Military Moral Injury Psychology Sociology

Military Betrayal, Civilian Isolation

Many people think PTSD is the root of all mental health problems among veterans. This oversimplification is often reinforced by behaviors considered abnormal. One veteran I spoke with claimed to have stopped a dangerous driver, thrown him out of the car, and “gave him a life lesson.” Most people would accuse the veteran of needing anger management classes or therapy to control his PTSD, but if you’re a veteran, you might be able to empathize with his reaction. 

Many veterans experience anger, cynicism, or a heightened concern for justice during or after their service. These are not necessarily reactions to trauma or the result of PTSD, rather, they are the result of characteristics instilled in the military, but are no-longer adaptive in a civilian context.

A fellow Canadian colleague, Dr. John Whelan, has recently explored this particular issue in his book, Ghost in the Ranks: Forgotten Voices & Military Mental Health Both a veteran and a clinical psychologist, he is a rare blend of both worlds. His work challenges the dominant psychological paradigm concerning PTSD among service-members and first-responders. The following sections highlight the major insights in his book.

Transition issues are a cultural problem.

Rather than focusing on ‘fixing the brains’ of individual veterans, we need to recognize the social/relational causes of distress experienced during the transition to civilian life. This requires understanding the military-civilian cultural gap. A highly collective military culture instills a strong sense of social identity among its members. Dr. Whelan writes:

I understand the legacy of military identity—all we had was each other, and once the identity change from civilian to military member is complete, it is often the only place where we can truly ever fit again. It can be a profound and fundamental shift in character and outlook that few people can ever understand unless they have experienced it.

Dr. Whelan describes coming out of this environment in the following way:

The experience is like thawing out after experiencing frostbite. Sure, coming inside to the warmth feels great, but it is also incredibly painful as blood circulation returns to the damaged area.

Another distinct aspect of military culture that makes it difficult to transition includes black-and-white thinking and the need to compartmentalize ones emotions in order to maintain operational effectiveness. These characteristics are learned in the military, but are easily seen as mental health issues in civilian life. Dr. Whelan gives the following example:

…take the issue of depression, a longstanding concern for the military. This so-called disease is characterized by behaviours like black-and-white thinking, perfectionistic standards and mental rigidity, an over-developed sense of responsibility and self-blame, a generally negative focus, emotional avoidance, and intolerance for ambiguity. What is notable about this is that it describes routine life within military culture almost perfectly. Therefore, it is probably not by accident that the rates of depression within the military are estimated to be twice the rates for civilians.

Traits that keep service-members alive in combat are not functional in civilian life, potentially causing veterans to emotionally disengage from family and loved ones. Dr. Whelan draws a connection between this learned trait and alcohol/substance use:

…we learn to switch off emotionally. This emotional vacuum may also explain the value of alcohol and other substances among military personnel—it quiets the vigilant thinking brain, allowing people to move to a more emotional version of themselves, at least temporarily.

Veterans are highly trained upon entry into the military, but are let go with minimal retraining upon entering back into civilian life. As a result, veterans may experience a profound culture shock upon entering back into an individualistic civilian context, in addition to being left with highly developed compartmentalization skills, causing them to feel detached from civilians, emotionally isolated from loved ones, and perhaps frustrated by a diagnosis that does not fully explain their experience.

Injured veterans may feel betrayed by the military.

The military is an institutional contradiction. Embodying characteristics of both a traditional family and a modern bureaucracy, it idealizes loyalty and brotherhood while also functioning within an impersonal system of operationally effective rules and regulations. Dr. Whelan describes the experience of injured  veterans in the following words:

Many of these men and women have come to see themselves as a consumable resource… if they recover, they can be accepted back into the family. If they do not recover, however, they are replaced and, more often than not, they are forgotten by the larger family, which has to move on… Within the notions of brotherhood and family, injured people expect to be drawn closer, but within a bureaucratic system they are often distanced and processed.

From my own research, many veterans emphasized this point. Often times, the injury itself was not as difficult as the experience of separation from ones communal unit and subsequently dealing with an impersonal bureaucracy. As Dr. Whelan states:

A mental health diagnosis turns soldiers into individuals once again, and in the military there is no room for individuals.

Veterans feel betrayed and isolated upon witnessing corruption. 

Having invested so much in the group, service-members experience a heightened sense of betrayal upon witnessing an act of corruption. This ‘institutional betrayal’ is one aspect of moral injury, a concept I highlighted in the past three articles. Dr. Whelan describes this phenomenon in the following words:

From basic training onward, soldiers are steeped in high-minded codes of conduct, discipline, ethical imperatives, and a view of the military as an organization larger than life. The reality is often very different, however, for many people. The same organization can be coldly logical and arbitrary. Rules can be bent to benefit people who are liked, and these same rules can be used strategically to root out suspected problems.

He describes the story of a woman who was sexually harassed by a senior officer. Upon reporting the incident to her Regimental Sargent Major, she was told, “Are you out of your mind bringing this to me? Don’t you get it? Hell, I could rape you right here in my office right now and nobody would do a god-dammed thing about it.” She was considered a ‘problem’ for the officers involved, and when eventually going to the Chief of Defense Staff, she was considered a ‘problem’ for the image of the institution. She was offered a secret deal to drop her grievance and there was no talk of consequences for those involved.

Corruption or organizational image-management can lead to a profound sense of institutional betrayal. Dr. Whelan emphasizes this point:

The real threat to the health of the institution is cynicism—when members stop believing. Cynicism tells members that it is a charade, that nobody really cares, and that they are essentially on their own. It fuels reactions of betrayal and perceptions of neglect. Its tentacles reach across the institution; it is in the ranks, and it festers quietly like an unseen cancer.

Upon being injured or upon witnessing corruption, service-members may experience a profound sense of betrayal, leaving them isolated. This sense of isolation is then amplified upon transition to a civilian context where their highly developed compartmentalization skills further isolate them from loved ones and other civilians. This is the dangerous compounded effect of military betrayal and civilian isolation.

We need to rethink treatment and prevention. 

Dr. Whelan emphasizes the need to think beyond preexisting diagnostic categories:

…a PTSD diagnosis can miss the particular struggle for veterans—some people believe they have lost parts of themselves that they want to have back while others have taken on things from the military that they need to unload.

Drawing on therapeutic experience, he describes recovery in the following words:

An example of what veterans tell me: “I am trapped behind the mask, but I am something entirely different inside. I am alone, cut-off, and just tired of having to be ready for anything.” When men and women can find a place, often with their peers—the people who matter—they can learn to trust again and to lower their guards, and the real miracle I often get to witness is that they start to come back to life.

As many veterans have told him, “they have to learn how to regain some of their humanity.”

When veterans are no-longer able to serve due to injury or institutional betrayal, we can not simply expect them to adjust to civilian life by undergoing civilian treatments based on civilian diagnoses. We need to look at military culture and its impact on social/relational issues that may lead to a sense of isolation and despair. Dr. Whelan concludes with the following insight:

Military veterans and other first responders who struggle with mental health concerns could be telling us about a fundamental emptiness of an everyday life they no longer want to be a part of.

If you are interested in reading the full book, you can find it here.

If you would like to get in touch with Dr. Whelan, his contact info is here.


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51 comments

  1. Steve, this is the first article of yours I’ve read, and surely not the last. My husband is a veteran and I have veterans in my classes (I teach at a college), and your article gives me new insight. I also found the comment someone made about being a child of a military veteran to be very interesting. I have done reading on adult children of alcoholics, and the comment made me think of the influences of parents–parents who have been in extreme circumstances.

  2. Thank you for this thought provoking insight. I can truly relate to this theory. I was made redundant after trying to stop my request to take voluntary redundancy from the uk military after 16 years of regular service. There was no realassistance on leaving as your expected to know what you want to do with the next chapter of your life.
    I joined up as a boy soldier aged 16 institutionalized and completely lost for the next 4 years. Tried to stay in the brotherhood through the reserves. Retraining for a role in civilian life. Moved to another part of the country reconnected with the reserves through my new role. Great unit and really what i needed.
    Then migrated on the request of my significant other to the other side of the world.
    Tried the army here for another 5 years here and left again for the wrong reasons. Now a police officer and feel really isolated from it all.
    Can’t seem to connect with the world distrust those in authority through poor experiences on the way. Get frustrated at the stupidity of people and systems.
    So thank you I may not have ptsd from all the bad stuff.

  3. As an active duty vet and still in the reserve, I truly relate to this. During my transition phase, I was jobless and my wife was working at our new location prior to me finding work. I found myself out of sorts. We went out with her new found friends and did a few things and I found that I was completely out of place. I couldn’t relate to anyone I was around. I felt secluded and alone in my life. Sure, my wife was there. She was with me when I enlisted, but when it came to other people, something didn’t seem right. I felt out of place. I thank God that I was able to obtain a position where I started working with Vets and for Vets. Being in the Medical field for my whole career and now in the civilian sector, I get the chance to relate with my patients and my coworkers. I’ve been able to find a niche in life that I wish others could find. I find that this has truly helped me out a lot. If there is any advice that I could offer to my brothers and sisters, its that if you want to ease your transition, maybe working with those that have similar lives could help. It has form me. It’s not a complete fix for things, but I believe that it’s a start. I was really starting to head down a bad path mentally before I got into my current position.

  4. I am ex-military…but never went to war.I have been out for 17 years…so why do I relate so well to this article?

    1. i am a nurse and spent 20 yrs in mental health. i know u can help most anyone if u devote your time, caring and love to these boys that come home from war. also others who lived thru something horrific. these people need caring for and so truly deserve it. anyone who has ever had ptsd knows this is a fact. ptsd can be caused by a car wreck, molestation, a traumatic medical mistake, going thru loving and losing a child after being with them thru a horrible illness. all of these things can wreck families and cost lives for those who do not get help. empathy and compassion for others is so necessary in today’s world. please haelp if you can or seek help if needed. i am 76 and no longer practice, but i miss it so much. thanks to all of our vets in military and police forces

  5. Mate I think u have hit the nail on the head, but is anyone listening to u, I bloody hope they r ,
    cos if they r then there is still some hope out there for some of us X solders that have never really left

  6. Mate I think u have hit the nail on the head, but is anyone listening to u, I bloody hoe they cos if they r then there is still some hope out there for some of us X solders that have never really left

  7. Do many people suffering from PTSD for whatever reason then go on to be given a Personality Disirder diagnosis? This happens frequently in Britain if Mental Health Services have been working with. PTSD sufferer and “they do not respond within a given time” 2 years at one point. As a Psychologist this seems unprofessional, potentially dangerous and totally inappropriate. People with Personality Disorders can be extremely challenging to work with but you do get positive results if the person is willing to engage. However, in Britain when you receive a diagnosis of Personality Disorder Mental Health Services can find many ways of disengagement. I find this hugely worrying and can initiate suicidal ideation. I would be most grateful for your thoughts on this.

  8. Thank you very much for sharing. After I got back I felt like I didn’t have a purpose any more. But I found it by volunteering at my church going to missionary trips. I’ve been to New Orleans to help build houses with Habitat for Humanity and Nicaragua also. Getting involve with my church is helping a lot. Civilians still don’t get me. I focus in helping other.

    1. Good for you BM. I am very sorry that we, as a nation, do not treat our soldier better. We love them while they are fighting for us, and abandon them when they return to civilian life.

  9. You obviously know your stuff, and thank you so much for all you do to help today’s Vets. We should not forget their sacrifices and their suffering upon coming home, like we do here in the States. Guess it’s probably the same everywhere.

  10. Steve this is a very good take on the challenges facing our veterans today. Many people believe that the issues causing mental health problems in our nations veterans all happened overseas where in a lot of cases they have exactly what you talk about, transition struggles. This is without a doubt something more people need to be aware of, the military teaches a lifestyle that many regular people will never understand.
    Well done.

  11. Extremely insightful. I agree – military to civilian transition is something you need to experience on your own in order to fully comprehend it. More research needs to go into how to improve the “re-entry” process for military members, focusing on both the psychological and sociological aspect of it.

  12. I’m a 22 year Veteran, yes transitioning to civilian life has its interesting points. You’re right the idea of let’s charge forward and make it happen is not always the case in the civilian world, but if I’m being honest, I’ve had to drag some forward with me in the military too. But that’s the reality though, the how is different if that makes sense. How will we operate? How will we promote buy in? Of course this really depends on the discourse you align yourself with upon separating from the military.

  13. Thanks Steve. Since I returned from Iraq, I have connected with many of the loved ones left behind. With many of the Reserves serving here in the US, we have an added burden of never being fully engaged with the active duty we served with in the battles. I am working as a psychotherapist at a psychiatric hospital both inpatient and outpatient. They don’t usually know that I am a minister, and many are veterans. For some of them, to get healed means to let go of the disability and be forced to get a job… or to not have the permission to treat those they love badly without taking responsibility. I was 45 when I was over there, so I had the more mature use of my neo-cortex (at least I hope I did), but many were trained by the military to obey all orders. The moral development doesn’t even show up until they are long out of the military. What do you think. Peace, Ron

  14. Steve, I have another generalization thought/comment to share. From my experiences, it’s possible to broaden this idea out to children of veterans, or military personal. Depending upon circumstances, I’m sure, but as a child of an ex-military Father. My brother’s and I were held up to a similar mentality listed above, and quoted as follows; “This so-called disease is characterized by behaviours like black-and-white thinking, perfectionistic standards and mental rigidity, an over-developed sense of responsibility and self-blame, a generally negative focus, emotional avoidance, and intolerance for ambiguity.”

    Personally, I don’t really know what to make of my childhood sometimes, but I was caught with a mental diagnosis when I hit college. All because I began to realize that such attributes isn’t quite “normal”, or “civilian”. I didn’t quite have a concept of “Self”, until I realized that, and had to breakdown the “conditioning” because of my own ensuring period of resulting isolation. Except I didn’t have a group to support me (like soldier solidarity), so I had to fall upon myself to an extent. I never realized that I could/should just “fit in” with whatever culture…kinda like the comment Gobtcha left. This is partly why I’m following your blog now.

    1. The Errantalchemist1563: Your comment speaks to something very important when it comes to the children of military members. In fact, it is only recently in Canada that this is becoming a topic for serious consideration even though teachers and guidance counselors have been concerned for many years. As you and others know very well, postings mean continually leaving friends behind to follow parents to new bases and dealing with the separations and anxieties of their deployments. Children learn to be very self-reliant and often learn to just suck it up and keep going just like their parents learn to do. Often (and not always for sure), there is not much room for emotional vulnerability – talking about things like sadness or anger, loss of friends, missing a parent for extended periods, not having much in common with civilian schoolmates who may have known each other forever. As is often said, it is not only the parent who serves or deploys – the entire family does and the entire family is affected both positively and negatively.

      1. I think you made a slight assumption about my father being active duty (he was discharged prior to family life/fatherhood), but he retained the mindset where he seemingly expected/demanded said things. Probably because it made him feel somewhat secure (that or family pride). I don’t really know his motivations.

        Personally, I get lost thinking/ruminating as to why people take on certain characteristics sometimes. Maybe epigenetics & whatnot leading to influences upon following generations. I mean there is a fairly decent military tradition in my family, but I don’t know how deep. My uncle (Dad’s brother) was in Germany when the Wall came down, and when he was stationed over there he did some genealogical research on the Family name/bloodline. I don’t know how far back he went, for the records were lost (80’s computer). Although I have heard that there was a Prussian General in the lineage. This was prior to immigration to the U.S. I may be a 4th -5th (maybe 6th) generation American. I also think a great uncle served in the first Great War as a Chaplin (same parental side).

        And that’s just my Dad’s side, coupled with my Mom’s family’s tradition….(their last name is essentially a derivation from German for militia). All coupled with fairly devout Catholicism on both sides (until fairly recently).

        I should say I appreciate the discipline now later in life, but as a child I didn’t. As you implied, self-reliance became a strong trait (amongst others).

  15. Steve, some researchers believe that a great way to help those returning from war, and other trauma situations, is to reduce the time where they can consider themselves as victims, and be re-introduced into society–finding a job and getting on with their lives. Perhaps that way, their focus is directed outward, rather than inward.

    In the linked article from the NY Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/18/opinion/when-women-fight-isis.html?ref=international, the Female Kurdish Battalions recommend that Yazidi women, who have been raped and sold into sees slavery, not be “bought back”, treated as victims, but be saved, and be allowed to take control of their own recovery.

  16. Though I have been out many years – it hurts to not be back in – in a world I always felt more comfortable in. Now as a civilian look for brothers and sisters to be with more as they truly understand me. Don’t get me wrong, I have friends who read up on things and support while partially understanding but you have had to be there in “that family”. But I do admit I have met a few civilians who also have PTSD and have a better understanding than most.

  17. For such a young fellow, your grasp of our dilema is profound…too bad you can’t get the ear of Vet Affairs and educate them!!!

  18. Steve, I hesitate to being redundant. In a comment to another one of your posts, I had suggested the book “Tribe”, by Sebastian Junger. I picked it up at the Library today and I am in the process of devouring it. It discusses Trauma and PTSD among returning soldiers, as well as comparing people who: lived through the Blitz in London and Dresden during WWII; coal miners in a catastrophe, first responders, etc.

    I particularly found his studies of soldiers in Israel, who had gone through some of their major wars, and cited potential clinical suggestions why their evidence of mental disorders was rather minimal.

    Now, this might be ancient history to you; however, I would highly recommend it.

  19. As I read through this article, it was as if my own story was being told, without the specifics of my experiences. I am currently battling, trying to keep my head up as I transition out of the military culture. Very interesting read.

  20. Interesting, and not just veterans. I suffer PTSD for other reasons, although on a smaller basis, but nightmares in the day, feeling very scared at times, being overly sensitive to most stimuli now. I didn’t even know I could feel such RAGE and anger! I have no idea where my strength comes from when I pick up a cupboard or bedside table to grow it…. I’m only 5feet! Sorry I digress. I wish I could wipe my memory.
    All the very best and thanks for the insight.

  21. Very informative. It appears there needs to be some sort of de-programming program for exiting veterans. We owe so much to our veterans. Thanks for providing this info. Has testimony been provided to Congress for this need?

  22. This is all to true, a military man is remolded to someone else then when he goes back to civilian life he is expected to just fit in. This is where he is left to his devices inside himself, I know a couple that are veterans and married. Very happily at that, they lead a very different lifestyle. Do to my love for them and willing to help them they let me into there personal ever so little. That is all it takes sometimes space and a hug. When I worked as dishwasher, my coworkers came from all sorts. One was released prisoners on probation, nice people. I learned on night that most of them rely on each other to get by in society for a similar reason.

  23. This sounds very similar to the stories told in “Good to Great” about companies that use cultural identity to “stimulate” excellence. Of course, our corporate governance is modeled closely on the military.

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