Family Members of Veterans Need Support Too

Since the horrible events on September 11, 2001, almost 2 million troops have served in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. According to the Invisible Wounds of War Study, independently conducted by the RAND corporation, approximately 300,000 of those soldiers will be diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is the coming years. Thankfully, there is a nationwide increase in awareness concerning PTSD and this looming mental healthcare crisis as a result of many recent television and newspaper reports. This awareness, however, must be transformed into concrete action – real-life, easy-to-find resources and support for our nation’s heroes as well as their family members.

Family members who care for veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are an often forgotten segment of society which is greatly in need of help. From personal experience, as the wife of an Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) Veteran who was diagnosed with PTSD, I have been amazed by the lack of worthwhile information and support for the loved ones of our vets. Many families are pushed to the point of breaking by PTSD without knowing how or even why they should get help. Comprehensive care for combat veterans must include adequate information and counseling services for their family members.

There are many reasons care should be offered to family members. First, many caregivers often develop “Secondary” PTSD. This disorder (which is still not recognized by many in the mental health community, but most spouses who care for a Vet with combat PTSD can tell you absolutely exists), occurs when an individual who lives under the daily strain and uncertainty associated with living with a PTSD sufferer, begins to develop and exhibit symptoms of PTSD themselves. With several people living under one roof who are suffering from primary or secondary Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, an already difficult situation can become unbearable.

Second, loved ones who are properly informed and educated about the reality of PTSD (not with clinical definitions, but with real-world examples), are better able to support and care for their veteran. Understanding why a veteran is withdrawn, moody, angry, or depressed enables them to react in a more loving, constructive manner. It is hard curb a defensive response to an out-of-control Veteran, unless you understand that he (or she) is not immediately capable of censoring himself. However, a spouse who is given the tools to cope with PTSD-related outbursts, can actually act as a calming, positive influence. This change within family dynamics can aid in the care, treatment, and life-quality improvement of the Veteran.

Finally, many PTSD-afflicted households become breeding grounds for potential domestic violence. Doctors David S. Riggs (now the Executive Director of the Center for Deployment Psychology) and Christina A. Byrne (now an assistant professor for the Department of Psychology at Western Washington University) uncovered startling statistics linking PTSD and domestic violence in a study of Vietnam veterans in the 1990’s. Their study found that, in the twelve months preceding the study, 42{c66b10e9cbb0dd4ae322bbe8793aef26e887819d9224ac46799d38bddff29d80} of the men had used physical aggression against their partners, 92{c66b10e9cbb0dd4ae322bbe8793aef26e887819d9224ac46799d38bddff29d80} had been verbally aggressive, and every Veteran had used psychological aggression within their relationship. The best way to combat this possible effect is to ensure that family members are aware of the triggers associated with PTSD and are given the resources to improve and maintain their own mental health.

While the Veteran’s Administration (VA) through their Vet Center program, does offer limited counseling services for spouses, children, and other immediate family members of combat veterans, the services offered are not enough. The explanation of the Vet Centers on the VA’s website (, which says, “Vet Centers provide readjustment counseling and outreach services to all veterans who served in any combat zone. Services are also available for their family members for military related issues,” is misleading. Services are only available to family members of Veterans who are classified as “active clinical patients” – meaning they are actively seeking counseling from the Vet Center and have successfully completed at least three appointments. Even when that initial “hoop” is conquered, family members are only given access to family counseling (joint, with the veteran).

This policy effectively blocks access to many spouses and children who are in the greatest need; those who are living with a Veteran that refuses to seek treatment or even admit that he is experiencing a combat-related mental health issue. Even when family members are finally given access, the idea of only giving them support in a forum which includes the PTSD sufferer is ill-fated. Those caring for Veterans with combat PTSD need and deserve individual counseling which allows them to openly share their feelings without fear of further harming the Veteran. A spouse or child cannot completely express their sadness, anger, fears, or other “negative” emotions with the Veteran present. This lack of an environment in which full disclosure is likely, in effect, prevents proper treatment.

If our nation’s heroes are expected to receive the best possible care for their “invisible wounds” and move onto the life of promise and happiness they so richly deserve, then family members must have unfettered, readily-available access to information and counseling. Without this change in policy, too many families face an unfair disadvantage in the coming years – one created by a broken system which refuses to recognize that comprehensive treatment of Veterans must include real help for those that love them.

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