Guest author: Erica Zulawski, MS, LMSW
My father was a Vietnam veteran. I would like to share some parts of our family’s story.
- My father would wake up in the middle of the night screaming from awful nightmares and night terrors. I had never heard a man or anyone scream like that before. I was afraid. My siblings and I did not know what was happening to him, and there was no one to explain anything.
- My dad drank a lot while I was growing up, and he would isolate himself from friends and family. He was there physically, but rarely emotionally available.
- I resented him for missing a great part of my childhood because of his alcoholism. I also resented the military in many ways because it had taken away my father’s ability to be a good dad and live a meaningful and satisfying life.
- He was always angry and irritable with overwhelming emotion, always on edge. Family members were also always on edge hoping not to upset him. My father’s illness controlled and dictated the temperament of each of us.
- Though severely “rocked” by his traumatic Vietnam experiences, my father would still proudly hang the American flag each morning. I would say that he struggled with a “love/hate relationship”, a love for his country and the military, but hatred for what he lost of himself in the war.
- He was a very broken person, consumed with emotional and physical pain, suffering every day and drank heavily to self-treat his symptoms. He desperately needed help, but had no idea that he needed it and was deteriorating with each passing day. My mother had no idea how to get him help, so he suffered in silence until he wasn’t able to do it anymore. There was the lack of support and services available for my father and for us as a family to cope with his PTSD, depression and alcoholism. We felt helpless, scared and overwhelmed.
The only time I ever heard him talk about Vietnam was when his “war buddies” would come over to our house to talk and drink. I still don’t know what he endured in the military. When I began working with veterans, I gradually started to understand that what my father was struggling with wasn’t uncommon among that era of veterans: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression from his military service.
Why is it important to understand and identify the unique challenges and needs of veterans and their families?
I believe there is a great need for social workers and other human service professionals within the community (both veteran and non-veteran affiliated agencies and organizations) to become educated on serving veterans and their families so that they can best meet their needs. Policies and program are needed to help veterans and families develop coping skills and find supports. Some of the reasons are listed below.
- Many veterans fail to get the help they need because of social stigma and barriers to health care and other services. Some non-veteran affiliated organizations and agencies may provide services and treatment to veterans because they may not qualify for some or any VA benefits or health care because of their type of discharge; were never activated from a Reserve or National Guard unit; and/or have some apprehension about using the VA system. There are others who are unaware of the benefits and services available to them. Please refer to the link in the Resource section to learn more about the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: Health benefits and eligibility.
- Being culturally competent and sensitive may decrease the challenges in providing effective services to veterans and their family members. Some veterans will present with chronic and acute mental, social, and physical conditions, as well as being at risk for: unemployment, poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, depression, and PTSD that may be attributed to military related trauma and experiences.
- To alleviate the backlog of specialty appointments, particularly mental and behavioral health appointments, the VA and Congress implemented the Veterans Choice Card program in August 2014. Veterans who meet the criteria for the program will be allowed to seek health care services outside of the VA system. Please refer to the link in the Resource section to learn more about Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014.
- Veterans who live in rural areas may not have easy access to VA health care and services and are more likely be treated in non-VA affiliated agencies and organizations. Providers in these demographic areas need to be familiar with their unique needs and challenges. Please refer to the link in the Resource section for more information about Rural Assistance Center: Veterans and Returning Soldiers.
- Both VA and non-VA affiliated providers need to understand the complexity of deployment and how multiple deployments can impact the mental, emotional and psychological well-being of a person and their ability to reintegrate and adapt back into civilian life, their community and their family. Please refer to the link in the Resource section to learn more about How Deployment Stress Affects Families.
- Providers need to be aware of signs and symptoms to recognize if the person they are working with has been in the military. In addition, providers need to be aware of referring agencies and organizations and the services available to veterans and their families if the provider is unable to offer needed services. It’s important that the provider not be afraid to ask appropriate and sensitive questions about the person’s military experiences to gain a better understanding in an effort to treat the “whole” person.
- VA and non-VA agencies and organizations can network to use the best assessment tools, interventions and treatments for veterans and their families. Please refer to the link in the Resource section to learn more about the Joining Forces initiative.
- Agencies and organizations can create an environment where veterans and their families feel safe to reach out and find the support and guidance they need. Make it as simple and convenient as possible, and remove barriers to rigid, structured and complex systems that may feel overwhelming and burdensome. Many who try to access services and treatment will either give up or not bother if it’s too confusing and/or has the potential to trigger or retraumatize.
- Consider the veteran’s life before the military. Think about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that may contribute to the issues and problems that the veteran is struggling with- consider pre-military trauma. Think about how the veteran’s complex trauma, pre-military, peri-military and post-military experiences have impacted and affected their overall life within their roles and responsibilities to the family structure, the community, their jobs and school. Please refer to the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study link in the Resource section.
- It is beneficial to ensure that services and treatment for veterans and their families are implemented in a way that provides the five principles of trauma-informed care: safety, empowerment, trustworthiness, collaboration and choice. Please refer to the link in the Resource section for more information about Trauma-Informed Care (TIC).
- Children of service members and veterans also have unique needs and challenges, and can be at risk for emotional and mental health issues like secondary PTSD from being affected by their parents’ military related trauma. Please refer to the link in the Resource section for more information about Overall Effects on Children.