Tour of Duty

Inside the mind of a vet

The Need to Return

Traumatized service members seek a return to combat for many reasons.

Many service members who have been traumatized in combat want to return there. Many family members or friends might ask why? Those close to the redeploying service member don’t understand and don’t feel they can connect with the person they knew before the first deployment. Their loved service member no longer seems reachable. There is only distance, sometimes irritability, and a “You just can’t understand.” Here are some possible motives that will help you understand your loved one’s desire to leave you again and return to combat.

Of course, to start with there is patriotism. They proved that already with the first deployment, being among the less than one percent of the American populations who has been involved in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Along the lines of patriotism, sometimes they might say that they still want to do their part… that they haven’t done enough. But there might be additional motives for the follow-up deployments. Even making sure they have done their part often disguises the pain that they are trying to alleviate with another deployment. Guilt (what if I haven’t done enough?) is one of many possible underlying emotions from which they might want to redeem themselves.

There are other possible motives that are important for loved ones to understand. Many of them are about connection and understanding. We all want to feel connected with others, feel understood, and understand what is happening around us. Combat veterans want to reconnect with their loved ones, but sometimes they cannot find a way. The world here, away from combat, does not make sense to the survivors of trauma anymore. They feel disconnected from the peaceful world here, and from people who are not so aware that death can come at any time. They might also feel that those who have not been to combat won’t understand what they have done or seen. So in their loneliness they soon start seeking out a return to a place where the world makes sense to them again. In combat, both the people around them understand them and the world of combat makes sense to them. They might also feel a very close connection with those with whom they previously deployed, and feel they cannot leave them. They want to be there if their unit is deploying again. It would be too painful to let their buddies risk their lives again in combat without them.

There might also be a restorative quality to returning to combat. It might ease the pain they feel here. They can no longer connect to loved ones. They might also feel useless here, no longer able to function in a slower, less intense, less dangerous environment. Returning to war, then, is a relief. As one of my patients once put it, he enjoyed being deployed because he does not have to be emotionally connected to anyone there. There is relief from the pressure to maintain relationships.

You might also hear professionals in my field talk about a “repetition compulsion” as the primary motivator for repeating traumatic experiences. This is an older idea that Sigmund Freud developed. Although Freud had many great ideas, this was not one of them. The basic idea is that we are driven towards self destruction; something Freud called the Death Instinct, or Thanatos. We are pulled to repeat traumas. This idea has never been substantiated, and was perhaps a product of Freud’s own traumatic experience of World War I. From my perspective, there is no repeating because the person never left the original trauma. He or she is still stuck there, and it is the only world that makes sense anymore. But it does relate to the experience of severely traumatized service members I have encountered who feel completely disconnected from the world and feel tremendous guilt or shame about their combat experiences. Many of them want to return to combat to die there.

Sometimes, both professionals in my field and some service members say traumatized service members return to combat in order to overcome or repair their sense of being previously traumatized. It is like the idea of getting back on a horse after it throws you off. That can sometimes be a motivation, but in my experience it rarely helps with unprocessed and severe, persistent trauma. It might be helpful to bring closure to return to a country after fighting has ended, such as when Vietnam veterans have returned to Vietnam years after the war ended. To return to an active combat zone with the same idea in mind has many of the other motives mixed in with it, the most likely among them being a desire to re-engage with a world that makes sense.

Russell Carr, M.D., is a naval psychiatrist who heads up adult outpatient psychiatry at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

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