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Why are Veterans reluctant to Discuss their War Experiences?

Fear of upsetting family might have kept World War I veterans from talking about their experience.
Veterans may struggle to accept their actions as being justified, despite being at war.
Given the horrors they encountered in WWII, many vets had good reason to hold back their experiences.
88% of returning war veterans have had direct experience of violence.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Images By: Lebanmax, Icholakov, Sergey Kamshylin, Usmc Archives
  • Last Modified Date: 22 September 2014
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Any country with a military force has a population of retired military. When people have served in the armed forces without experiencing a war, they may not have issues with discussing their military service. However, those veterans who served in a war are sometimes reluctant to discuss their experiences, and there can be a number of reasons why this is the case. These could range from reasons like not wanting to upset loved ones, especially wives or children, which is less of a concern today, to not wanting to relive what may have been extremely traumatic experiences.

In previous wars, such as World War I and II, there was occasionally concern about discussing war because it might prove upsetting to children or wives. Many studies have now been done with WWII vets that suggest many of their stories were held back, and wives and children had never heard them. In one sense, this is unfortunate, since it may have created an unrealistic picture of war, painting it as more heroic that horrendous. On the other hand, vets from these wars had good reason to hold back, given the horrors they encountered.

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About 88% of veterans returning from a war have had direct experience of violence: witnessing it, being victim to it, or causing it. Many have been in daily fear of their lives for a period of time. The environment of distrusting all but fellow soldiers is a difficult one to shake when coming home, and a number of vets experience some degree of posttraumatic stress syndrome (PTSS). It has become particularly apparent with the return of veterans from the American/Iraq war beginning in 2003 that numbers of soldiers who suffer from PTSS are much higher than previously supposed, and more soldiers returning have sought treatment for this condition than in past American wars.

Needing treatment is not surprising, given the fact that living in an environment of violence and risk is traumatic. Few people recover from that without some support, and there may be great reluctance to discuss what occurred because veterans are trying to let go of that environment and reintegrate into a world where there is more ability to trust and greater safety. Reliving the experiences may make this difficult, or so many soldiers may feel. However, with the number of veterans seeking help, there’s certainly some evidence that veterans do need a place to discuss war experiences. That place may not be the home front, but could instead be with an understanding and experienced counselor.

Another reason may exist why veterans from recent wars do not discuss their experiences. They may not be able to, and could be bound by security issues to not mention certain aspects of their service. Especially in an ongoing war, there may be continued actions or engagements that need to remain private. This means some veterans are likely to have to filter any conversations they have about the war through the lens of national security issues. To avoid revealing any secure information, they may simply not want to discuss any of it.

There is still good reason for vets to be open about their war experiences when they can. Studies show that vets and their families may suffer without processing these experiences. Some of the fallout from engagement in wars includes increased tension in families. About 50% of vets have more arguments with spouses, 20% have lost sexual intimacy, and over 55% of vets report they have some difficulties with family life when they return home. Yet almost 40% of vets don’t want to use military medical services and distrust the system.

It is very clear from previous wars, especially the war in Vietnam, that lack of attention to veterans’ needs after service is a potential disaster. Numerous Vietnam vets didn’t get the care they needed, and this explains their presence not in homes, but on America’s streets as some of the homeless. The many groups that now advocate for vets are determined not to allow this to occur this time, and to be better stewards for the vets returning home from wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and any future wars, who may need to talk but remain reluctant to do so.

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