After 20 years, our troops are being brought home from Afghanistan. For many veterans, the war doesn’t end just because they’re back.

Soldier hangs up her fatigues, literally and figuratively as she reintegrates post the war in AfghanistanShare on Pinterest
Gary John Norman/Getty Images

The chapter on America’s longest war is ending. Following President Joe Biden’s announcement to end military operations in Afghanistan by August 31, 2021, the troops are finally coming home for good from this 20-year conflict.

The United States has cause to celebrate our returning combat veterans. This historic moment concludes a war effort that deployed more than 2.8 million service members, 2,400 of whom never returned home.

But, many veterans will still grapple with the mental impact of the war after their boots are back on U.S. soil. The throttling shift from the extraordinary stressors of combat to the typical pace of home life, coupled with trauma exposure, can put combat veterans at risk for several mental health conditions.

Yes, a giant homecoming is in order for our military members during this unparalleled time. More importantly, once that celebration ends and reintegration continues, we can look out for those who have served our nation by supporting their mental health and folding them back into society.

War leaves a complicated imprint on the brain. Some of those lasting impacts are positive, like the ironclad bond formed with other service members.

Other mental conditions develop as a response to the intense adrenaline and raw stress experienced over a prolonged period in a combat zone.

Once at home and out of harm’s way, you may still be processing these potent memories and experiences, which may put you more at risk for:

Dr. Ruth Varkovitzky is a clinical psychologist who spent nearly a decade working with veterans at Veterans Affairs (VA). When considering the broad impact of war on the psyche, she emphasizes that each combat experience is unique and every military member is an individual.

“There are many factors that can contribute to developing mental health conditions, including the baseline mental health a veteran had prior to deployment, the type of role a veteran had during deployment, the length of the deployment, and the level of life threat experienced by the veteran during their service,” she says.

Even though most haven’t fought in a war zone, help is available at varying levels. Early treatment of any war-related mental condition creates the best opportunity for recovery.

And for all civilians, particularly those who work in industries critical to veteran reintegration, such as landlords and hiring managers, it’s inappropriate to assume that a veteran has PTSD or stigmatize anyone with a combat-related mental health condition.

A number of veterans do not experience such difficulties on return, in truth.

The first day

There are usually plenty of expectations from both the service member and the receiving family and friends about what reunification looks like.

It’s totally fine to lean into the joy of this moment, but don’t be too hard on yourself if things don’t go as planned.

If the reconnection feels a little awkward, that’s OK too. Everyone has gone through an enormous transformation, and it may take some time to rebuild intimacy.

The first week

The adrenaline of returning home to your family has likely subsided. Now, the reality of day-to-day life starts to set in — and the routine is likely different than the way you left it.

If you’re married, your spouse has been carrying the household while you’ve been away. Ideally, you’ll create a new flow of life, together, rather than feel like a stranger who’s learning to do things your spouse’s way.

Reintegration into your home is a vital first step in successfully settling into mainstream society.

The first month

You’ve had some time to rest and reacquaint yourself with family life. Just when you’re feeling comfortable, the first month may bring some uncomfortable realizations. You can be aware of the following symptoms:

  • relentless nightmares
  • uncharacteristic temperament
  • intrusive thoughts

For up to 75% of veterans, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms are persistent for at least several weeks after the traumatic event.

If left untreated, symptoms often last years or decades, so if you notice symptoms during your first month home, you can reach out to your base readiness center or the VA for resources.

The first year

You’ve maneuvered through many adjustments and hopefully reestablished your intimate connection with those who love you the most.

Your war experiences are not something to be swept under the rug; they should be acknowledged and accepted as part of your life.

This is also a perfect opportunity to connect with veterans groups. At the very least, commiserating and relating to others with a similar experience can help compartmentalize.

Just the other week, you may have been concerned about RPGs and IEDs. Now that you’re back at home, the major crises involve much less life-threatening situations, like rush-hour traffic and forgetting to get the formula from the store for a crying baby.

Toddlers are now outspoken children, and your career may have gone from retail job to military specialist, back to a storefront and nametag. Finding your place and feeling free to navigate your future may feel more foreign than the country you just returned from.

“In the military, we’re tasked with significant responsibility and every part of our lives is strictly regimented, but when veterans return home, all of that structure and support changes to accommodate civilian life,” says retired U.S. Marine Corps. Col. Michael Hudson, who served for 30 years and completed more than a handful of combat deployments as a helicopter pilot.

Your way of living is starkly contrasted to what you’ve grown used to while deployed. The language, culture, and values you’ve adapted to in the military can (rather abruptly sometimes) no longer apply or be appropriate to your civilian community, causing an understandable culture shock.

“For service members [trying] to reintegrate, I would suggest leaning on your support systems, whether that’s family, friends, fellow military buddies, the VA, or another group or organization,” Hudson says.

Warrior Care and Transition Units (WTUs) and programs exist within the branches. There are also tandem community-based affiliates (CBWTUs). In 2019 the Army updated its program to be more comprehensive and forward-reaching. It’s now recognized as the Army Recovery Care Program. These programs offer medical support for rehabilitation but also lend a hand for reintegration.

It’s OK to give yourself time to transition into a new routine. If you’re finding the reintegration process overwhelming, speaking up about your challenges may be the best way to cope with the adjustment.

If you have the slightest inkling that you may want to speak with a professional about your reintegration process, it can only help your adaptability through this transitionary time.

However, there are warning signs that could indicate a larger mental health condition that should be addressed. These include:

  • ongoing nightmares
  • emotional outbursts
  • withdrawing or isolating
  • memory lapses or blackouts
  • noticeable shifts in personality
  • unrelenting irritability
  • apathy

If you’re grappling with finding your sense of purpose and sense of self after a deployment, you’re not alone.

A recent health screener completed by veterans of the “Forever War” found 23% of veterans had symptoms of PTSD, 16% reported symptoms of major depression, and 13% showed general psychological distress.

Sometimes the veteran isn’t the first to notice that something seems off or uncharacteristic about their behavior. Family and close friends may be the best allies to guide veterans to supportive mental health spaces.

As the veteran’s support person, it may feel awkward to shine a light on any disconcerting behavior or emotional responses. According to Hudson, connecting with your veteran is paramount, but it doesn’t have to be complicated.

“Start with something as simple as grabbing a Coke,” he says. “Taking that first step to begin the conversation gives a loved one the space and security to talk freely, instead of feeling too pressured or intimidated to bring up their personal [challenges] unsolicited.”

Worth noting

Only use the advice above if the vet you’re close to has opened up about symptoms they’re experiencing.

Unsolicited inquiries can violate their personal boundaries and have the opposite effect on your intention to help.

If they have, you might want to check out our tips on how to talk (and listen) to someone about their mental health condition.

When the veteran you love looks lost, even though they’re home, pull them in closer to the family or group, rather than shy away from the topic. Remember, they’ve just separated from a military culture that gave them purpose and identity. Restoring the connection to the home community could ease some of the reintegration challenges.

“These are difficult conversations to have with the ones we love and the answers may be hard to hear, but experts at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) are available 24-7 to help family members through the steps of providing help for their returning service member,” Hudson recommends.

“Starting the conversation could quite literally mean the difference between life and death,” Hudson says.

Veterans are always advised to reach out for support when they need it. But, as the larger civilian community, successful veteran reintegration is part of our mission too.

“For us as civilians, some of the best ways we can be supportive of returning veterans is to be nonjudgmental and respectful,” Varkovitzky says. “It’s important for us to be patient and recognize that our loved ones are moving through challenging chapters of their life, and this doesn’t always happen quickly or the way that we wish it would.”

Feeling comfortable at home can’t happen if a veteran is isolated. A 2018 study published in Healthcare (Basel) found that new social connections for returning veterans indicated a protective measure against PTSD. In other words, fold your veterans into your community, keep an open invitation extended toward them, and embrace their unique skill set and experiences.

“We as a society need to do a better job of removing the responsibility for asking for help from veterans and being more proactive in our approach. We know that 41% of veterans have a mental health need upon their return, so we need to have resources available and reach out to them, instead of expecting them to reach out and ask for help.”

Tips for friends and family upon reintegration

  • Don’t overbook the vet you’re close to that first week, month, or season.
  • Keep the homecoming celebration mellow and budgeted; you’ll have to monitor spending moving forward, and more people at a party right away isn’t always best for someone coming back to civilian life.
  • Be communicative over presumptive in expressing your wants and needs.
  • Avoid condescension, but assume that your partner has other things on their mind too.
  • Discuss redistributing in-home responsibilities if you’ve been a single parent during deployment(s). Mental load is best shared when possible.
  • Family therapy is a helpful, proactive tool to anticipate challenges and make space for each child and partner’s mental health needs.

With less than 0.5% of the U.S. population having served in the active-duty military, you may feel like few people can understand the mental toll that warfare can take on a person.

While it’s true that most won’t have that direct experience, there are still resources to support you through any difficulties you may be facing after returning home.

Speaking with a professional or joining a group can help you forge a path through and process any mental health challenges you may be experiencing, so you can ultimately settle into the flow of life at home.

Consider these resources to start your search:

Heartily and healthily welcoming our veterans home

Thanking our veterans for their service when we see them in public is a nice courtesy. But it’s our duty to help them reintegrate as best we possibly can by reaching out, hiring, including, and listening.

Reintegration is a dynamic, psychosocial process that requires a shift in the veteran’s inner perceptions as well as acceptance from the surrounding community. Successful reintegration has the best outcome when we all work together toward veteran support.

Combat veterans showed the strength of character and bravery to serve our country in battle. Making home a safe place for them to land is the least we can do in return.

“Veterans are some of the nation’s best,” Hudson says. “They are leaders, they have a strong moral compass, they seek to build teams and business. Yes, they may [be challenged] in some cases, like the rest of us, but they are amazing Americans.”