War causes a lot of damage not only in the form of destruction of property and death of combatants but also in the long-lasting effects on the military service personnel. Some sustain injuries that take years to heal, causing several functional limitations in terms of movement, bathing, and preparation of meals. These limitations have far-reaching consequences that undermine the quality of the lives of the ex-soldiers. Others experience psychological problems that affect the social aspect of their lives for many years. Although OBriens story focuses on the life of a soldier before and after the war, the arrangement of episodes gives a succinct account of the psychological challenges soldiers face outside combat settings. The highlighted effects often occur after the soldiers are released from the service and seek to integrate themselves into civilian populations.
Coping with the scars of war is the greatest challenge that veterans face as they reintegrate into civilian life (Demers 160; Brown 2). In his book, OBrien depicts soldiers as persons filled with guilt for some of the decisions they made either in the batter fields or before military engagements. Due to the problems that veterans encounter after the war, some of them are depicted as overwhelmed by guilt for joining foreign war missions (OBrien 4-14).This is shown in the episode where Norman Bowker regrets for his waste of time in Vietnam. According to Bowker, his friends back at home have achieved a lot in his absence (OBrien 98-107).The death of Kiowa left a lot of guilt in Bowker. Bowker saw his friend helplessly die but could not prevent it since he faced a similar threat (OBrien 96-97).Such experiences leave long-term scars on soldiers. Research elsewhere documents that fears of guilt are common with veterans who are often haunted not only by the failures in the battle fields to protect their friends but also the stark reality of life after assuming civilian culture(Demers 166-173). They cannot reconcile that some of their colleagues died in the war because they failed to act or cared so much about personal safety.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) has become the most common mental condition that is diagnosed among former military service officers (Smith and True148). According to Demers (160), 31 percent of the soldiers that have been deployed in war zones get diagnosed with PSTD. PSTD is as a result of the horrendous encounters in the war which subject the soldiers to extreme stress. Psychological problems such as depression detach former soldiers from the rest of the civilian population. As OBrien (97-108), reveals, some of the veterans are so disconnected with the civilian life that they fail to create an emotional attachment with events in the civilian world. The story of Bowker reveals a man who is overwhelmed by thoughts of war yet he cannot find someone to share such painful experiences. This situation aggravated by the lack of information on the part of the civilian population in regards to the effect of war experiences on soldiers (Dickerson 15 Nov, 2015).
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The nature of the western culture compounds the mental problems of veterans. Western societies have developed into tight-knit communities which allow little camaraderie that is common in the military (Smith and True 148). Nobody is around for the former military service personnel to talk to as the Western life has become individualized. In view of the social interactions, veterans consider telling stories and interacting with friends as one of the effective ways of coping with traumatic war experiences (Demers 164). According to Demers, it is a natural way of telling ones life story, and it often comes with great satisfaction. Brown (26) concurs that social connection is vital in overcoming worries associated with war. Due to the disruptive and emotional nature of traumatic experiences, veterans encounter additional challenges of seeking personal identity especially in civilian settings(Demers 163).As a result, veterans become disconnected, delaying the process of reintegration into the civilian culture. According to OBrien (98-104), the failure to locate ones identity is evidenced in Bowkers inability to reconcile his thoughts. The situation is compounded by the lack of friends and his disconnectedness with family members.
PSTDs destructive nature also leaves veterans frustrated and despondent with life. Since most of the victims suffer in silence, they end up seeking solace in alcohol (Demers 160).Psychological studies find that most alcohol-dependent veterans exhibit symptoms of PSTD; PSTD precedes alcohol problems that are common with ex-soldiers (Brown 5).The dependence on alcohol comes as a result of failure to access professional transition services as well as the inadequate social bond between friends and families. Through Bowker, OBrien depicts the life of an ex-soldier consuming excessive amount of alcohol as a way of seeking solace from his troubled world. Yet, this approach does not solve much of the problems, exposing the life of the veteran to more suffering.
Veterans that do not receive much attention in the treatment of PSTD often display anger and depression (Demers 160).The social disconnect is likely to make an ex-soldier live in bitterness and, may lead to engagement in criminal activities as a consequence of extreme aggressiveness (Brown 4).According to Brown (4-5), veterans account for 10 percent of bookings at prison facilities in the US. Common crimes include murder, assault, and attempted murder. Similarly, OBrien presents Bowker as angry and bitter with his life. Such situation may expose him to acts that are in contravention of the law (103-109).
Economic problems make a prominent feature in OBriens narration. Veterans are depicted as stragglers in the search for employment opportunities (OBrien 108).The failure to secure a job results from several factors. For instance, in the civilian workplace, social relationships are essential for successful performance. This may not be achieved by a former military service officer considering that most of them suffer from psychological problems. According to Demers (163-172), ex-soldiers (especially young veterans) find it difficult to cope with the workplace environment due to poor reintegration rate and lack of the appropriate skills that match available job opportunities. Furthermore, some may experience challenges in acquiring new skills that would fit the requirements of the civilian labor market. Through the narrator, OBrien exposes the transition challenges young veterans encounter in their efforts to acquire relevant skills in the labor market. He narrates that Bowker changed several jobs in a short period and also dropped out of college (OBrien 108-109).Such behaviors depict veterans as disjointed and disoriented. As Demers (162-64) notes, the failure to last for long on a single job reflects a failure in the process of transition. The situation is worsened by the low level of awareness among the civilians in regards to the psychological problems faced by veterans. Those that fail to handle the pressures of unemployment and psychological challenges often engage in crime while others may commit suicide in resignation (Brown 5; OBrien 108-09).
Although some soldiers succeed in reintegrating into the civilian culture, the memories of war events often remain part of their lives for many years. Some of the scars never go away. According to OBrien (91-94), the relationships of the soldiers with their families are likely to be affected due to the inability to reveal some of the experiences of the war. There are some war secrets that veterans fail to reveal for the rest of their lives. Despite the success the narrator has achieved in reintegrating into the civilian culture, memories of the gruesome events of the war continue to haunt him. This is seen in his decision to go back to Vietnam to revisit the scene where his friend died during the war. Also, he decides to plunge himself into the river on the scene of Kiowas death (92-94).These actions depict a person who has not fully recovered from the mental ravages of the war.
In conclusion, OBrien illustrates several problems that veterans endure in non-combat settings. Most of the ex-soldiers face severe guilt problems that are rooted in the failure to protect the death of some of their friends and colleague during the war or the realities of civilian culture. Others suffer from PSTD which affects their social skills and also predisposes them to suicidal tendencies and crime. Due to the non-gregarious nature of the Western society, most veterans find it difficult to shake off the horrors of the war; few persons are available for socialization. Moreover, the lack of understanding among civilian population regarding the psychological conditions of former soldiers further exposes them to isolation. On overall, OBrien emphasizes that no matter much the veterans integrate into the civilian culture, the scars of the war may never be erased.
Brown, William B. “From War Zones to Jail: Veteran Reintegration Problems.” Policy Justice Journal, vol. 8, no. 1, 2011, pp. 1-48.
Demers, Anne. “When Veterans Return: The Role of Community in Reintegration.” Journal of Loss and Trauma, vol. 16, no. 2, 2011, pp. 160-179.
Dickerson, Kelly. “Soldiers returning home are faced with a heartbreaking problem most people don’t understand.” Business Insider, 15 Nov. 2015.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction. Broadway Books, 1998.
Smith, R. T., and G. True. “Warring Identities: Identity Conflict and the Mental Distress of American Veterans of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Society and Mental Health, vol. 4, no. 2, 2014, pp. 147-161.