Photo courtesy Chris Creasy.
Divorce, unemployment, substance abuse and suicide are the most common problems associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, the most common mental ailments of war.
Even for those who don’t come home with such injuries, the transition back into civilian life is rarely easy.
“It’s a little bit different,” said former Army Captain Chris Creasy of Raleigh, with more than a little irony in his voice. Creasy graduated from NC State University in 2006 and in 2009 was Executive Officer of the 664 Ordinance Company tasked with ammunition distribution in Iraq.
“It’s easy to miss the Army,” Creasy said. “The Army provided. It told you where to be. It told you when to be there. The Army told you everything.”
Captain Chris Creasy poses with some members of his unit. Photo courtesy Chris Creasy.
The military tries to smooth the transition for vets by providing a host of services–counseling, help finding jobs, career classes, health care, and money to go to school. With the enormous increase in active duty suicides over the past decade, the military has even introduced mandatory screening for PTSD and brain injury, at the urging of groups such as Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Still, as IAVA notes, follow-up appointments are not currently mandated for all service members who screen positive for possible combat stress injuries.
“I drank a little at first,” said Chris Ruder, another NC State graduate and Army Captain, who is still active in the National Guard.
Ruder, who has been deployed twice and served during the initial push to clear Baghdad of insurgents, said that his drinking calmed down after the first couple months back home but that some servicemen are never able to make a full transition back into civilian life.
“After the first time I came home I was still working at Bragg,” said Ruder. “There were a lot of other guys in the same situation as me who I could talk to. That was helpful. Me and a couple buddies who were also platoon leaders did everything together.”
According to a 2010 Defense Department report (PDF), more than 1,100 active service men and women committed suicide between 2005 and 2009. Divorced service members had the second highest rate of suicide, just less than members with a GED, according to the report.
“A lot of guys overseas are experiencing troubles back home,” said Creasy. As an officer in a foreign war, “You become a parental figure for a lot of these kids. Some of them aren’t making enough money to support their families back home or they’re going through a divorce and they’re having a really hard time.”
Captain Chris Creasy, right, riding on a helicopter. Photo courtesy Chris Creasy.
Ruder said, “It was much harder for me the second time. The first time I deployed it was just me and my wife and we’d been married for ten years. The second time we’d just had a daughter.”
“The main difference is that nobody is shooting at you anymore”
Transitioning back and forth between a combat environment, with its high levels of stress and reward, and a civilian environment is also very difficult, said Creasy.
“You have a lot more responsibility and it can be very rewarding,” he said of being in Iraq. “You know that if you don’t play your part, somewhere down the line the operation will fail. Some people thrive because of that environment and some crack and crumble.”
Creasy knows a Marine who he said has been deployed three times and diagnosed with a brain injury. “He seems lost,” said Creasy. “He’s lost a lot of his friends back home and he’s in the process of getting discharged. He can’t flip the switch.”
Captain Chris Creasy in Iraq. Photo courtesy Chris Creasy.
Being able to change that mindset when you’re back home and when you’re overseas is crucial, explained Creasy. “A lot of it’s maturity level. I didn’t get deployed til I was 30 years old and a lot of people get sent over when they’re 18. Sometimes they don’t know how to cut the switch off.”
One difference is that “over there you have more control,” says Ruder. “You give an order and people follow it. But it doesn’t work like that when you’re back home with your wife and kids.”
Since coming home Ruder sometimes “just want[s] to be left alone,” he said. “Little things can annoy you. You lose your temper. People around you want to know what happened over there and you don’t want to talk about it or sometimes you want to talk about it, but you feel like they won’t understand.”
Ruder thinks that five or ten years ago the military stigma against getting psychological treatment was much more of a reality. “With the things people have seen and done over there, people don’t hold it against them anymore. If I thought somebody needed [treatment], I would tell them to go for it.”
One source of transitional assistance for service members and their families is the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program, which Ruder participated in. Much of the course revolves around explaining to veterans the various emotions that can be experienced upon returning home and, if necessary, the resources and doctors that are available to them, Ruder said. Still, it doesn’t ensure that everyone will seek treatment.
A 2009 article by Paul Rieckhoff, Executive Officer of the IAVA, noted, “Almost 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are suffering from mental health injuries like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and less than half are receiving the help they need.
“I was lucky,” said Creasy. “A recruitment company called O’Ryan found me.” O’Ryan headhunts former military officers for civilian companies and offered Creasy a job heading up a distribution center, work similar to his former post in Iraq.
Ruder is still looking for work. “I play hockey,” he said. “I do some refereeing for hockey. I go to the gym. That’s about all I do.”
Ruder has requested to go back on active service. The reason, he said: “I have eight and a half years active service. You only need 12 to retire.”
When asked if he would do it again, Creasy said, “Absolutely.” He has no doubts about his growth from the experience. “You mature. Things that used to be important to me- going out, motorcycles, jet skis, trying to be cool, don’t really matter anymore. Now it’s my family and close friends that are important.”
If the ability to adapt socially can be linked to education, then perhaps so can veterans’ ability to handle the transition of coming back home from war, where, Ruder explained, “The main difference is that nobody is shooting at you anymore.”