Military families deal with a number of unique issues. However, a number of these issues have similarities to other families affected by psychological trauma. So read on if you are in a military family or know someone who is, or if you want to pick up some tips that may help you with your family.

One thing military families usually have in common is that a parent and spouse has deployed to a foreign combat zone, most recently Iraq or Afghanistan. In today’s military, families often have two, three, or four or more deployments, which is a significant change from the past.

We say the families deploy, because when the soldier deploys, it affects the whole family.

Understanding the psychological effects of deployment and combat trauma on the family are important to helping the family cope as a whole.

When a soldier comes back from the combat front, s/he can’t just “turn off” their combat frame of mind the way you flick a switch to turn off the light. Soldiers in a combat zone have a heightened responsiveness and increased vigilance.

Being hyped up and on guard is a normal and adaptive response to being in a combat zone. If you weren’t on your toes all the time, you might be the one to get picked off by a sniper or to not respond fast enough to an ambush. In that case, you might be coming back in a body bag instead of an airplane.

You’ve got to be ready to stand and fight or get away quick, something we call the “fight or flight response.” And you’ve got to decide what to do right away—there isn’t time to waste.

As discussed earlier in this book, stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol help with the fight or flight response. They pour into the body when there is a threat and cause an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate, and shunt energy to the muscles and brain so you think fast, run fast, and fight hard.

Since the combat mode is an automatic response (if you had to think too much about it, you probably wouldn’t survive) it isn’t something you can just “will” to go away.

That’s why soldier’s families shouldn’t be impatient if their soldiers are jumpy or on guard when they get back from the war zone, and that their jumpiness doesn’t go away right away.

Learned Combat-Zone Behaviors Don’t Translate Well to Civilian Life

Soldiers learn other behaviors to adapt in a combat zone that may seem strange after they come home.

In Iraq, soldiers drove their armored vehicles at full bore down the middle of the road. If there were some vehicles in front of them, they would pass like maniacs, even if it meant putting everyone at risk.

They did that because explosive devices were left at the side of the road in garbage bags or other hidden places.

These “improvised explosive devices” (or IEDs) were detonated remotely by insurgents when the soldiers were on patrol. If they got slowed down by other vehicles or by crowds of civilians in the road, they became easy targets for IEDs. That’s why they learned how to drive fast and furious when they were on patrol.

Back home, a simple drive to the grocery store can become a frightening experience. They also can drive other people crazy—they’ll often honk at little old ladies who they think are driving too slow or getting in the way. Seeing a bag of garbage on the side of the road can cause them to swerve.

Although this may drive you crazy—your own trauma—you have to understand that this comes from their experiences in a combat zone, and it may take a while to go away.

When the Combat Mind Interferes with Living
The difficulty in turning off the combat mind set may come out in other ways:

• Soldiers may stay at home to avoid things that trigger memories of combat. They may feel safer.

• They may get anxious when their loved ones go out as well.

• They may jump at loud noises.

• Sleeping with someone else in bed may feel strange.

• Being a parent, and making decisions will be a challenge.

• For many soldiers, it is the first time out of the military, and they must learn how to get a job, balance a checkbook, shop for groceries, cook for themselves (instead of eating on base), clean the house, and be a parent.

• Wives and kids must adjust to having another person in the house.

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