What are the problems the demobilized ATO fighters have to face, what is PTSD and post-war syndrome, and how to help a soldier to survive after the war?
Confusion, apathy, irritability, aggression, not knowing how to move on – many fighters have to deal with it after returning from the ATO area. Even if the body was not injured during the war, the soul’s traumas and continuous anxiety do not leave without any trace. Both fighters and their families are suffering from this.
What is going on in the soul of a person who came back from the ATO? Why is it so difficult sometimes to leave the war behind and to return to peaceful life? How can the dear ones help with it, and who else can support fighters to re-integrate themselves into the world without war?
Throughout Ukraine, there are many volunteer organizations, unions of ATO veterans, associations of war comrades, where anyone, who experiences difficulties following their demobilization, can ask for help. On the website http://bezbroni.net/ one can find the addresses of all those organizations collected and sorted by regions of Ukraine and types of support.
The veterans and veteran associations work by the “equal to equal” principle, along with profile specialists (psychologists, psychotherapists); veterans are being helped by their comrades, the alike ATO vets who got demobilized earlier. They went through the difficulties of adaptation themselves, and now they are supporting the war comrades using their own experience and authority. Many of them received special training to be able to give professional psychologic aid when it is needed.
The veterans trust each other and understand each other like no one else. Because they went through the same war and same problems in peaceful living.
The war inside. Why has he changed?
At war, people really change. First, due to simple physiology. In a war zone, a soldier’s life is always in danger. He cannot change it, so the only way to survive is to develop new behavioral patterns. A fighter is always on the alert, he notices all changes outside and immediately reacts to every potential danger. This reaction is the price of his life and the lives of his comrades. This is why it invades psyche on the instinctive level.
Our guys come back from the war, but it stays within them in a form of constant stress. “War regime” in the head can be turned on by an ordinary situation.
A person walks by the open bathroom door and his brain signalizes: it is dangerous, an enemy can be there. He hears a loud noise – a door slaps, a firework blows up – this is bombardment, he has to fall down on the ground and find a shelter. These are unconscious signs. They work as instincts, before a person estimates situation.
Due to constant anxiety, an individual becomes irritated, he loses his temper even because of insignificant incidents. He screams, he becomes angry. Alcohol helps him to calm down, but it also increases stress.
The cases of disorientation can also occur, when a fighter suddenly wakes up and cannot realize where is he. One of our veterans told us that once he was sleeping, and thunder was rumbling outside, so he woke up totally convinced that he was at war and this was shelling. And that he was alone in a tent, and there was neither weapon nor equipment nearby. He gets panic-stricken.
Many of the demobilized ATO fighters suffer from insomnia – they can walk without sleep all night. And if they fall asleep, they get attacked by nightmares. This causes depression, exclusion, and increasing aggression.
Around 20% of demobilized fighters, apart from the problems of adaptation, are suffering from PTSD. This state of psyche can be diagnosed only by a psychiatrist and is hardly handled without professional aid.
What happens to veterans is neither egoism nor a disease. It is a normal reaction of psyche to traumatic conditions.
To return to normal life, it is not enough just to come home. One has to turn off the mechanisms that used to help him survive in the ATO area, and to turn on the tools necessary in normal life, instead. He has to remember that the dark bathroom door is just a dark bathroom door. And this is the work for a psychologist, a specialist in curing PTSD.
The second reason why people change is the shift in their priorities. In the ATO area, it happens very quickly. Money, prestige, showing-off is not important. Only significant values become imperative – loyalty, dedication, honesty. Everything is either white or black at war. There is an enemy, there is a friend. A friend will protect you, he will sacrifice his life, and you will do the same. It is unacceptable to lie, because this is the matter of life and death. Everything is totally clear there.
But when he comes back to normal life, he understands that nothing changed here. His comrades are fighting and dying there, while here someone is picking up girls, the other complaining he has nothing to wear for a party. It remains beyond comprehension for a fighter: why somewhere there exist only life and death while in the other place, people care about nonsense. And this discrepancy is a major irritating factor.
A wife is not a comrade. Why does a person lose contact with family?
At war, comrades are a fighter’s nearest ones. Wife does not possess a similar status anymore. He did not fight alongside her, neither he outed on missions with her; she was not engaged in protecting his life. Wife goes on with living a routine life: cooking, paying bills, taking a child home back from school. They go disconnected by a huge gap of experience and events.
Also, a family do not always know what exactly happened to a fighter. By trying to tell about their experience, military men often face misunderstanding: “Stop talking about war”, “There is no war here, forget it”, “Stop telling it, everything is too complicated in your mind”.
Yes, it is often very difficult to hear, the topics are always very hard. Still, healing can come only when a person starts to talk about the problem.
But it is not necessary to initiate such conversations. One has to start with neutral topics, for example “Please tell about some funny accidents”. Those funny stories can unravel what he bears in his soul. If a fighter starts talking about anything, it is very good.
It is possible that he will start talking much, he will get disturbed by his memories or horrible things he experienced, once again. Sure, not anyone is able to hear it. But to panic and go off is not an option, too. These topics need to be taken seriously. He will talk when he is ready.
Why he wants to go back to the army
It makes rather a typical reaction, and many ATO veterans are looking for an opportunity to come back to the army. Why is this happening? In the war zone, fighters always have an increased level of adrenaline. While at home, hormonal level suddenly decreases and an individual experiences emptiness, apathy. He wants to return to where he felt an emotional ascent. In fact, this is an adrenaline addiction.
There are special rehabilitation programs under the common title of “adrenaline therapy”. Veterans are being gathered together and sent to places where they can increase adrenaline level under control, for example, mountain climbing and so on.
Such adrenaline splashes can be arranged at home. Go camping – it doesn’t mean a picnic with kids, but a serious hiking for a few days. Look for extreme activities, such as fishing, quadrocycle driving, etc.
One more reason why they want to come back – veterans could not find sense in everyday life. At war, they were led by a powerful idea: to protect their homeland. They returned, and failed to find themselves, what led to disorientation. After the war they look at everything in a different way – working at office 9:00 to 18:00 is not an inspiration for them.
War “upgraded” them and made them stronger – they show an absolutely different level of skills, consciousness, and productivity. We usually attain these by attending trainings on personal growth and reading clever books – they got it rapidly. Such qualities make great potential for growth. But quite often the fighters do not realize where they can use these.
In centers for veterans, these fighters get engaged in civil activities. They are given a goal – for example, “let’s make a park for children”. Their energy, their desire to do something important are redirected into peaceful course. They are being told: ”You have been protecting our country there, now let’s reconstruct it right here, together”.
Military fraternity. Who supports fighters in their adaptation to peaceful living
Many fighters have to deal with lack of understanding of their state and support from the family. Having failed to find the right way of handling their feelings and speaking them out, they get confined in themselves not willing to contact with anyone, thus becoming apathetic.
But conversation is very important for them. Healing starts with talking about the problem, not ignoring it. It is essential to talk with those who is able to understand the kind of experience person had, and who does not devalue his feelings. In this regard, communicating with comrades is a priceless opportunity for adaptation.
In Israel, the percentage of people who were engaged into fighting, approaches 70%, but they demonstrate the lowest index of PTSD. They understand each other very well. In families, where a husband has returned from war, a wife almost certainly was already a soldier, too. And she just cannot say: “Are you sick? Why are you afraid of fireworks? Control yourself”.
In every city and town of Ukraine, there are centers for support of the ATO veterans. At these institutions, fighters meet their comrades, talk and help each other by the “equal to equal” principle. They get into the company of people who understand them.
We store these centers’ contact details at our website bezbroni.net. There are initiatives on various types of juridical, psychological, and medical assistance. Additionally, a fighter can obtain a new profession in case if he is not willing to go on with his old one.
How to help a fighter to come back to a normal condition? “Dos and don’ts” for his family
Accept the condition of your husband as inevitable. Once, he will be fine, but he needs time. Be patient and understanding.
Arrange your everyday life
To understand what is happening to your husband, analyze the way a fighter thinks at war. Try to avoid loud sounds, don’t shut the door loudly, especially at night. Don’t make harsh movements. Don’t approach him from behind – a fighter could consider it as an attack. It will be better to call him first, so he can turn back.
Don’t escalate the situation
Naturally, on returning from war military men experience problems. But being constantly told about aggression and alcoholism among military, about high percentage of divorces, they will unintentionally adjust themselves to stereotypical behavior, which the others expect from them.
Don’t regulate communication with his comrades
It is vital for fighters, especially in the first few months after coming back home. This is the environment where veterans feel understanding and can easily talk about their experience. It is the productive communication helpful in coming back to peaceful living and self-application in it.
Don’t devalue your husband’s experience
Back from war, a person needs to recover and reappear in a normal condition. Different people need different amount of time for this. So never say: “Oh, why to get so nervous?”, “Vasya fought as well, but he doesn’t have such effects”. You will hardly cheer him up by saying this, – instead, you will most likely hurt him and lose his trust. Every soldier has his own experience and his own mental reaction.
“To leave or not to leave”. What to do if divorce looks possible
When an ordinary family is in state of divorce, no one pays attention to it. In a family where a husband is back from the ATO area, public opinion often goes judging: she betrayed a war hero, he suffered too much, but she does not understand him and so on.
But in this case, the matter is not about a woman, but rather about others who like to interfere another person’s business, suggesting and judging. It is also about the media that form a stable image of an ATO veteran.
We have two extremes – we often see the ex-fighter as either a hero, a radiant and flawless one, or an inadequate alcoholic who throws grenades into a crowd, beats his wife, gets divorced, etc.
Our society doesn’t show proper understanding of what fighters feel and experience. It means, their families are not ready for what awaits them; similarly, they often prove ineffective in helping their loved ones.
If misunderstanding in a family is growing, it is time to put this as a question: “What is important for you – not to visit a psychologist, or to save our family? I want a family, so let’s try”. If one psychologist fails to help, then find another one, and keep trying.
But, anyway, it is unacceptable to tolerate aggression and violence. A woman should act in a way that is comfortable both for her and children.
How to convince your husband to go to a psychologist
No one teaches us how to handle stress. We are not used to visiting a psychologist, at this we often see alcohol as the only means of relief. But it only increases anxiety and aggression.
Of course, it is impossible to make a horse drink water, and the decision to meet a doctor has to be taken by a fighter himself, still many people think that consulting a psychologist or a psychotherapist is a kind of inappropriate weakness: “I am a man, I will deal with it by myself”.
Some are sure that meeting a psychologist automatically means mental instability. There were examples when fighters, despite there were centers of psychological support for military men’s families, did not allow their wives to look for assistance there, because “neighbors might mock them”.
If such is the case, comrades’ advice can help. Often, when men fought together, they communicate closely, so it is not difficult for a wife to find these. Explain the case: husband can’t sleep, he feels uncomfortable. Let his comrade explain him, using his influence, that this state will not disappear by itself, that consulting a doctor would be a good option, and it is not a problem at all.
If husband’s comrades are also prone to such biases, go straight to Center for support of the ATO veterans. Such organizations teach former fighters to work with comrades directly, helping them in handling the aftermaths of PTSD.
Many former fighters contact their colleagues who need support, and assist them in overcoming PTSD. We already have a few thousand specialists are ready to come and talk about the war and individual experience as equal to equal. This mode of work proves the most effective.
If a fighter is not willing to meet a therapist, he can attend courses on psychological self-aid. The coaches teach former soldiers how to use special breathing techniques; present the ways of treating insomnia and panic attacks, and teach how one can return to normal condition. On bezbroni.net we collect and classify similar initiatives, for our fighters and their families to have the place where they can find effective assistance.
Text by Anastasia Melnychenko, coordinator of The ATO Veterans’ Center for Social and Psychological Adaptation.
Photos are illustrative and taken from open sources.