For Jason Jones, returning from military service was like dropping into an alien world.
Once he was discharged, that structure disappeared.
“It was like I was out of touch with the culture. I was away, in another country, and I felt like life has gone on without me,” he said.
For soldiers such as Jones, the transition to civilian life can be jarring. Add to it the mental barrage that comes from combat situations, and many veterans find themselves struggling mentally and emotionally.
To best address the challenges facing military veterans, mental health providers are changing the way they reach out to former and current soldiers.
Through a specialized training program that focuses on the unique problems that soldiers face, chaplains, clergy and counselors hope to lessen the devastating depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome that many former military members face.
“Unless you work in veterans affairs, most therapists and counselors are not prepared for the issues that soldiers have faced in combat,” said Matthias Beier, a counselor and professor at Christian Theological Seminary. “As more people experience this, we need to address the issue.”
From his classroom, Beier helps train the next generation of chaplains and clergy members. He specializes in psychotherapy, how pastors, chaplains and others can help counsel people and their families through mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
But he’s noticed that for all of the lessons, few of the techniques deal specifically with military veterans.
The point was driven home after he joined the Indiana State Suicide Advisory Committee. He learned that a large proportion of suicides are committed by military veterans.
Statistics from the Department of Defense indicate that 18 veterans commit suicide every day. One out of every five suicide victims is a veteran.
Through research, Beier learned that soldiers and veterans deal with mental health issues that civilians never face.
They have witnessed intense violence under incredible stress on a daily basis.
Probably the best-known problem facing soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is post-traumatic stress disorder, said Dr. Steven Herman, lead psychologist at Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis.
Since operations in those countries started, more than 85,000 military members have been diagnosed with the disorder, according to the U.S. Office of the Surgeon General.
They have experienced a horrible trauma, from an enemy attack or the death of a fellow soldier, and then relive that tragedy repeatedly.
Flashbacks and nightmares are common, and victims can become irritable, suffer from poor sleep and concentration, and have panic attacks.
“The biggest problem we see is that people avoid dealing with their symptoms and the problem,” Herman said. “They repress it and end up delaying their treatment. Research has shown that the earlier you start, the more successful treatment can be.”
Lt. Col. Eric Ebb sees these issues every day. As chaplain at Camp Atterbury, he and his staff of chaplains are required to meet with every soldier coming through the post.
Ebb described a soldier he had recently worked with. The man had returned from Iraq after doing convoy security and was driving with his family.
Next to his car, a truck’s tire blew out. The explosion and loud noise caused him to flash back. He drove his car in the center line at close to 100 mph, screaming, “Status, status.”
“He realized, `I could have killed my family,”‘ Ebb said. “Everyone will have a trigger of some sort, from panicking in a thunderstorm, to being at a restaurant and stopping and looking for their weapon.”
Herman said that spirituality and post-traumatic stress disorder are mirror opposites. Spirituality is about finding structure and guidance in the universe, where the disorder forces people to believe that the world is in chaos.
“Clergy and mental health community can work together quite effectively then in treating post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said. “A spiritual component is a very efficient part of the treatment.”
Beier teamed up with Herman and Maj. Jim Staggers, deputy state chaplain for the U.S. Army, to address the problem. They developed a training program that will help clergy and mental health providers work together to treat soldiers more effectively.
The session helps explain causes of post-traumatic stress disorder and how to approach it, signals that a veteran may be struggling with anxiety or depression, and how clergy can work with families to help provide care.
Often, pastors, clergy members and counselors are the first people a soldier tries to talk to for help, Beier said. They need to know how to handle the specific situations and refer them to the proper help.
Returning soldiers often are anxious about where they will find work, how they’ll interact with their families again, and how they’ll pay the bills that they now have to worry about.
Some are facing divorce or problems reconnecting with their children.
People feel disconnected and isolated from what should normally be their support system — family, church and community, said Marsha Rockey, a psychologist for the behavioral health services at Camp Atterbury.
“Soldiers will tell us on a regular basis that sometimes being deployed is less stressful. It’s stressful from the combat aspect, but you don’t have to worry about paying bills, you don’t have to worry about what you’ll eat, any kind of transportation,” she said. “You go from that to being overloaded with multiple demands.”
Rockey works with the camp’s chaplain services to provide medical and spiritual care to soldiers.
One-on-one conversations help identify potential concerns that a soldier might have. Throughout the interviews, they try to identify indicators that a soldier may be struggling with a mental health problem.
If they experienced a death while on deployment, either a fellow soldier in combat or someone back home who died while they were gone, they might be sent to speak with a counselor.
Getting married suddenly before being deployed or going through a divorce also are red flags that the soldier may soon experience overwhelming emotional problems.
“When you come back home, you feel like you’ve been beamed back to a parallel universe,” Ebb said. “It’s the same home, the same people, the same environment, but it’s not the same, and it never will be the same.”
Jones served during peace-time from 1992 to 1995. From his experience, soldiers were more affected by issues of addiction and substance abuse than by post-traumatic stress disorder. Working in a German base, far from any fighting, most soldiers spent their free time drinking.
Separated from the structure of the military, those behaviors could devolve and spin out of control.
“It kind of felt like a free-for-all. Now I had all of this freedom to do what I wanted. It was quite an adjustment,” Jones said.
Jones was inspired by his experiences as a soldier to train as a counselor. A student of Beier’s and now an intern at the seminary’s counseling center, he is studying to focus on addiction, particularly among veterans.
He will be starting an internship at the Roudebush VA Medical Center to work in that area.
“I think I can reach them. I wasn’t in combat, so I can’t relate to the experience of that, but I’ve seen addiction. I can help,” he said.