The Things They Carry: Veterans' Top Challenges

An overview of the issues faced by returning service members from a journalist and educator.

What do veterans bring home when they return from war? Mementos, photos, maybe some foreign language skills as well as new perspectives on cultures, habits and politics. Some have become faster learners, are more disciplined and work better as team players. Many vets are resilient and do well.But many feel like they don’t fit in. They don't trust outsiders because they’ve never smelled war, they don't know the things that kept service members alive. Veterans struggle to overcome alienation and the loss of the close-knit bond they shared with their military unit; they feel different, separated and isolated.

Veterans also return with permanent physical disabilities; post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, suicidal thoughts or other mental health issues; and alcoholism and/or drug addiction. Some service members, especially women, may have suffered a sexual assault within the military.

In all cases, war has changed their lives forever.

Challenges in the home

Re-establishing family roles. The partner/parent who stayed home has taken on all or most household burdens in the serive member’s absence. When the service member returns, he or she will be trying to re-assert control as the partner relinquishes it.

Unnoticed homecomings. Families of military reservists, as opposed to those on active duty, don’t live in a community of military families on a base. They might feel a lack of support from their neighbors, as if they are the only ones fighting this war — not the whole nation.

Changed behavior. That can include driving habits, irritability levels, alcohol use and amounts of self-medication.

Children’s issues. Deployments can take a toll on children academically, socially and emotionally. The returning parent needs time to get to know their children again, as the kids likely have grown and changed in their absence; some are even afraid of the veteran. With two parents now home, children need to decide whom to turn to for permission or advice. The kids also start worrying about the next deployment; older children often worry about the relationship between their parents.

Homelessness.  Homelessness can be due to factors including unemployment, family strife or psychological problems.

Challenges beyond the home

Unemployment. Some veterans, having joined right out of high school, lack college degrees and marketable non-military job skills. Some employers may discriminate based on the stereotype of the angry veteran with PTSD.

Education. Veterans who want to return to (or start) college may be unsure how to navigate applications and financial aid forms; they may worry about affording school or adapting to a campus environment, especially if they are older than traditional freshmen.

Lack of family support. Some joined the military for this very reason and find nothing has changed now that they’ve come home.

Health care. Navigating the bureaucratic V.A. can be a frustrating exercise filled with red tape as veterans seek to get the benefits and treatment they need for physical and mental issues.

Moving from simplicity to complexity. In war, the mission was clear and straightforward and the chow hall was the only place to eat. The plethora of career paths and daily decisions upon returning home can be overwhelming.

Replacing the adrenaline rush of war with another high. More adventure, or learn to accept life as it is?

Moving beyond war. Veterans re-evaluate the meaning and purpose in life, and try to make peace with themselves, God and others.