The tragic story involving the Iraq War veteran accused of killing five homeless people could have been averted. According to his family, his war experiences caused him to come home a changed man. It also set me thinking about how many casualties of war there really are, with tragedies that play out silently all around us every day.
As a psychologist for more than 20 years, and after having given hundreds of presentations worldwide, I've been continually struck by the commonalities we all share. No one has ever come in for therapy saying, "I'm here because my father didn't love me." It's rather because people feel internally pushed into doing things they don't want to do or prevented from doing things they want to do. They know that something is holding them back in life, but can't quite get a handle on what that is.
As psychologists, we are trained to look at how people were raised to help identify the source of their problems. Of course each person is unique, with a particular set of issues and experiences. But general context is also important -- meaning that it often helps to look at when someone was raised. And what recently struck me was how we have a new generation of children being raised by parents who have returned from military combat. After 10 years of war and counting, how does this stack up against the Baby Boomer generation that came into being just a few years after World War II? More importantly, is there anything we can learn from it?
In those days, the moms stayed home to take care of the children and the fathers were the providers. Two-parent families definitely can have their advantages. However, over the years, I've treated many clients who were raised by fathers who worked long hours to put food on the table but were absent when it came to expressing love and affection. Many of my clients described fathers who were disciplinarians, who maintained a firm sense of control in the household, but were often either silent and emotionally withdrawn or angry.
If we look carefully, we can see that many of these fathers displayed signs of what we know now is posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It didn't help that PTSD wasn't even listed as a diagnosis until 1980. But the fact that war experiences were common didn't make them any less impactful. From personal experience in treating veterans from World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam, it's clear that there is no difference in the pain and sorrow from those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. So often their emotional burden is caused by the feelings that they were powerless to save someone. This can be even more devastating than being in danger yourself. Those who were support personnel often carry the same feelings of anger, guilt and lack of control. Who couldn't they save?
All these events can be locked in the brain as unprocessed memories and carry the emotions and feelings that were present at the time of the event. So when the young men of WWII came marching home again, they carried with them memories that were ready to be triggered at home. Since they often blamed themselves for what had happened, they were too ashamed to talk about it to anyone. But pressures at home or work could easily stir up the feelings they'd tried to ignore. Even simple things like a baby crying or a burnt dinner could trigger emotions connected with long-ago firefights they both couldn't control and didn't understand. And the ones that took the brunt of the pain were the children who were raised by fathers who could not easily communicate, or express love -- and perhaps lashed out when they were angry. As is usually the case, children take on the blame for their parents' "flaws" and think, "There must be something wrong with me/I'm not good enough." How many baby boomers still carry the wounds even though now entering retirement age? Is it any wonder that antidepressants are about as prevalent as aspirin in our culture?
Now, a new generation comes home from wars that have gone on for a decade, often with no clear sense of victory. As we see in the news, homelessness and drug use is rampant among veterans. And for those who have managed to return physically unscathed, how many carry memories of pain that also leave them feeling alienated and unable to communicate? Irritability, withdrawal, impatience and anger are potential warning signs of unprocessed memories that need to be addressed. Soldiers are trained to be stoic, but how much have they changed since the war? My bottom line here is to remind the families and friends of veterans that each generation has its silent heroes and it is our job to make sure they get the help they need. I also want to remind veterans that they should get help not only for their own sake, but for their children's sake as well.
And for those baby boomers still carrying the scars of childhood: It's never too late to get the help you need to release the past. It's all stored in memory, which can be processed and transformed into a source of resilience. Basically, you may never have been in combat, but there's no reason to stay a prisoner of your father's war.
For more information on the EMDR Institute, visit http://www.emdr.com.
For more about the EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Programs, visit http://www.emdrhap.org.
For more by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., click here.
For more on PTSD, click here.