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Trauma of combat makes words of appreciation hard for some veterans to accept

This Veterans Day, on Saturday, thanking a veteran for their service should be the last thing on your mind.

Many of our nation’s heroes do not know how to respond to this attention.

From every war, there are those who bravely fought to make it back to their friends and family, but they do not always return whole. Some have lost arms or legs, the cost of the dangerous work that is performed in order to protect our country.

But what many don’t realize is that many veterans return from serving overseas with some form of mental issue, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

A recent estimate from the Department of Veterans Affairs says that at least 20 percent of veterans returning from tours in Afghanistan and Iraq have experienced PTSD. This number continues to grow, as does the demand for PTSD treatment.

Those who live with PTSD suffer from myriad symptoms, including hyperarousal, changes in beliefs or feelings, nightmares and flashbacks of the traumatic events after a triggering incident. Triggering incidents can be anything – a car horn, the mention of their time overseas, or simply the act of thanking them for their service.

Brian Castner, a veteran of the Iraq War, says he "still doesn’t have a good answer when people say ‘thank you for your service.’

"Saying ‘you’re welcome’ doesn’t seem right," he says.

This act, done with good intention, can make some veterans uncomfortable and even trigger unwanted memories of their time overseas.

Part of the reason this can be uncomfortable for veterans, Castner says, is that people "don’t know what they’re thanking you for."

In news today, the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq are not discussed very often, and the public does not see images of these operations. As a result, many people do not realize exactly what they are thanking veterans for.

Many people do not understand the struggle service people and veterans face, both overseas and at home.

Overseas, our nation’s soldiers are required to commit acts of violence in order to survive. They see their friends die, or they are expected to kill, and when they finally return home from their service, the impact of their actions continues to affect them.

Castner says that some soldiers are "still struggling with what they did … they killed people they didn’t need to kill, they tried to save people and they failed."

These feelings of guilt are part of what is called "moral injury." The Department of Veterans Affairs describes a moral injury as an event that "transgresses deeply held moral beliefs and expectations." This includes any traumatizing event that has occurred within a tour of service.

Because of these moral injuries, veterans can be extremely uncomfortable when thanked.

They may believe that their service was morally wrong, and therefore undeserving of praise.

More and more veterans are suffering from moral injuries in many forms, sometimes through guilt or post-traumatic stress disorder. In the past five years, the number of veterans seeking mental aid has risen by 71 percent due to the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan operations.

It is now more important than ever to keep this in mind. The possibility of causing more trauma and forcing unwanted memories to resurface for veterans is a prevalent issue in today’s world.

Instead of verbally thanking a veteran for their service, thank them in a different way.

Many volunteer opportunities exist for the purpose of helping veterans. Volunteering at the Veterans Administration Hospital, or for a local organization such as Western New York Heroes is a good way to support our troops and vets. These organizations provide an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of those who faithfully served us.

Alternatively, if the discussion of service comes up with a veteran, a simple thank you should not be the end of that conversation. Instead, says Castner, it should be the beginning of a discussion, such as "Thank you for your service, what did you do? Where did you go?"

This Veterans Day, taking the time to make a difference through volunteer work may be the best way to thank a veteran.

Declan Rapp is a senior at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute.


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