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Emotional Triggers of a Military Mindset: Supporting U.S. Military Members and Veterans

As a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, the recent killing of thirteen military members in Afghanistan, eleven of them Marines, has left me grieving the loss of my fellow brothers and sisters; experiencing the pangs of not just their deaths but the end of a twenty-year war that cost the lives of so many American men and women with a calling to serve. The time I spent in the Marine Corps began and concluded under the veil of this war. So, what now? This tragic event, coupled with what many may feel is the premature evacuation of Afghanistan has countless U.S. Armed Service members and veterans around the world asking themselves that very same question, all while experiencing emotional and mental health triggers associated with deployment, combat, and combat conditions including death and bereavement.

In addition to grief, the living in a culture steeped of uncertainty that requires a constant maintenance of combat readiness and a willingness to lay down one’s life comes another price. As studies report, military members and veterans have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and PTSD than the civilian population (Schult et al., 2019)( Tanielian et al., 2017). Moreover, transitioning from military life to civilian life often exacerbates these disorders. Upon military discharge, servicemembers feel thrust into environments where people do not need a heightened state of alertness to get through the day-to-day. Many veterans feel as though they are in yet another foreign world; remaining primed for the other shoe to drop. To some, the civilian world might not look like it, but there are triggers all around in the form of touch, sight, smell, sound, and physical movement; and veterans and military members experience them often.

Currently, the United States has close to 3 million active duty and reserve military members combined (U.S. Department of Defense, 2018). Couple that with 19 million of my fellow veterans, as reported by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (2021), there is a good chance that someone you know has or is currently serving our country. So, what can you do to help support those who have sacrificed so much? First, take note of any changes that might have occurred in their behavior. Are they isolating themselves, avoiding once loved or enjoyed interests or hobbies, have they become easily startled or agitated? They could be experiencing nightmares or flashbacks, so look for signs of sleep disturbances such as coming in late for work, falling asleep throughout the day, excessive yawning, or irritability.

Next, acknowledge and validate what it is they are experiencing now, and what they have experienced in the past. Actively and empathically listen to what they have to say. For many, like myself, their time in service may come with a complex range of feelings, thoughts, and emotion. Some may experience shame, embarrassment, anger, resentment, or even disappointment, as not every Soldier, Marine, Airman, or Sailor will have had the same military experience. Still, whatever the case, allow them the opportunity to feel heard and accepted. While you may never truly know what it is like to live in a combat focused environment, many have experienced the hyperarousal that comes with watching a scary movie, walking through a haunted house, or sitting atop the peak of a roller coaster just before it descends. Just imagine that sensation without end.

Lastly, in supporting your military member or veteran it is also important to remain self-aware. Self-awareness allows you to know your own strengths and weaknesses, which means knowing when your help alone is not enough and accepting that it is all right. If you do find yourself struggling to help your friend or loved one, encourage them to seek support elsewhere in the form of group therapy with other military members and veterans with similar experiences and feelings, or individual therapy. You can also help them connect with military and veteran focused services, or organizations. Remember, for those who have served, our service to our country is a large part of who we are and how we view and react to the world around us, but with your love, patience, and support, the triggers many veterans and military members experience can become less distressing.

Semper Fi

** If you or someone you know is an active-duty military member or veteran who is experiencing a crisis, please contact the numbers below for support. Please know, you are not alone.

Military/Veteran Crisis Line: Call 1-800-273-8255 (& Press 1) or Text 838255

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: Call 1-800-273-8255 or TTY 1-800-799-4889

Other Helpful Resources:


Schult, T. M., Schmunk, S. K., Marzolf, J. R., & Mohr, D. C. (2019). The health status of veteran employees compared to civilian employees in veterans health administration. Military Medicine, 184(7-8), e218-e224.

Tanielian, T., Batka, C., & Meredith, L. S. (2017). The changing landscape for veterans' mental health care. RAND Corporation.

U.S. Department of Defense. (2018). 2018 Demographics Profile of the Military Community. Military OneSource.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2021). National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics.

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