The Problem of Peace for Combat Veterans

A friend recently asked me why some returning combat veterans struggle to re-adjust to civilian life. He wondered if my experience returning from Vietnam 44 years ago gave me any insight into the issue. As do many people, he thought it odd that anyone who has adjusted to a war zone—a terrible place to be—has trouble adjusting to being home, a much better place to be. It does not seem odd to me.

The stakes are high for combat troops. People are trying to kill you. However, you are encouraged to respond in kind. You are allowed, in fact you are encouraged, to kill those people trying to kill you. That brutally level playing field is part of the problem. So is being immersed in an environment where violence is not only permitted, but expected.

In our lives there may be circumstances under which, if push came to shove, we would shove. Our actions to defend ourselves or to protect our family may eventually escalate into violence. In a combat zone violence isn’t your eventual response; violence is your initial response. Violence is why you are there. Today’s combat vets may have been immersed in a violence-first environment for two, three or more tours of duty. They are conditioned to immediately react violently to threats.

The vet returns home and reunites with family. Problems that existed before the tour remain. Those problems may now be worse. Perhaps a small business lost momentum during the vet’s absence. Perhaps the vet lost an important opportunity for advancement at her full-time job.

Imagine a vet with a small business that is now struggling due to his service to our country. He applies to a bank for financial help and is rejected. Consider a vet who missed a chance for advancement who now reports to someone who got that job in her absence.

Combat veterans might see these setbacks and the dozens of others that are a normal part of life not as problems to be solved but as threats. They may view these threats as a direct consequence of having gone to war on behalf of our nation. In war they met threats with deadly violence. They are unable to deal with threats here as they did there.

Their frustration may create self-doubt. The vet may judge that in war he readily addressed any threat but cannot do so at home. He may believe that he is unable to function at home. This may create the illusion that he or she is better equipped to handle the stresses of war than the stresses of home. It fosters a belief that it is in a war zone, not at home, where they have more control over their lives—a belief that they belong there, and no longer belong here. Hell creates its attractions.

To the rest of us it may seem unimaginable that anyone who could handle the stress of combat would have difficulty addressing what we view as the lesser stress of normal life. Men and women who have been to war lived in an environment where the rules of a civil society were suspended. The madness of war put them at risk, but the madness of war, the reliance on violence, may have enabled them to survive that risk.

They return home, experience problems, but can no longer rely on violence to address risks, threats, setbacks, and problems. War is simple elemental, and offers the nightmarish equality of kill or be killed. Society is complex. Equality, a level playing field is elusive or non-existent. When we tell our children life is not fair we do not mislead.

For veterans, the readjustment to the complexity of peacefully resolving conflicts and problems is not an easy one. It would help if our society were more just, if our society created fewer glaringly unfair outcomes for our veterans.

It is easy to verbally thank a veteran for his or her service. That thank you is insincere unless we do the hard work of creating a society that makes veterans whole by leveling the playing field for them when they return. Our society should protect the veteran’s family and assets while they serve. Furthermore, a just society that does not easily go to war is a debt owed to all who have and all who will serve.

Bob Mlynek