Did Your Combat Vet Tell You Too Much?

photo by Sgt. Tierney Nowland, U.S. Army. (Released)photo by Sgt. Tierney Nowland, U.S. Army. (Released)

When you are a kid, you think the mark of an intimate relationship is that you and your beloved tell each other everything. When ‘everything’ consists of how you feel about your mother, how much you actually owe on your credit card, and what secretly makes you go wild, ‘everything’ is just enough.

But what happens when your intimate relationship is with a combat vet? What happens when they tell you everything that happened to them on deployment? Can that be too much–no matter how much you love them?

It can be. Recently I interviewed Keith Renshaw a psychologist at George Mason University who studies military couples currently dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Tell everything about deployment, right?

Since I’m a big believer in telling all you know, I was expecting him to say that having combat vets talk their experience with their partner would help. After all, ‘talking about it’ is the prescribed answer for most of our problems. Keeping secrets is supposed to be bad for us, right?

So I was surprised when Renshaw told me that how much to tell about your combat experience and to whom to tell really is a puzzle.

“What we still don’t know is how much people should disclose about their trauma,” Renshaw told me. “It probably depends on the person (who you are telling)–how much they can take.”

While some family members don’t struggle with it, some do get overwhelmed. At SpouseBuzz, partners have told us that they have vivid dreams of combat or Afghanistan or Iraq when they have never even been out of the country.

Renshaw said that the technology that enables soldiers to bring home video of their combat experiences can be especially troubling for family members, even triggering PTSD.  Yet Renshaw points out that the research shows that  the people who avoid talking about the events at all are at greatest risk for chronic PTSD. So who should our vets be talking to?  Only each other?

Is reticence a show of love?

Some people think so. In her book Real Happiness At Work Sharon Salzberg says that high risk jobs (like being a cop or a soldier)or jobs that see a great deal of human suffering (humanitarian aid workers, those currently deployed to help with the Ebola virus in Western Africa) demand a special kind of compartmentalization when it comes to telling what happens on the job.

“Sometimes reticence is a show of love,” wrote Salzberg. “ Allowing work to stay at work can paradoxically preserve our personal relationships and strengthen our sense of team solidarity on the job.”

Salzberg goes on to suggest creating better relationships at work so that those who do risky or demanding work can help each other through it. Certainly peer-to-peer counseling for military has great results.

So why am I still worried? On one hand I can see how gatekeeping and compartmentalizing may ease the relationship. On the other hand, I’m troubled by the notion that we give our vets the unspoken message that they should not tell. Or that they should only tell other vets. Or that mental health professionals are the only people capable of hearing them.  This seems like such a tricky balance to me over a life changing issue.

Should vets share their combat experiences?

Should vets share their combat experiences with family members? Or is all of that best kept only for those who have shared the experience? What do you think?

About the Author

Jacey Eckhart
Jacey Eckhart is the former Director of Spouse and Family Programs for Military.com. Since 1996, Eckhart’s take on military families has been featured in her syndicated column, her book The Homefront Club, and her award winning CDs These Boots and I Married a Spartan?? Most recently she has been featured as a military family subject matter expert on NBC Dateline, CBS morning news, CNN, NPR and the New York Times. Eckhart is an Air Force brat, a Navy wife and an Army mom. Find her at JaceyEckhart.net.
  • ken

    Men are good at burying or compartmentalizing bad experiences, but sometimes the beast is unleashed.

  • anonc

    My husband and I have always shared everything, even and especially the traumatic stuff like my childhood sexual abuse or his close calls at work. We are a unit, two people sharing one life and we need to help each other shoulder our burdens. Life and marriage is not just about sharing happiness and love, it’s also about sharing sadness and fear and horror. I am a firm believer that loving someone means knowing everything about them and still loving them. If he can live it then I can certainly hear about it.

    • Sherrie

      I agree with the following wife as far as sharing with one another of what you have gone through. That way you can both have a better understanding of what he has been through and help one another.

  • Adele Heath

    I wish my husband had told me earlier what had happened to him in Vietnam instead of suffering alone for 40+ years with it. When it finally came out he was a different man. We still had a wonderful loving marriage but times would have been smoother for him my boys and me

  • galloglas

    My return home and subsequent attempts to tell my family, father, mother and wife what happened, (OPSEC rules observed somethings never will be told to anyone) I was called a liar.
    After enough times being told I was a liar and that didn’t happen I STFU and STFD.
    It ain’t worth it.
    Never tell your family anything outside of the humorous and average groundhog day descriptions.
    I have even had what I did tell be used against me.
    Did it affect me? Yes it took longer to get over the after effects than it should have, but if you want to talk abouyt it, see a fellow vet or get a Psychiatrist, and not from the VA either.

    • Cheese

      Not every family is like yours.

  • Defiant128

    Life is a balance. I found mine at the Vet Center. Go to VA.org, facilities, to find one near you. They were founded by two California Viet Nam vets, who got it incorporated into the VA system for PTSD treatment. The Team Leader has to be a vet, preferably a combat vet. All of the other counselors are vets or are related to a vet. I go every Wednesday and meet with up to eighteen fellow vets. To a man, at first, everyone thought, “do I really belong here?” and to a man, after several visits, the answer was yes. We have every branch represented, even officers. Everyone is great and you’re part of “The Team” again. Everything is confidential and is not accessable to the rest of the VA. Otherwise, they would never have your trust and all of the Vet Centers would be empty. Do you need to go to a Vet Center? If you are a combat vet or have been close to combat, yes. Don’t even bother to ask yourself that question. Am I normal? Yes you are. You’re just different from civilians. They don’t matter anyway. Do yourself a favor check out the Vet Center, hook up with your buddies again. You’ll be glad you did. You can walk away at any time. No one has. I’m a 69 year old combat wounded Viet Nam Vet and I go every Wednesday. Brothers and sisters; Welcome Home!

  • csm

    ANYONE who has servered in a conflict has PTSD to some extent. This is the new feel good term of todays Psychiatist. The World War II vet’s, Korea vet’s, Vietman vet’s (which I am) seldom if ever talked to anyone other than maybe another vet. Somethings are better locked away.

  • zedvector

    Tough subject that must be handled with care . My experience tells me that when anyone with PTSD, from any trauma, makes the brave and uncomfortable decision to discuss their trauma, that means they are ready to learn some skills/tools to cope. Military behavioral health providers often begin seeing soldiers before they are ready to share their trauma. The soldiers just know something is wrong, may be recommended to see BH, may be suicidal, etc. So, sharing is a very big step for someone with PTSD, the worse the trauma for them, the harder to share. This is when they need to see a professional that can provide tools, guidance, homework, etc. Most prefer a military provider, especially one that has deployed to open up and heal. Unfortunately, many positions are being filled with civilian providers that don’t even understand the military. Discussing with groups with similar trauma is great, but without professional guidance providing appropriately timed tools and skills to cope, you are missing an opportunity for a lifetime of healing.

  • I follow four Vietnam vet Facebook pages. Many Vietnam vets with PTSD have joined too. Many of them say they never talked about their time in country, not they finally found people that they can talk to about, people that know what it was like. They also say that has helped a lot.

    When I had my blog, I couldn’t think about anything to write about, so I wrote a story about my time in the army. Many people like reading it, so they asked me to write more, so I did. People thanked me for write the stories, because they had family members that did want to talk about or talked very little about what they experienced. That’s when I decided to start a second blog with just my stories about my time in the army. Here’s the link if any of you are interested in reading my stories. http://my-vietnam-stories.blogspot.com/

  • Don

    No way. We volunteered to serve, including combat to protect our Country and Loved Ones. What is the point in subjecting them to the horror? How is giving them our nightmares protecting them? Our service does not end the day we take off the uniform. I encourage vets to seek out another combat vets, or a group of combat vets and open up to them. I recommend avoiding any group that wants your identifying information unless your issues are so severe that you need medical attention – especially if you hold a security clearance!

  • Wayne

    I shared with my spouse, but i only did it in general terms. I wouldn’t go into specifics of the ugly side of humanity. Plus there are some things where they don’t have the need to know, period.

  • guest

    I’ve read a bit about “PTSD” on these comment areas. Please remember that there are MANY ways a person can come to having the “symptoms” that characterize PTSD. Civilians can also have PTSD just from life experiences, (I consider mine to be an advantage based on my life circumstances) so don’t assume they won’t understand. But also, don’t assume that having and dealing with it from combat makes you more special or deserving than the civilian who is next to you in public. You never know a person’s story.