Last week, I offered my take on the top two sources of stress in our lives today – “wealth”, or our lingering financial downturn, and “health”, the toll that downturn is taking on our physical and emotional well-being.  Today, I want to add what I see as the third major source of stress, and I’m going to call it “stealth”.

Why “stealth”?  Because too few of us recognize it exists, or, when encountering it, prefer not to acknowledge it.  So what am I talking about?

I’m talking about, possibly, your neighbor or your neighbor’s son or daughter.  I’m talking about your classmate, your co-worker, the person you used to see at Starbuck’s, the movie theater, or church.  The one who’s been away for several months now.  The one who’s coming home sometime soon.  In uniform.

I’m talking about our country’s servicemen and women, and veterans.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been going on now for almost a decade.  Hundreds of thousands of Americans have served in some of the most physically and psychologically intense battlefields in our history, served repeatedly over multiple deployments, and none of them will come out of their stressful combat experiences without deep and lasting personal changes.  Those changes will be both positive and negative.

Along with the combat stress our returning service members and veterans have endured, they’re experiencing health and financial stress in disproportionately greater numbers than our general population.  Technological advances in personal and vehicle armor have increased the ability of service members to survive attacks both in battle and from improvised explosive devices.  The downside to this is that more veterans come home with significant wounds and physical health limitations that will follow them the rest of their lives.  Whether it’s the challenge of losing an arm or leg (or both), loss of sight or hearing, or loss of mental clarity and memory from repeated concussions, the stress from physical health restrictions is and will continue to be a very real part of many lives.

Studies of post-traumatic stress (PTS) rates in returning veterans vary, but I’d estimate maybe half will suffer some kind of emotional and psychological stress as a result of their service.  Symptoms can run from mild – sleep disturbances, short tempers – to extreme – drug and alcohol addiction, paranoia, and suicide attempts and completions.

Financial stress for veterans runs extremely high, as well.  Statistics show that the unemployment rate for former servicemen and women is well over 20%, more than double the rates for the rest of the country.  Individuals who have prided themselves on their abilities and contributions to society are finding themselves without purpose or value in our stagnated job market.

I’ve also seen a kind of spiritual stress in the returning veterans I’ve treated: a crippling self-loathing because of the acts they committed in country, some necessary and some beyond the stipulated rules of engagement.  Men and women, who left the States with a strong set of ethics for their thoughts and behavior, return having violated their innate personal code.  Along with the bullets and IEDs, they find their personal honor and worth have exploded as well.  In some ways, I feel that this loss is the most tragic.

About that word, “stealth”.  I believe that the combat stress of returning American service members and veterans, and their families, can be characterized as stealth because of my own experience and because of a recent survey by Pew Research.  In an article in USA Today, “Veterans Proud but Struggling in Civilian Life”, reporter Gregg Zoroya summarizes some of the survey results from about 1800 veterans and about 2000 members of the public.  One question throws an extremely disturbing light on the different ways the public and service members see the sacrifices our military has made on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Only about half of the general public surveyed believed that American troops and their families made more sacrifices than all other citizens, post-9/11.  Only about half.  Eighty-four percent of service members, however, say that “the public has no idea of the problems incurred as a result of wars demanding multiple deployments”.

I’ve seen this myself, even in my own, much-loved hometown.  There seems to be some kind of irrational disconnect between the community and our veterans who are coming back devastated from the wars, having faced atrocities we can’t even begin to imagine.  There doesn’t seem to be real recognition by enough of us that we’ve been at war, and there’s a lot of good people – service members, their extended families, and neighbors – who are truly traumatized and suffering.  I’m a veteran of the Vietnam War era, and still I’ve never seen such a complete disconnect between the community and our military and the wars that are being fought.  This hits very close to home for me; it almost breaks my heart.

The Pew Research survey included many other significant findings, some encouraging and some disturbing.  I’ll return to share more of those results, and more of my perspective, next week.