What might veterans experience as a result of terroristic acts?

Veterans, like other individuals, respond to traumatic situations in a variety of ways. Veterans are responding to the recent terroristic disaster in a manner similar to all Americans. They feel concern, anger, fear, and helplessness, which are all normal responses to an abnormal event. However, research indicates that people who have previously survived traumatic events may be particularly sensitive to the effects of later traumatic events such as terroristic acts and war. In general these events can cause a range of symptoms from general distress to an increase in PTSD symptoms, irritability, anger, alcohol and substance use, sensitivity to military stimuli, sleep disturbance, and avoidant/phobic reactions. Some individuals might anticipate and prepare for the worst possible future circumstances so they are not retraumatized by a subsequent shock. Studies of a recent American terroristic situation and of a recent military situation have provided information about some of the effects such events have on veterans.

Following the Oklahoma City bombing, some veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and some of those in the war during the Vietnam era reacted by experiencing the following more than they had before the bombing:

  • More frequent military and homecoming memories
  • Depressed mood
  • General distress
  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder symptoms
  • Veterans with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder may be particularly susceptible to reactivation or a worsening of their PTSD symptoms if reexposed to military situations.

During the Gulf War:

Vietnam veterans followed media coverage of the Gulf War closely and reported that the coverage brought back thoughts and feelings of Vietnam.

The reactivation or worsening of PTSD symptoms experienced by some veterans may have been related to similarities in the traumatic experiences (e.g., planes were a major part of both events). Situations that have high emotional or symbolic value, such as veteran gatherings or American symbols, also can reactivate or worsen PTSD symptoms.

How can veterans take care of themselves when current events cause distress?

Below is a list of potentially helpful strategies that veterans with or without PTSD can use to help them cope during periods of disaster.

For Yourself

  • Consider limiting your exposure to television coverage. While watching television coverage of terroristic or military action may be compelling, increased viewing can raise stress levels. Monitor yourself for signs of anger, rage, depression, anxiety, etc., and take a time-out from the coverage to allow yourself to recover from these feelings.
  • As much as possible, keep up with daily schedules and routines. Try to incorporate positive activities into your day, even for brief periods of time.
  • Keep up with your physical needs relating to exercise, food, and sleep.
  • Feel what you feel. It is normal to feel a range of emotions. Having these feelings is to be expected; how you deal with them is most important.
  • Slow down and give yourself time and space to deal with what has happened.
  • Remember that people have their own pace for dealing with traumatic incidents, and it is important to listen to and honor your own pace.
  • Count on feeling angry, but temper your actions with wisdom. Try to stay calm and avoid reacting with impulsive anger toward any group or persons. Consider the long-term consequences of these actions for the overall benefit of the country.
  • Talk with someone close to you who might understand what you are going through.

Studies suggest that if you do not feel like talking, writing in a journal may be helpful for dealing with intense feelings.

While it may feel more natural to avoid other veterans as a way to avoid reminders of military involvement, studies show that seeking support along with other veterans can be very helpful when stress is increasing. This can be done through the VA, Vet Centers, and veteran’s service organizations.

Seek assistance from your medical doctor or a mental-health professional who is skilled in working with survivors of trauma if:

  • You are experiencing any symptoms that are causing significant distress, causing significant changes in relationships, or impairing functioning at work
  • You are self-medicating with alcohol or drugs
  • You are unable to find relief using the strategies listed above

For further information and online sources of support, see fact sheets for Veterans, Seeking Help for PTSD, or Self-Care following disasters.

For Children in Your Life

Honestly and openly answer any questions that children in your life may have. Safety is of primary concern for them. Reassure them that adults are working hard to make society safe.

During this traumatic time, kids will be looking to adults to help them understand and cope with their feelings. Be a positive role model for them by showing them how you are able to handle this national crisis.

For further information and online sources of support, see fact sheets on Relationships, Family, and Terrorist Attacks and Children.

For Your Community

  • Support your neighbors, friends, family members, and fellow veterans.
  • Talk to others whom you trust. Talking can help you process painful feelings.
  • Expect that you may have fantasies of revenge. Try to transform these feelings by contributing to support efforts in a positive way (e.g., donate blood, give money to the Red Cross, volunteer, donate to a food bank). Encourage others to do the same.
  • Avoid blaming people whom you may associate with a particular religious or ethnic group. Rather than decreasing distress, depression, and other PTSD symptoms, increasing anger toward and blame of others has been shown to increase veterans’ debilitating symptoms.
  • Try to join together, demonstrate patience, and help other Americans in this time of hardship.

Candice Monson, Ph.D.

National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)