Trauma and Military Service: Understanding PTSD Among Veterans

According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, 7 out of 100 veterans will have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point in their lives. This number increases significantly for veterans who have been deployed: individuals who have seen active service are at least three times more likely to experience PTSD. [1] 

Unfortunately, until very recently, military PTSD has carried a fair amount of stigma that appears to be very closely tied to gender norms and social expectations of the past. Historically, communities and individuals have been encouraged to stay quiet on the topic of trauma among former military service members; the expression “soldiering on” doesn’t come from nowhere.

Understanding how PTSD affects those who have served in the United States Armed Forces is incredibly important to overcoming stigma and opening the conversation so that both serving soldiers and veterans can get the help they need. Friends and family of veterans also struggle when their loved one is dealing with PTSD, but without speaking about it, there is no way for loved ones to know how to help.

Research on PTSD and Veterans

PTSD is a mental health condition which occurs in those who have suffered trauma. It is often characterized by: 

  • Intrusive thoughts about traumatic experiences
  • Hypervigilance
  • Periods of seemingly unexplained paranoia
  • Negative alterations in cognition in mood
  • Irritability
  • Aggression
  • Flashbacks

These symptoms can make individuals more susceptible to reckless behavior, substance misuse and addiction, and isolation from their peers, loved ones, and communities. Studies suggest that these symptoms are directly linked to the dangers and pressures of combat; veterans exposed to combat had both higher rates of PTSD as well as higher levels of long-term pain and depressive symptoms.[1]

Another study emphasized that understanding PTSD among veterans differs from addressing PTSD among civilians, due to significant differences between these two communities. The social structures of military service are a large part of life in the armed forces, for instance. Group living, training, and the intense camaraderie of serving together are key features of existence for military members, and when a soldier is discharged from active service,  loss of these structures when re-entering civilian life can have a devastating effect on their mental well-being. Many find PTSD symptoms compounded by the sudden lack of such a close-knit and regimented community environment.[2]

How PTSD Affects Veterans

Military and civilian PTSD are both characterized by unwanted memories and flashbacks, sudden onsets of anxiety or panic, and feelings of irritability, aggression, or paranoia. However, there are a few specific symptoms that veterans are subject to:

  • Increased likelihood of chronic pain
  • Increased likelihood of obesity
  • Higher rates of depression and substance use disorder
  • More likelihood of suicide attempts
  • Impaired social functioning in day-to-day life
  • Difficulty adjusting to non-military occupational environments

Veterans may also struggle with the stigma associated with asking for help. Some studies report that only 9% of US Veterans who have sought disability support from the government do so based on struggling with PTSD.[4]

How to Support Veteran Loved Ones with PTSD

Knowing how best to support a loved one who is struggling with military PTSD can be challenging. The specific symptoms of PTSD associated with military service can cause individuals who are struggling to become very defensive or isolate themselves, which makes it harder to initiate a conversation and take the first steps towards seeking help. In addition, periods of paranoia or aggression can be confusing and distressing for loved ones who don’t understand what their loved one is thinking and feeling, as they may not be able to relate.

Guidance from the Department of Veterans Affairs suggests that the best way to help is to express your desire and be patient. Reaffirming that you love them and are there to support them is extremely important, as is planning for challenging conversations in advance so you can articulate how the situation is also affecting you. The reactionary nature of PTSD, especially in veterans, can make communication challenging at times, so agreeing to discuss things beforehand is crucial to success. 

While empathizing is helpful, you don’t need to understand everything they went through while serving. All you need to do is listen, comfort, and provide support through care and recommendations for other services—talk therapy or therapy groups, for example. 

PTSD can be a lifelong battle, especially for those who have undertaken military service. Understanding this complex disorder and the way it affects veterans is one of the best ways to unpack the stigma around this challenging topic and to ensure that former service members get the help and support they need and deserve.


[1] U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. PTSD: National Center for PTSD.

[2] Wisco et al. (2022) Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in the US Veteran Population: Results From the National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study. Journal of Clinical Psychology. Apr 26.

[3] Kintzle et al. (2018) PTSD in U.S. Veterans: The Role of Social Connectedness, Combat Experience and Discharge. Healthcare. Aug 22.

[4] Murdoch, et al. (2011) Long-term Outcomes of Disability Benefits in US Veterans with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Arch Gen Psychiatry.

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