Top 10 Things Your Combat Vet Wants You to Know

Top 10 Things Your Combat Vet Wants You to Know

by Regina Bahten

I’m a psychiatrist. Every day I listen to my combat veterans as they struggle to return to the “normal” world after having a deeply life-changing experience. I do everything I can to help them. Sometimes that can involve medications, but listening is key. Sometimes a combat veteran tells me things that they wish their families knew. They have asked me to write something for their families, from my unique position as soldier, wife, and physician. These are generalizations; not all veterans have these reactions, but they are the concerns most commonly shared with me.

(Author’s note: obviously warriors can be female — like me — and family can be male, but for clarity’s sake I will write assuming a male soldier and female family.)

1. He is addicted to war, although he loves you. War is horrible, but there is nothing like a life-and-death fight to make you feel truly alive. The adrenaline rush is tremendous, and can never be replaced. Succeeding in combat defines a warrior, places him in a brotherhood where he is always welcome and understood. The civilian world has its adrenaline junkies as well; just ask any retired firefighter, police officer, or emergency room staff if they miss it.

2. Living for you is harder. It would be easy for him to die for you because he loves you. Living for you, which is what you actually want, is harder for him. It is even harder for him if you are smart and do not need him to rescue you, since rescuing is something he does really well.

3. “The training kicks in” means something very different to him. It is direct battle doctrine that when ambushed by a superior force, the correct response is “Apply maximum firepower and break contact.” Unfortunately, your tears are unbearable to him; they create explosive emotions in him that are difficult for him to control. Unfortunately, warriors frequently respond to strong waves of guilt by applying more “maximum firepower” on friends, family, or unfortunate strangers.

4. He is afraid to get attached to anyone because he has learned that the people you love get killed, and he cannot face that pain again. He may make an exception for his children (because they cannot divorce him), but that will be instinctual and he will probably not be able to explain his actions.

5. He knows the military exists for a reason.  The sad fact is that a military exists ultimately to kill people and break things. This was true of our beloved “Greatest Generation” warriors of WWII, and it remains true to this day. Technically, your warrior may well be a killer, as are his friends. He may have a hard time seeing that this does not make him a murderer. He is a sheepdog, not a wolf. The emotional side of killing in combat is complex. He may not know how to feel about what he’s seen or done, and he may not expect his feelings to change over time. Warriors can experiences moments of profound guilt, shame, and self-hatred. He may have experienced a momentary elation at “scoring one for the good guys,” then been horrified that he celebrated killing a human being. He may view himself as a monster for having those emotions, or for having gotten used to killing because it happened often. One of my Marines recommended On Killing by Dave Grossman, and I would pass that recommendation on.

6. He’s had to cultivate explosive anger in order to survive in combat. He may have grown up with explosive anger (violent alcoholic father?) as well.

7. He may have been only nineteen when he first had to make a life and death decision for someone else. What kind of skills does a nineteen-year-old have to deal with that kind of responsibility?

8. He may believe that he’s the only one who feels this way; eventually he may realize that at least other combat vets understand. On some level, he doesn’t want you to understand, because that would mean you had shared his most horrible experience, and he wants someone to remain innocent.

9. He doesn’t understand that you have a mama bear inside of you, that probably any of us could kill in defense of someone if we needed to. Imagine your reaction if someone pointed a weapon at your child. Would it change your reaction if a child pointed a weapon at your child?

10. When you don’t understand, he needs you to give him the benefit of the doubt.  He needs you also to realize that his issues really aren’t about you, although you may step in them sometimes.

Regina Bahten has been practicing medicine for the past 24 years; the first twelve were as a primary care doctor.  She then cross trained as a psychiatrist. She has been honored with the friendships of many veterans over those years, whose influence led to her decision to accept a commission in the National Guard at the age of 48. For the past three years she has worked as an outpatient psychiatrist with the Veterans’ Administration in Las Vegas, primarily with veterans of the current conflicts.


43 thoughts on “Top 10 Things Your Combat Vet Wants You to Know

  1. Needs to have “no matter how long it has been since he was in the service” added to the title. My wife dismisses a lot of my reactions as me just being an ass or not caring or me over-reacting. YEP, she is right but there are reasons that don’t just “go away” after being out 20 years. I am a 1st Infantry Division Gulf War Veteran and 70% Disabled through the VA. We did not meet until after my service so she has never been close to anyone who was in the service or had any friends that were deployed so I guess she just does not understand. Our marriage got to the point where we ended up going to Marriage Counseling and lucky me, we got a psychiatrist who was also the wife of a Vietnam Vet and she lived in Vietnam with her husband back then (she is American). She understood me all to well and tried to explain so many of the reasons listed above to her but I truly believe it went in one ear and out the other. Take care brothers & sisters regardless of what your loved ones think, take care of YOU first and only then can you take care of them.

    • i was with the 1st cav for the first gulf war, back then, was young, dumb, and did not believe in ptsd, it has taken me till now, reading things like this, and a failed marriage, to realize that i do have these symptoms, i always thought i always felt bad because i could not go back in when the second wave kicked off, i tried to go eod when i reenlisted, but it was closed to my rank. #1 reason is something i thought of, but thought i was off my rocker for thinking that, thinking of the adrenalin rush of a fire fight, i guess i am not alone and not off my rocker so much. and bob, my step dad, (who i grew up with) was a vietnam vet and has since passed, but i understand him more now, and you are right, it doesnt matter how long it has been.

    • I agree.The difference is when I went to Viet Nam I was engaged to one of the prettiest girls you would ever hope to see.We were friends in school,we dated casually while in high school and became engaged just before I left.When I came ome we didn’t make it.We were both different and she couldn’t deal with the new me.Twenty four years later we got together again and have been married almost 18 years.Even being that close to the war and what went on,she still has problems understanding or dealing with a lot of the PTSD and what it does to me.She does go to my sessions with my social worker so she understands me better.I hope someday I gain control of myself and can make life better for all of us.

    • @ Jack, First Team, brother. Same here. Went 20 years without ever acknowledging that I could possibly have ptsd. Luckily I have had a wife that has stayed the course. She is my rock and without her I wouldn’t even be here. I, also, tried to go back in only to be told I was too old and too broke to be of any use.
      You are not alone and you are definitely not off your rocker.

  2. This has really helped me and given me food for thought. I am in a rough situation, my boyfriend is suffering, yet will not get help. He has pushed me away and asked me not to call him..He is isolating himself from easy thing to do in our work..How can I help him? He hates himself and can’t find any way to forgive himself for his past..

    • there are a number of organizations out there, look up lone survivor foundation, contact them, if they cannot help they can point you in the right direction. the bottom line is, he needs to talk to someone who has been there and done that, and he needs to know that he is not alone in it

      • He did call the Combat Vets line…but said that he really did get much..doesn’t surprise me.. He had a really unique thing happen , from what they said it doesn’t happen hardly at all,,but he had dealt with it…then it came up and bit him in the face in the store..It has been 4 months..He said that he cannot talk about what happened, something about a non-disclosure..I know the story..but I also know there are things he keeps from me…He talks about self hate, ..he can’t tell me he loves me, says he hates himself too much, not much else I can say..We’ve been together 5 years..He has carried the self disgust and hate for awhile..this is the first time I have seen him withdraw this long..I have a therapist that will work for free with him but I do not know how to approach him..I tried the tough love on him, but it didn’t register..He is really numb..empty..there is no emotion in his eyes or face, and he shrinks from physical contact.He is having the nightmares constantly..

    • Is he on Facebook? Ask him to check out Gruntworks. Excellent support network, mostly American, but there are several Allied Vets with the group, too. God Bless you for sticking by him, when he really needs you.

    • I have recently realized (after yet another mental crisis) that some of the chemistry we grew addicted to can be regained by being intensely in love. My veterans and I have also found that finding something civilized to truly hate, mine is suffering, and focusing on wiping it out helps get over the rough spots.

  3. Thanks Regina.There are also those of us who served but never went to war, or were disqualified for some reason, We feel guilty that we didn’t go. The cycle never ends until we seek the help we need.
    MSG, USA (Ret)

    • There are very few actual female COMBAT VETERANS, just because you deployed as a supply clerk or mechanic or whatever soft skill MOS you are, does not mean you know what the Infantry and ground pounders go through. Get real.

      • Read #1 on the list. Trying to cope with the helplessness and shock of putting little boys back together is as bad as getting shot at or hit. The rush and the feelings are the same. Most guys did not get really traumatized until the guy beside them was hurt and they couldn’t fix it. The helplessness is the traumatic event

      • I was combat support. So let’s see, I don’t realize what you went through? Ask me where I would rather be, up front with the fire power or sitting ducks just behind it? In combat, what strategy do most generals employ in war. Cut off the supplies, communications, and support. I have the utmost respect for you brother, but we all put our ass’s online the line for this country! Something to ponder……..

  4. Amanda, please read the entire intro, she explained that very well, it was not meant to dismiss female warriors it was merely written for clarity’s sake.

  5. As a Vietnam Vet with 34 months of combat duty, I viewthis article as an insightful fountain of truth. However I think she missed the mark on point number 5. Many ‘warriors’ view war and their mission as a force to correct a situation, a defense of people unable to defend themselves and a tool to bring about productive change. One of the most common questions we ask is, “what did we accomplish?”
    We feel a dissatisfaction, even a shame when there is no preceivable change from our efforts and sacrifices. If we go to war we want to feel that it is for a reason worthy of the sacrifice and with a purpose that is more then just to ‘Kill the bad guys’. To many of us there are three things we want our effort to be; defensive, protective and productive. The ‘Rambos’ whose personal mission is to ‘wage war’, the ‘gungho warrior’ is frowned up on and more often than not considered dangerous.
    Armed conflict should be a part of, a component of a larger effort to accomplish a stated and known goal. Not a lone means to and end.

    • Bill, that is a very good point. I think a big problem with many of us coming back from Iraq/Afghanistan are having trouble knowing it was for something. I was not front line combat, but I was signal. I did help w/ evacs, explosions, and other problems because of my civilian cross-training as a medic.
      My guy was over there also. He was 1st Cav Active Duty Infantry. He saw more than I did, “did” more than I did, and had to take lives.
      The nightmares are still there and although he has gotten some help, it provided little relief. The worst is just hearing people say that “all you kids did was go over to steal some oil, and half of you died doing it”.
      Regardless of political views, people forget that soldiers are just men and women following orders, we don’t know the ultimate plan or goal, but we know what we’re told, and belittling our efforts or experiences because you don’t like the President/Congress is not fair or just.

  6. I myself am so glad I read this…I have 2 sons who are war vets..they don’t talk to me…they don’t want me to worry..but I see the change in them….especially my younger son..he did 3 tours in Iraq…in very difficult situations… he is not the son I had…and I have no clue how to help him…To me the VA is a joke!!!sorry…but they have NOT been there for him!!!I need a direction to go…to find out the help I can do for my son!!

    • The blank face the flat stair how do we dill with it. I am a vet from OIF 1 and also worked in a job that exposed me to death every day as a firefighter for 16 years retiring from the military after 26 yrs. I don’t know everything but until we get the hard stuff out of the way we get no were. Talk is good but PTSD doesn’t just go away it gets in those pleases in your brain that it don’t need to be like causing pain or a foot that just wont stop shaking. It can keep you from sleeping eating and even shaving but and there is always a but like ROE we now they have to be bent to achieve the solution we need or want. PTSD can be beaten you just got to be willing to kick that door down or take a peek around the corner were you heard the shot com from. I still to this daily struggle most people would laugh at me if they new i was 26 year veteran of the national guard. but I hope you remember that national guards and active service have died and fought hand and hand. So when there is someone out there looking for help or some one out there who needs help jump up and take the bull by the horn look at him or her and say wow you look like shit you must fill like it to. be ready to ask the hard questions like you fill like killing yourself today or what can i do to help you and be prepared to answer the hard questions like yes i would like to kill my self. This make take a wile but up front onisty and in your face is hard but will get results. Thank you all for reading pleas look up EMDR in your spare time it works and it docent evolve a group of people thank you SFC MCCOY

  7. Thank you gor the shared information, everyone should read. Thanks to ALL VETS for them I’m here able to read this while I hold my 2 yr old daughter in my arms, in my bed in my home, feeling SAFE.

  8. Female combat vet here. Your footnote is useless and as a woman you should be ashamed. Your gender normatives do nothing to discourage the cyclic and psychologically damaging stereotypes given to female combat veterans once they return home. To society and our fellow soldiers we are pariahs, exceptions to the rule. Wooks, POGS (even when injured in combat!), fobbits. Needed in war and overlooked when we return. So I’m here to say, the first thing your combat veteran wants you to know: Sometimes we are women and women can be heroes too. Don’t enable gender stereotypes perpetuated in this article! That’s all.

    • You are obviously quite the Hero. Get over yourself. She wrote this for simplicity sake. As an Infantryman for over 28 years having served during the Cold War, Desert Storm, Iraq, and Afghanistan, you are a POG and always will be a POG.

  9. This is important reading and Oh so true. It should be published nation wide and a copy given to every combat veteran so he/she would be able to explain more to his loved one and fellow workers and friends.

  10. I would like to start by saying you’re all amazing (men and women alike) for having changed your lives to protect others. I sincerely believe that all of you have made a tremendous sacrifice for the benefit of others and would just like to say that your selflessness is more than admirable 🙂
    I am going to marry the most amazing OIF combat wounded veteran around town. He is protective loving and hilarious, but I will admit, we have had some hiccups with #2. I am very independent, in graduate school, work as a bartender, and just want him to LIVE for me, not DIE for me.
    When these situations happen and he gets nervous over little things like my cell phone battery dying and not being able to get a hold of me, or he gets very angry at the thought of customers or bosses being disrespectful to me- it makes me feel like he thinks I’m not strong enough to fight my own battles and we used to argue. Then I realized, instead of arguing with him, I let him cool off. Change the subject and bring it back up later when both of us are more relaxed so that I can make a point to ask: “Why did that make you so mad/nervous/jealous/protective?”
    I have found that the best gifts I’ve been able to give him are
    1.Understanding and acceptance
    2.Asking questions that make him more self aware of his emotions
    3.Not taking myself or his reactions too seriously
    4.Encouraging him to become the “normal” person he already is
    I have nothing but love for him and all of you! I hope this is something you can relate to.

  11. I’m guessing most of you haven’t read Sebastian Junger’s book War, because it seems like most of this article has cut and pasted from it.

  12. Bill, great statement. I was part of a team that was covering the convoys out of Iraq in 2011. As I was flying those missions, I came to the realization that after all of our efforts, sacrifices, and death that Iraq is worse off now due to the power vacuum. This is a very painful fact that I carry. I volunteered to return to the Army in 2005 leaving a good job to serve my fellow Countrymen. And I can carry any load as long as my efforts are not in vain. That is my struggle. I hope this helps others cope and deal.

  13. Thank everyone for their comments. My husband is an English vet, back in the 70’s. He does not talk alot about it, but I see it in ways that he deals with things. It took him almost 5 years to hold my hand in public. Being married to a vet is never easy, but if you can hang in during the bad times it is always worth it.

  14. Being an Army dependent of a Korean war and Vietnam war father i was raised during the war and it was an everyday awareness for our family. I joined in 1976 just after the war and served during peace time for which I am glad. I do have the guilt complex for not having gone to war and the feeling that my service did not account for anything. My father was very good at explaining his tours and whether they were of any service to our country. He was a warrior and kept most of his feelings inside and strive to instill that you signed a contract to defend this country. Your swore an oath and it was our duty to follow orders. I can’t tell you that everything was ok for my dad but I can tell you he handled his PTSD with pride and a sense of self worth. How he did it was thinking of his family and his country. He ignored the stupidity of others for not understand war. He carried himself with dignity as he served 3 tours in Korea and 2 in Vietnam. It was his duty in the !st Infantry to take lives that tried to take his and his brothers. He defended right and wrong and held his head high. When I discussed how I felt about not getting to go to war he put it simply you took the Oath as I did you served as I did and you completed your tour of duty and for that we should all be proud. So everyone please read this and hold your heads up with pride and know you swore an oath you signed a contract to a brother and sisterhood from which you will carry for the rest of your life. You followed orders and fulfilled your duty to God and Country. We all slept together cried together, sweated together and bled together. for that you should feel no shame for the ones that did not come back with us are looking at your actions and you should be proud in everything you do in your life and have a sense of purpose for they sacrificed it all for your freedom to pursue HAPPINESS. GOD BLESS THE VETERANS OF THESE UNITED STATES

  15. PTSD is a real thing…I live with it every day. I ruined a wonderful relationship with a woman I was very much in love with. Now I am alone and forced to deal with things on my own. Waiting for my turn at the VA as well. Semper Fidelis.

  16. On the comment about “On Killing” by COL Grossman. I believe that every soldier, family member, and phsyciatrist should read this before and after a deployment. If you’re not a reader, look for COL Grossman’s audio “Bullet Proof Mind”.

  17. I think this shows more about the “psychiatrist” than the vet. So only males in the military experience war or have post-related issues. Thank you so much for perpetuating the negative stereotypes of female soldiers.

  18. Trying to understand, and always be there for him was destroying my soul, a little at a time. Stuck with it for 7 years through wars and post war… backed off when he was hurtful so as not to cause more annoyance for him; or worse– have him withdraw. When I did stick up for myself, I was told “it wasn’t about me.” Too much for me to bear watching his life unravel by his own hand and him resenting my support. Ultimately there is sympathy and understanding, but now there is no contact because caring too much was breaking me apart.

  19. as a female, I thank god that women weren’t part of the infantry where my husband served…or any infantry. but this article wasn’t about male/female post-service pity parties. this was strictly for family/friends around someone who served and who was impacted by what was seen/done. this was to address concerns that are shared but are otherwise hard for our soldiers to articulate. this was to help bridge a gap between the ones who fought, and the ones who were being fought for. so it’d be great if some of you ladies would find a better place to rant or somewhere else you can shove your soapbox. at the very least, actually read the article before commenting on how unfair life is.

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