How to Watch for Signs of Trauma in a Combat Veteran

How to Watch for Signs of Trauma in a Combat Veteran

Stress and emotional changes are normal following a traumatic event, such as being in or around combat situations. However, combat veterans are commonly diagnosed with PTSD after being in combat and seeing the aftermath of what combat does to an area and its people. It is important for friends and family members of combat veterans to watch for the signs of PTSD as they can appear even years later.

Emotional distress is common following combat but when symptoms last for more than three months and cause severe distress that interferes with everyday life than it may be indicating the presence of PTSD. There are four main clusters of PTSD symptoms that can present themselves in various ways. Reliving or re-experiencing the event in the minds-eye is the first set of PTSD symptoms. These symptoms consist of having vivid memories of the traumatic event where the person can feel the same fear or emotional distress that he felt when he was actually in the midst of the experience. The person may have consistent and recurring nightmares of the traumatic experience that causes him great emotional pain throughout the night. He may have a sudden flashback of the event during the day that can almost incapacitate him. Daily triggers such as seeing something, hearing something, smelling something, news reports of similar situations, seeing an accident, or hearing loud noises may cause a flashback.

Avoiding situations that remind the person of his traumatic experience is the second set of PTSD symptoms that combat veterans may display. The person may avoid people, places or things that remind him in any way of his traumatic experience. The veteran may even avoid talking about or thinking about his time in combat when asked by friends or family members. Being in large crowds may be too uncomfortable for people with PTSD symptoms because they feel that they cannot control the situation and fear it may be too dangerous. Operating a vehicle may be avoided especially if the traumatic experience is related to a convoy accident such as a road side bomb. Watching certain movies may be avoided if they depict real life war and combat situations. Combat veterans may also try and stay excessively busy at all times in order to avoid thinking or talking about their time in the military.

The third set of PTSD symptoms include negative changes in the beliefs and feelings of the individual. The person may have changed in how he views himself and others because of his traumatic experience. Certain relationships that were strong before the combat experience may have changed and now be different post-combat. The veteran may no longer care for or have feelings for certain friends, family members or even intimate relationships. Certain aspects of the combat experience may be completely blacked out where the veteran cannot recall the events even if he tried. PTSD may cause individuals to develop a sense of fear and mistrust for anyone and everyone causing them to isolate themselves from others.

The fourth set of PTSD symptoms consist of always being alert and aware, which is referred to as hyperarousal. The person will display symptoms of constantly being on the lookout for danger as if he is always expecting it. He may become suddenly angry or irritable and seem overly jittery at all times. This condition displays itself through the veteran being unable to sleep on a regular basis and consistent difficulty concentrating on certain tasks for the necessary amount of time. Loud noises or surprises may cause the veteran to be overly startled. When out in public the combat veteran struggling with potential PTSD will likely want to feel in control or aware of his surroundings causing him to always have his back to a wall.1

PTSD may cause combat veterans to experience panic attacks, uncontrollable shaking, withdrawal from friends and family, angry outbursts, and reckless behavior. When PTSD symptoms are present it is essential for friends and family members to encourage and help the combat veteran to receive professional help. Going to therapy along with seeking out help from the VA will help combat veterans to learn how to deal with their PTSD and reach recovery. The combat veteran can also do things on his own that will help contribute to his recovery. Getting exercise and spending lots of time engaging in fun activities outdoors can help him better balance his emotions. Going out and spending time with people may seem uncomfortable at first but engaging with others will ultimately help in overcoming PTSD symptoms. As triggers will likely occur throughout the day it is important to find something comforting, such as a family photo, to carry that can help with relaxing during a trigger.2 Professional treatment will ultimately be what allows the combat veteran to start experiencing the best results on his road to overcoming PTSD.

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1 U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, “Symptoms of PTSD,”,, (Last updated August 13, 2015).

2 Melinda Smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson, and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., “PTSD in Military Veterans,”,, (Last updated January 2016).