As men and women return from military tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, they go through a significant adjustment as they rejoin civilian life. Part of that adjustment is figuring how to communicate their experience at war. This can be especially challenging for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who are trying to build new, romantic relationships.
Rob's six-pound Chihuahua Diablo is making his way sideways down a flight of stairs at Rob's uncle's house in Natrona Heights. Rob, who didn't want his last name used because, in his words, "it's a hard enough getting a date," takes care of his uncle during the week. Rob is single.
"I've got my dog, and that's kind of like my relationship basically. He'll always have that unconditional love for me," he explained.
Rob is 36 years old and an Iraq war veteran. He was discharged during his second tour in 2006 after sustaining a traumatic brain injury, but these days it's the post-traumatic stress disorder, more commonly refered to as PTSD, that has the greater impact. He was diagnosed in 2010.
"I was always having nightmares at night, and certain things trigger it: just, loud noises, or, I don't like people behind me a lot of the time, or stuff like that. I don't like malls with a lot of people in it. I hate it. I can't stand a lot of people around me, because there I was, able to carry a gun and get people the heck out of my way," said Rob.
But Rob views those residual effects as natural, and Dr. Wendy Troxel agrees. She works with veterans with PTSD at the University of Pittsburgh's Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. "Recalling the event, having nightmares, avoiding difficult feelings, hyper-vigilance, being kind of alert, all of these things are actually normal stress reactions in the acute phase. PTSD is when these symptom clusters persist over time and they interfere with one's functioning," Troxel said.
These symptoms can also stand in the way of initiating and sustaining deep, quality relationships. Rob seems ambivalent about finding a girlfriend. On the one hand he said he doesn't really care if he meets someone; on the other hand, he said, "I want to find somebody who's there for me and supports me, and I want to have that white picket fence and house. That's all I want to do."
Troxel said deeper relationships are crucial. According to the National Institute of Health, a growing body of research suggests that involving partners and close family members in treatment for PTSD is beneficial and can lead to improvements in symptoms.
"Having a stable relationship is one of the most protective factors for veterans in terms of diminishing so many negative impacts of the adjustment difficulties, including PTSD," she explained.
Ben Keen said when he began experiencing the signs that accompany PTSD, he tried to keep it to himself, both because he didn't understand what was happening to him, "and the other half of it was that I tucked it away because I didn't want people to find out, and I didn't want to be tagged as a crazy soldier, or people think that all of my accolades mean nothing now because I can't hack it."
These days Keen accepts that PTSD is a permanent part of his life. Keen, 31, runs a veterans outreach group called Steel City Vets. He served four tours in Iraq, and was diagnosed with PTSD in 2004. He's in the process of getting a divorce and says while he's got a strong grasp on how PTSD impacts his life and how to cope with it, he's not exactly sure how to go about broaching the topic in the singles scene.
"I'm not going to walk up to somebody — 'Hi, my name is Ben, I have post-traumatic stress syndrome, let me tell you all about it!'" he said. "You know, day one, 'Let's buy a beer!' No, it's not going to happen."
Beyond the manifestations of PTSD, it can be complicated for a veteran to talk about time in combat. Dr. Anne Germain works with vets at Western Psych and she said when they return home from the battlefield, they're still trying to digest the experience, "and a lot of people coming back have a period where they have to integrate what they've been through with the person they were before and with the person they are now and come up with a new sense of self."
And trying to translate the war experience to an outsider? It might seem like a better idea not to bring it up at all, but omitting major, life changing years isn't exactly good for a relationship.
"I think that one of the comments they will get is that they're not completely honest, so it's setting constraints right from the beginning," said Germain.
But Germain explained that there is another path, one where instead of disclosing specific, difficult memories, a veteran can share the emotional consequences that resulted from spending time at war, because it's the emotional response where veterans and non-veterans can find common ground.