marijuana for veterans with PTSD
- Deep brain stimulation for PTSD involving the use of an electric current
Helpful Resources for Veterans
Some veterans will do well with professional treatments for PTSD, while others will need additional services and resources to overcome the condition. A person seeking more programs various resources for veterans with PTSD should always start with their local Office of Veterans Affairs at 1-800-827-1000.
Other helpful resources for veterans include:
The Department of Veterans Affairs offers helpful articles about PTSD, including:
- Facing Bad Memories at the Wall…and Moving On: Leaving PTSD Behind
- Facing Down PTSD, Vet is Now Soaring High
Someone seeking PTSD support groups for veterans can check out the VA’s Peer Support Groups page for information about what support groups are available and how to find one close to home.
PTSD is a challenging condition to treat. Care can become more complicated when a person adds alcohol or other drug use to the situation. Substance abuse may seem like a helpful way to treat the problem, but it only adds to the risks.
If you served in the military, have PTSD and use substances, call The Recovery Village. The treatment experts at The Recovery Village can properly assess and treat PTSD and co-occurring substance use disorder to establish symptom reduction and recovery. Reach out today for more information.
American Psychiatric Association. “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fifth Edition. 2013.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “How Common is PTSD in Veterans?” Accessed June 19, 2019.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “Peer Support Groups.” Accessed June 19, 2019.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “PTSD Basics.” Accessed June 19, 2019.
We Honor Veterans. “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” Accessed June 19, 2019.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.