Surviving PTSD: Helping Your Military Loved Ones Get the Help They Need


It's frightening to watch a loved one go off to war, but what many military families have discovered is that another battle begins once they return home. Nearly 30 percent of the 834,463 soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan that were treated at V.A. hospitals have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. 

"We can't send out men and women to kill other human beings and expect them to not suffer any ill. It's human nature," a mother of a soldier, who asked to remain anonymous, shared with The Stir. "We are not born killers and can't be expected to return to normal and not be properly cared for."

Indeed. The changes in personality PTSD causes can be terrifying for family members, who are often at a loss for what to do. Sadly, in many cases, the illness goes untreated simply because V.A. hospitals are too overloaded.


This mom first realized soldiers were getting substandard care when her own son had to wait months to see a specialist for a physical injury. "I set out on a journey to discover how our military takes care of our soldiers -- I was astounded, shocked, and disgusted," she said.

Now with her younger son newly enlisted, "A part of me wants to scream, 'Please don’t do this!'" she admitted. "But another part of me is still proud. Part of me wants to tell him that he won't return the same person that he left as. But I'm proud of our country, proud of our soldiers, proud that we have men and women who are willing to give so much for nothing in return."

Inspired by this mother and others facing similar problems, we reached out to experts across the country for advice. Here is everything you need to know about PTSD and how to get the help you need.

What are the signs of PTSD?

Severe depression, suicidal thoughts, flashback episodes to a traumatic event, nightmares, migraines, anger, anxiety, and rages are all common symptoms. But perhaps the hardest for family members to deal with is the fact the soldier just doesn't care about anything anymore. "Surviving the war meant they had to nub-out emotionally," explains Dr. E.C Hurley, a retired Army Colonel who treats PTSD at his clinic The Soldier Center. "They toned down all emotions except anger."

What's the first step to getting help?

Consulting a mental heath provider is essential. First reach out to the local V.A. but don't stop there if you are not getting what you need. The Vet Center ( is also an official resource. When those fail, try non-profit organizations dedicated to providing soldiers with medical, emotional, and financial help (see list below).

How do you convince someone in denial that they need help?

Unfortunately for many soldiers, there is a stigma attached to mental health treatment. But it is critical that they want the help since effective treatment requires attending multiple sessions of therapy. Getting them in touch with other soldiers who are experiencing the same thing can lesson this stigma (see Facebook communities below).

What are the most common hurdles people face when seeking treatment?

"At VA hospitals, there are often long wait-lists so that veterans cannot make an appointment right away but need to wait several months," says Dr. Emma Seppala, Associate Director of Stanford's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. "Red-tape and paperwork is unfortunately part of the process of registering for services at the VA." The result is the the soldier never gets better and families are left feeling powerless and hopeless.

How do you beat the red tape and roadblocks?

This is where non-profits can be invaluable. Try reaching out to the many organizations that are dedicated to helping returning soldiers (see list below). Most of these services are free and don't be deterred if one is not located in your hometown. Many offices can refer you to help nearby. 

Most Common Types of Treatment

PHARMACEUTICAL - A drug-based treatment that can help regulate emotions and curb some of the symptoms of PTSD, like depression and anxiety.

PROLONGED EXPOSURE THERAPY - A behavioral therapy technique that helps you face the very thing that you find frightening, so that you can learn to cope with it. A new approach to exposure therapy uses "virtual reality" programs that allow you to re-enter the setting in which you experienced trauma -- for example, a "Virtual Iraq" program.

COGNITIVE PROCESSING THERAPY - The most common treatment in V.A. hospitals nationwide, this type of talk therapy helps you recognize the ways of thinking that are keeping you stuck -- for example, negative or inaccurate ways of perceiving normal situations.

EYE MOVEMENT DESENSITIZATION AND REPROCESSING (EMDR) THERAPY - Developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro, this type of psychotherapy that combines exposure therapy with a series of guided eye movements that help you process traumatic memories. Studies have concluded that EMDR treatment can cure PTSD cases resulting from a single trauma in just six sessions. 

Alternative Therapies

SUDARSHAN KRIYA YOGA - Research conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that this particular breathing based treatment offered by Project Welcome Home Troops ( reportedly significantly reduced PTSD symptoms up to one year after the intervention.

IREST YOGA NIDRA - ( Using yoga and meditation, the program fosters freedom from stress and trauma, and helps identify and heal destructive tendencies that otherwise can impede the healing process.

Groups & Organizations That Can Help

The Soldier Center An in-patient treatment center located in Clarksville, Tennessee run by a retired Army veteran and psychologist Dr. E.C. Hurley. Specializing in EMDR, the center works with vets, couples, and families and boasts and 85 percent success rate after 1 or 2 weeks of treatment.

EMDR - Humanitarian Assistance Programs
HAP trains clinicians in who will provide up to 10 free sessions of EMDR therapy for veterans, as well as up to 2 free sessions of family therapy. A list of free providers is available on the website.

Think Beyond the Label Helps businesses recruit, hire, and retrain returning military veterans with disabilities.

Equal Justice Works
A non-profit that matches law students and lawyers with veterans who need help with VA benefit claims, barriers to housing and employment, disabilities benefits, homelessness, and lack of access to medical care.

USA Cares Provides financial support for soldiers and their families. They help pay for travel, cover mortgage or rent, utilities, and car payments while the vet is in treatment.

Suicide Outreach The group provides hotlines, assessments, treatment options, and professional resources.

The Coming Home Project A San Francisco-based group of psychotherapists, veterans, and interfaith leaders who provide expert, compassionate care, support, education, and stress management tools for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, service members, and their families.

Heal the Invisible Wounds War A recovery program in which vets are helped by fellow vets. Participants are trained to recognize and eliminate their own unresolved combat related stress and trauma.

Disabled American Veterans Free service that helps veterans navigate the V.A. system so they can receive the benefits they deserve.

After Deployment A resource for learning more about all the issues returning military service men and women face.

Not Alone Provides programs, resources, and services to soldiers impacted by combat stress and PTSD through a confidential and anonymous community. Not Alone also partners with nonprofit mental health provider Centerstone to get vets the help they need.

Military Mental Health A mental health screening program that can help you find providers nationwide.

Operation Enduring Families (OUHSC) A five-session support program for Iraq & Afghanistan veterans and their families.

Military One Source Offers counseling options and forums on military life.

National Organization on Disability NOD's Wounded Warrior Careers program helps severely injured veterans start and build careers they can be proud of. In its first four years, WWC has helped 275 former soldiers, 70 percent of whom are now employed, receiving an education, or job training.

It's also helpful to connect with other vets who know firsthand what you are going through. Dr. Seppala recommends the following Facebook communities:

Do you know of other great sources for veterans and families dealing with PTSD?


Image via The California National Guard/Flickr

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