A difficult transition from war to home for returning veterans

Tom Bennett has worked at the Island Counseling Center (ICC) at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services for 40 years. ICC offers readjustment counseling for returning war veterans through focused individual and group services.

Mr. Bennett, ICC’s associate executive director and senior clinical advisor, started the veterans’ support group in 1984.

A veteran himself, Mr. Bennett signed up for four years in the U.S. Air Force in 1965 and received basic training for the Medical Corps. He was assigned to the Andrews Air Force Base hospital, where he worked with soldiers injured in Vietnam. Mr. Bennett also served as an independent duty medic in Turkey.

The veterans’ support group he runs meets weekly to discuss the challenges of reintegrating into civilian life after their experiences in war. The Times recently asked Mr. Bennett to describe the struggles some veterans face when they return home from war in Iraq or Afghanistan:

“In general, there is a whole new set of norms when you come out of a combat zone,” Mr. Bennett said. “It’s ‘normal’ so to speak, in a combat zone to distrust, to keep yourself from feeling anything, and making sure that you don’t trust anybody, and to always be in a state of hyper-alertness.

“That doesn’t just change when you come back. The guys try to adjust to a new normal, where there is safety, security, family members who love them, and friends. Asking them to switch over is very difficult for them.

“Guys who come back from combat have had to numb themselves from their feelings and detach from their values that they grew up with. Over there, everyone is a threat — that’s one of the hardest things when they come home.

“You see guys who have lost their sense of purpose. They don’t have a mission anymore. They have to readjust to normal life back in the community, yet they are hyper-alert. They get very anxious around crowds, because where they’ve been, any crowd is a threat and anyone in that crowd may be out to harm them.

“In driving situations, they get very panicky and anxious in traffic, because over there they have IED’s [improvised explosive devices]that blow up vehicles, so they aren’t supposed to stop and are supposed to drive very fast everywhere. It’s hard for them to adjust, especially when they encounter heavy traffic and have to sit surrounded by traffic.

“They have to start to allow themselves to feel again, allow their emotions to come out, and try to start to be close to people again.

“That takes time, and whenever there’s any kind of a trigger, such as a loud noise, traffic, shouts from a crowd or someone on the street, that sets them off, and it takes them back to that hyper-alert state, numbing their emotions.

“That can wreak havoc in relationships, because if anything triggers that response, they can go from A to Z, from being okay, everything’s fine, all the way up to being hyper-alert and aggressive, possibly, if they feel a threat. They may even get angry and explosive sometimes, because that’s how you react in a combat situation to keep yourself alert and safe.

“One thing that really helps with the group I run is that the guys that come to see me, the guys that have been in combat, all can relate to each other and understand each other. They help each other adjust to civilian life.

“A lot of these experiences and horrific things they see get locked in their minds and stay with them for a lifetime. It causes a lot of pain and suffering for anybody that goes through this.

“They’ve seen the worst that people can be, and usually not a lot of people, other than other vets, can relate to this.

“They deserve everything we can do for them, because they’ve done everything they can for us,” Mr. Bennett concluded.

For more information and group times, contact Mr. Bennett at 508-693-7900, ext. 211.