Staff Perspective: Sharing Combat Experiences – Why Veterans Struggle Opening Up to Loved Ones

Staff Perspective: Sharing Combat Experiences – Why Veterans Struggle Opening Up to Loved Ones

Deb Nofziger, Psy.D.

If you have ever worked with a combat Veteran, at some point you have heard frustration from both the Veteran and family members about their communication specific to details about combat experiences. “Why doesn’t he tell me about what happened? He shuts me out! Doesn’t he trust me enough to be open about what he is going through?” Or, from the opposite side, “Don’t they get that they shouldn’t push me?! I don’t want to go there with them! I feel bad shutting them out, but what else can I do when even I can’t handle the details??” I leave it to you to figure out which of the above is which party, but I’ll bet you can easily guess. I was recently listening to a patient of mine with this common problem, and he put it very well – “I should tell my wife everything. But I don’t…. I can’t. It is too much to pile on her, and it would hurt her. So I don’t. I push her away instead, block her questions out so my pain won’t be her pain.” Listening to him, and all the others with similar statements, always seems to take me back to the first time I explained this issue with a patient and his family. Recently back from combat myself, I found that I identified with this concern all too clearly. Have you ever had a time when you wished you were recording what was coming out of your mouth because it was spot on and you knew you will never be able to repeat it like that again? That is what it was like for me. But it was also an “Aha” moment in my world, both professionally and personally in terms of my combat experience-sharing with loved ones. Ever since then, I strive to help couples understand limited sharing and to be more okay with NOT sharing all of the details that loved ones think they want to know (but really don’t). The following are my list of why Veterans may not share.

The first reason is Operational Security or OPSEC. This reason falls on the Veteran to make adaptations. While in combat, OPSEC is critical – you do not share information with people who do not have a need to know. If you do, you can literally be giving information to the enemy, albeit accidentally. I’ve seen that happen. So being tight lipped, especially over the phone and in written communications, becomes a habit. This habit carries over once the Veteran returns home. The problem is the Veteran doesn’t recognize that in the home environment, the “need to know” circle broadens to include close loved ones. They need to have enough information to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the difficulties the Veteran is going through. If your bed partner keeps waking up screaming, having a general idea of the traumatic nightmare experience can be important to increase support and patience. I’m not saying the loved ones need ALL the details, but they do need some of them.

The next reason, which I actually find every time this is discussed, involves the Veterans wanting to protect their loved ones. Combat memories can be painful, and they want to protect their family from experiencing pain. It is because the Veteran loves their family that they hold back information. Not only are they protecting loved ones from emotional pain, but also from future anxiety in the event of another deployment. There are things my mother will never know about my combat experiences. When I was still in uniform, I wouldn’t dream of telling her because if I deployed again, her fear for me would increase exponentially. Now? I still wouldn’t dream of it because, though it was over a decade ago, she would still have nightmares about her daughter’s experiences. And I was not a direct ground combat soldier. Imagine the horrors that actual ground troops are protecting their loved ones from!

Veterans also don’t share combat details because they fear their family’s reaction, specifically rejection or pity. “If they knew what I had to do, what I am capable of, they will think I’m a monster.” Families often share frustration that Veterans are more willing to talk to each other than them. But, coming from this angle, it makes sense. Combat Veterans share similar experiences and understanding about how war changes you, and what you learn about the dark side of yourself. It is hard to accept this darkness and it is something Veterans struggle with. If they can’t accept it in themselves, imagine how hard it would be to believe that loved ones would accept it. When explaining this to couples, I encourage small steps in information sharing, and for the loved ones to be understanding that combat can bring out the dark side of people. Everyone is capable of doing extreme things under extreme circumstances – it does not define the totality of the person.

A less tangible reason that Veterans don’t share war experiences with people at home has to do with anti-contamination – what happened in war is “unclean” and needs to be left there. Home is your castle, your safe zone. Why would you want to tarnish home by bringing war in to it? It is interesting how strongly Veterans nod when I bring this up. They work to compartmentalize “home” from “war” as a way to cope. When they look at their families, they don’t want to be reminded of combat. They sense that if they share their stories, memories and war invade their home and contaminate it.

A last thing I talk to with families about why Veterans don’t share involves their fear of facing it themselves. This goes to the concept of avoidance. They are working hard to keep the memories away (especially if they have ended up in a behavioral health office). If they go there, they fear they will be flooded. If they start to share information, where do they stop? Will they be able to stop? Or will it just make their memories and emotions that much more difficult to cope with?

Overall, with all of the above reasons I encourage the couples to meet in the middle, with the Veteran sharing at least some details about their difficult experiences and family understanding that they don’t need the minutia. Through this discussion, I find that loved ones can appreciate why some information is held back – it is out of love and concern for them. Even when I don’t see a family member, I often share the above with Veterans and encourage them to talk to their families about their concerns with sharing information. Loved ones are just looking to help, after all. They aren’t trying to make things worse by asking for or receiving information. But totally shutting them out from all information is also not helpful. There has to be an agreed balance, where families have enough information to understand their Veteran better, and Veterans feel they are supported without feeling they have caused pain or other adverse reactions. And, as always, I encourage couples and families to seek out their own individual or couples interventions if there are continued difficulties.

While the above reasons for Veterans holding back information are true to my experiences, you may certainly disagree, have others, or have better ways to explain the above. I look forward to more observations and fine-tuning my own understanding so I can continue to better support Service members and their loved ones.

The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.

Deb Nofziger, Psy.D., is a deployment behavioral health psychologist with the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. She is currently located at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, TX.