October 1, 2008

Combat Veterans and Institutions: A Systems Analysis

Returning Combat Veterans (RCV), have a difficult time reintegrating back into society and life within their family. They deal with a myriad of symptoms combining to hinder the RCV from coping in the civilian world, while having constructive relationships with their family and friends. The lack of psychological education and training while in the military poorly prepares the soldier for the horrors of war and the negative effects on mental functioning. Further compounding the problems for the RCV upon their return they encounter limited services and a Veterans Administration (VA) system more in tune with economics and regulations then providing best outcomes. The scope of this paper explains these concerns as they relate to the competition between veterans seeking help and a system geared toward a macro structural functionalist model that concentrates on peripheral wide applications. A deeper apprehension and awareness has to come forward for our veterans to get the help they need.

The problem between bureaucracies, the combat veteran and their family receiving help lies with the systems application of dynamic systems theory to address problems that require a more interactive ideology such as the ecological systems approach. The main criticism of systems theory treats the person as a machine or something that can be “fixed” lies central to the VA’s approach (Robbins, S.P., Pranab, C., Canda, E. R., pps. 28-47). The models and programs stemming from government to redress RCV issues fail to take into account the magnitude of their problems that extend beyond the medical model and psychological paradigm. The attempt by the VA to apply a blanket policy of treatment on all veterans who face problems such as the affects of psychological trauma in combat has failed.

The military way of life provides strong attachments through a communal approach to every aspect of interactions between soldiers and their families, whether through a support network for the spouse of a soldier to help one another, or to the training of our troops. Developing and enveloping the individual perspectives while opening them to a cohesive togetherness usually not felt before enlisting in the armed services. Now add in a military conflagration and this level of interpersonal commitment and associations become welded to each other’s identity (Lee, 2008f). By educating the soldiers on how personal bonds can be broken by combat and the importance of redeveloping connections with significant others could lessen the mental shock upon returning home.

While many physical features of the RCV may have changed, the deleterious effects of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) leave nothing the same and completely alter the landscape of the mind. “Taking another's life in the name of freedom, patriotism and because of your job description profoundly changes the person.” (Lee, 2008a, para. 2) Their whole existence has been transformed by the experience of killing; the morality of war trumps the niceties of society and lends the RCV to a reflexive reactionary response to the environment. The enormous adaptive impositions caused by combat disposes of coping and social skills, personal values, cognitive development, definitions of boundaries, stress management, and appropriate responses to environmental stimuli. All of these issues combine to challenge the RCV’s reintegration back into society, “…the environment, which is physical and social…can either support or fail to support the adaptive achievements of autonomy, competence, identity formation, and relatedness to others” (Robbins, 35).

Value identifications have importance to the combat veteran with PTSD, as their value system has been compromised by the acts of killing and war. The values and morality of war greatly conflict with society’s norms and principles. When the combat veteran brings this survival perspective home with them it alienates them from everyone who has not experienced combat, war and or trauma. Combat changes and alters the soldier’s sense of importance and trivializes niceties that lubricate society’s interactions and exchanges. Without identifying what values the veteran or soldier deems important they will continue to operate from the old combat values set and wonder why people [fail to] understand them (Lee 2008c, para. 3).

Soldiers in combat develop a powerful attachment to one another; the strength of this symbiotic bonding overshadows all others, even family. First of all the degree of familiarity and closeness that extreme survival situations such as combat, brings people together to a height one has never experienced before. People have an instinctual need to feel a belonging such as in a herd where they feel safe. This “herdness” has supplanted all other attachments while people they once knew intimately have become foreign and strange. The family, friends and soldier feel this estrangement and all involved become unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Family and friends cannot understand what the RCV has been through, so the soldier or veteran seeks other survivors who do (Lee, 2008e).

The militaristic concentration on rituals of drilling and killing so that one becomes a more efficient “terminator” through automatic reflexive responses to survival, leads the veteran prone to using violent behavior in any given situation where boundaries have been crossed. The open system dynamics of “normal” interaction has become highly dysfunctional for the RCV who has lost their “goodness of fit” within their home environment. The breakdown of a unifying suprasystem interferes with the holistic dimensions of the veteran, increasing the separation and antagonizing the loss of identity that humans claim from associations within their communities. Without an understanding of boundary maintenance the RCV often develops a feeling of being attacked at home and in their community due to their inability to adapt to the fluidity of boundaries inherent with socialization.

Ehrenreich (2003) seeks to advance an understanding of “social traumas” where, …[i]n the context of physical devastation, massive social displacement, and ongoing violence, the hierarchy of need reasserts itself: concrete needs for, health care, housing, and jobs, the need for social reconstruction and reintegration, and the necessity of social reconciliation may dwarf individual emotional needs.

The identification and reinforcement of values, emotion identification, and anger management techniques along with stress management training would enable soldiers to realize better coping strategies when coming out of the combat zone. Further, interpersonal communication and social skills education along with boundaries identification would foster closer relationships with significant others (Lee, 2008d). Further on the topic of values and principles, these systems have a connection to feelings and emotions or the lack thereof with one who dissociates as most RCVs and complex-PTSD sufferers do. Emotions and feelings are the arbiters of values, principles, and morality; the ethical dilemmas that keep most people in check can get bypassed with a combat veteran’s lack of affect. A normal reaction with a non-traumatized brain would trigger an emotive response cascading into consideration of appropriate responses. The higher level processes of cognitive interaction delve into a consideration of choices and consequences, whereas the traumatized brain operates from the lower base of primitive survival systems and defensive mechanisms forgoing the thought of repercussions (Lee, 2008c).

The subsystem of a combat squad having experienced several fire fights develops a sense of oneness with each other; they have become an independent ecosystem; one organism through the forging process of fight or flight. Due to the nature of killing and survival their emotionality has become severed from their environment and channeled into the solidarity that soldiering brings. If one of them gets wounded or killed they all feel it through their connection of unity and common goal of survival (Lee 2008d). Bonding through blood and battle takes the soldier to a new level of raw humanism forged through survival and fight or flight defensive mechanisms. The psychology of killing alters the terrain of the mind disabling the rational machinery and enabling the ancient reflexive responsive unconscious (Lee, 2008f).

The focus on killing without contemplating consequences severs the RCVs ritual of connection to community, family, and wholeness resulting in deviant adaptations. Their formative connections have remained back in the field of combat and killing, where they left part of themselves with their buddies who have yet to come home while carrying the guilt of leaving them behind. They feel that egoistic “warrior archetype” connection with the military and the battle buddy who had their back in the combat zone. In this mind frame when the veteran comes home; they become lost in a world that no longer makes sense to them due to adaptive process of bypassing the five senses and emotional attachment to considerations of interactions. The hard wiring of the combat veterans mind acts as if their life depends on the ritualism of defensive hyper-vigilance and keeps the RCV stuck in a malposition (Lee, 2008b).

When combat takes away the soldier who has became the centerpiece of an intimate community it breaks down. Whether he has been buried or she has become a prisoner of her own mind; war fractures the body, mind, spirit and the community that once knew cohesion (Lee, 2008f). Some soldiers will long for that interconnectedness left in the field when they came home and reenlist or volunteer for another tour. Many soldiers find that their PTSD symptoms dissipate or vanish while back in the theater of combat, they have reentered the realm of survival, fight or flight and oneness with soldiering (Lee, 2008e).

The troops who do make it out of the theater of combat have been changed in body and mind. They have lost substantial parts of their mind, soul and community. Psychological trauma devastates the battle buddy, spouse, and children while splintering everything that once was the bedrock of the American Soldier (Lee, 2008f). In addition the military needs to teach mental health sensitivity training and PTSD awareness as a standard, in basic training and continuing throughout their careers thus giving mental injuries of war validity. Training in these areas would give our soldiers an extra set of tools and weapons in fighting the psychological effects of combat and war. Educating them before hand of what they may face upon going home would prepare them if they develop PTSD. Otherwise they will have gained the insights and ability to recognize when their fellow soldier suffers from PTSD (Lee, 2008d).


Ehrenreich, J. H., (2003). Understanding PTSD: forgetting trauma. Journal of Social Issues, 3 (1) 15-28.

Lee, S. (2008a, July 13). Forgive me. PTSD, a soldier’s perspective. Retrieved from http://ptsdasoldiersperspective.blogspot.com/2008/07/forgive-me.html

Lee, S (2008b, July 20). My first email response. PTSD, a soldier’s perspective. Retrieved from http://ptsdasoldiersperspective.blogspot.com/2008/07/my-first-e-mail-response.html

Lee, S. (2008c, August 22). Thoughts feelings and behavior. PTSD, a soldier’s perspective. Retrieved from http://ptsdasoldiersperspective.blogspot.com/2008/08/thoughts-eelings-and-actions.html

Lee, S. (2008d, September 5). Fully train our soldiers for the rigors of war. PTSD, a soldier’s perspective. Retrieved from http://ptsdasoldiersperspective.blogspot.com/2008/09/fully-train-our-soldiers-for-rigors-of.html

Lee, S. (2008e, September 6). Soldiers in combat develop powerful attachments to one another. PTSD, a soldier’s perspective. Retrieved from http://ptsdasoldiersperspective.blogspot.com/2008/09/soldiers-in-combat-develop-powerful.html

Lee, S. (2008f, September 14). Lower recruitment standards contributing to military suicide rates. PTSD, a soldier's perspective. Retrieved from http://ptsdasoldiersperspective.blogspot.com/2008/09/lower-recruitment-standards.html

Robbins, S. P., Pranab, C. and Canda, E. R. (2006). Contemporary human behavior theory: a critical perspective for social work. Boston: Pearson Education.

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