Discussions with Dr. Cantrell

Dr. Bridget CantrellDr. Cantrell is the author of numerous books on post-traumatic stress, warrior reintegration, and how to provide support to those navigating the reintegration process. These books have been well-received by family members, fellow mental health experts, and, most importantly, the warriors themselves.

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Relating to Family

When a person leaves home to serve in the military, they are stepping out of one world into another. In most cases, they are thrust into a new environment overnight where they must readily adapt and learn to survive with a new set of rules in unfamiliar surroundings. A new warrior (soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine) must strive to become a working participant in this new life. In the process, he or she usually develops a new persona and identity within this new "community." From day one of boot camp/basic training, they begin to change, and it is the drill cadre's primary job to facilitate this metamorphosis. Combining this with the tremendous personal danger and stress of wartime duty, a family member can easily see how their loved one will have changed during their time of service. This can be alarming for the unprepared family members. It is important to know that they probably will never get back their loved one in the same state of mind in which they left.

As an example, one mother reports: "My son came home from months of desert fighting, and hasn't unpacked his gear yet. He's still living out of his duffel bag, in the middle of his old bedroom. He doesn't talk as often as he used to, and when he does talk, he's sharp with everyone in a way he never was before. He's different and living with him is a challenge."

This mother was not prepared to see her son come home this way. Understanding him and his behavior has become frustrating, and with no idea of how to cope or communicate with him, this situation could lead to years of estrangement.

Advice not to Give

The following are comments and misconceptions that often do more harm than good. It is advisable to avoid them.

  1. Avoid telling a person who has gone through a stressful experience, "I understand where you're coming from," or "I know how you feel." If you have not experienced it yourself, the falsehood could alienate your relationship.
  2. Avoid telling a person that he or she needs to "just forget about it; it will go away with time," or "Get over it!" because PTSD symptoms, if left alone, may worsen. Not talking about or not sorting through the issues does more harm than good. If the person will not or cannot talk to you about the issues, help them locate an experienced therapist. A veterans' support group can also be a likely choice if the service person is comfortable talking about his or her experiences in a group setting.
  3. Avoid unwarranted labeling of people who suffer from PTSD by telling them they have a "mental illness." Remember that most people subjected to the emotionally negative impact of war will never be the same again. The experts say that PTSD is a normal response to an abnormal set of circumstances. The individual is reacting to life through the impressions of something that has taken them outside the range of a normal human experience.

Steps for Relating with Family Members:

  1. It is important to recognize and become familiar with the different aspects of how the service person has changed. Write out any observations about these changes (in both you and your loved one). Expand this list as the changes are observed or experienced over a period of time, ensuring that these changes pertain to the context of your relationship. (This can be done both by the family member at home and by the returning service member.)
  2. Indicate to the returning service person (because you love them and want to reconnect), that you place tremendous value on communicating about what has changed in their lives. Offer to make yourself available to listen to them talk about any of the issues and changes that they are willing to discuss.
  3. Without forcing any issues or invading space and privacy, open up a dialogue on what in your lives have changed. Discuss the changes that have occurred with each other.

These are just a few scenarios and some tips on re-establishing a relationship with your loved one as they return home from the warzone. Setting Goals are part of the New Year, so why not set the goal to educate yourself in order to better understand the process of assisting your Marine as he or she returns home. Take the initiative to learn as much as possible, as this will help both you and your Marine gain a better understanding. Take it slow, reassess and develop realistic expectations of this process. This will serve you well in the long run and bring about a positive outcome for all involved. My Best to You and Your Marine in the New Year!!

Souls Under Siege: The Effects of Multiple Troop Deployments--and How to Weather the Storm
Copyright 2008 Bridget C. Cantrell, Ph.D.

Published by Hearts Toward Home International
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