Veterans Law

Surviving the War Within

A panel of veterans offers insights on living with post-traumatic stress

By Victor A. Flores

image of soldiers
Above: U.S. Marine Corps Operation River Blitz 2005 (Hit, Iraq).
Photograph courtesy of (Ret.) Marine Gunnery Sergeant Rene Avendano

This article is dedicated to veterans who have returned from war but whose hearts and minds remain overseas, still fighting. We also share this article with those who tirelessly care for their friend or family member (veteran), frustrated with their reluctance to seek or accept help. In both circumstances, we offer our encouragement and support.

In short, there isn’t an instant cure for post-traumatic stress, but there is hope for recovery. Today, thousands of veterans living with PTS also have successful professional careers and loving relationships. That is the underreported story. It is difficult getting there, but it is a strong reality for those looking for help and ready to accept it.

In writing this article, I interviewed a small but diverse group of fellow Texas veterans, including a physical therapist assistant, federal agent, lawyer, police officer, and teacher. Each person who contributed is a combat veteran and has lived with PTS, including myself. Our goal is to (1) reassure other veterans that a fulfilling life is waiting for them around the corner from recovery; (2) equip family and friends with distinctive perspectives and recommendations to help them care for their veteran; and (3) challenge the Texas legal community to join the Remembering Our Heroes campaign, initiated by the Texas Access to Justice Foundation and the Joe Jamail Endowment for Veteran Legal Services.

Due to the sensitive nature of these discussions, the paneled veterans disclosed their experiences under the veil of anonymity. As a result, their candor provides unique insight. At the end of the article, there is a list of additional resources for veterans, family and friends of veterans, and others wishing to help the veteran community.

The following is a combination of our individual stories of recovery and other research that was made available by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Combat Related PTS: What Is It and Who Has It?
Post-traumatic stress is an issue developed among combat veterans who experience or witness a life-threatening situation. Its symptomatic nature makes it difficult to identify and treat. Some of the symptoms include hypervigilance, insomnia, nightmares, anxiety, depression, isolation, and guilt (survivor’s guilt).

One misconception is that veterans with PTS are symptomatic 24 hours a day. This may be true for a few; however, most veterans identify with PTS “triggers.”

“Sometimes the smell of diesel can remind me of my time over there. Or, it might be seeing a box of trash on the side of the road (reminding me of a roadside bomb in Iraq). Those things will trigger my anxiety or even flashbacks.”

Another added, “I’ve tried to watch a movie in a theater. If the crowd is too big, I have to leave. If I stay, my anxiety gets the best of me. It feels like a thousand tiny bugs crawling all over me.”

Still, as another veteran shared, the trigger can be completely unexpected: “You could be fine with life, work, and your relationships. Then, you might hear something on the news—some report of a mass shooting or terrorist act— that just sets you off. It’s an instant battle again to preserve all the progress that you’ve worked toward. It’s survival mode. You think: Just shake it off before anyone notices. But not telling anyone is the worst thing you can do.”

Many veterans self-medicate through the use of alcohol or controlled substances. One of the reasons for self-medication is to reduce the edge from anxiety. As will be discussed later, other healthier (and legal) options are available to reduce PTS anxiety that provide sustainable results.

PTS and its companions (alcohol and controlled substances) are a serious issue affecting veterans. Due to repeated deployments during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, of the 2.7 million veterans, one in five return home with PTS. That’s a total of 540,000 veterans, not counting those who have yet to request help. In addition, the VA reports that over 200,000 Vietnam veterans have PTS.

Overall, more than 700,000 Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan war veterans are currently living with PTS. Many of those are battling with alcohol and substance addiction.

A Veteran’s Struggle
As soldiers, airmen, sailors, and Marines, we are trained to be exemplary in stressful situations. In combat, our individual weakness threatens the safety of the unit. Therefore, we are required to be strong and self-sustaining to protect the greater good of the team. In combat, that is completely true. But when we reintegrate into civilian jobs and relationships, it is difficult to reverse that way of thinking. Here, isolation will slowly choke a veteran’s soul.

It should be a familiar concept with veterans—the buddy system. In combat, you always operate as a team. Someone always has your “six” (your back). Once veterans return home, the struggle begins with finding someone who can sincerely understand the trials of war and the problems with living a productive life after. This was echoed throughout the group.

“In trying to manage my anxiety, I try to make sure that I’m never alone. In combat, we always worked on the buddy system. So, if I’m going to a restaurant for dinner or the mall to shop, then I take someone with me. Also, before we go, I tell my ‘buddy’ that if I start to get overwhelmed and say that we need to go, then we need to leave immediately.”

Another veteran shared, “I always have a friend or family member that knows where I’m going. In a case where I find myself unexpectedly alone or experiencing a trigger, then I call that person. I usually have a few numbers that I can call or text if nobody answers or responds right away.”

Some veterans found it difficult to find a person they could trust. One shared, “It wasn’t until a guy at work convinced me to attend a Wounded Warrior Project meeting that I found people that I could trust to get my six. That happened seven years after I left the military. It was difficult for me to attend the meeting because I was skeptical. But I’m glad that I went. It’s changed my life.”

There are a variety of organizations with veteran related peer-support groups available. As with this veteran, it sometimes takes steady encouragement for someone to finally attend. Those assisting veterans should be patiently persistent. The alternative is leaving our veterans to self-medicate.

Most of the secondary issues associated with PTS (drinking and drug problems, relationship concerns, and employment issues) are a result of self-medication. Veterans are developing these bad habits and addictions before they can get help. Granted, there are issues with the VA’s processing of claims. However, as one veteran shared, “There are veterans from my old unit that I’ve been trying to convince for the past seven to eight years to check into a VA clinic for help. Some of them are just now getting registered with their local clinic.”

Of the veterans interviewed, all, except one, wrestled with (at a minimum) alcohol as a coping mechanism. The general consensus was that the temporary relief was extremely dangerous considering its addictive nature.

“I was on the brink of addiction. I could feel it. The drinking would mask the pain for a while. Then it was getting to the point when the drinking wouldn’t work at all. I was having to drink more and more. I knew that I had to find a way to work through some of these issues that didn’t include alcohol.”

Another veteran shared, “The first couple of years after leaving the military, I drank to numb the pain and guilt. Except that my alcohol tolerance would increase and I constantly had to drink more to forget. The worst part about that was at a certain point in drinking you actually start remembering and feeling more than when you first started. So you get on this crazy cycle of heavy drinking.”

The pain of survivor’s guilt also plays a significant part in recovery. “Survivor’s guilt” is a type of mental/emotional albatross in which we blame ourselves for returning when our brothers- and sisters-in-arms didn’t. Some veterans may have this tattooed on their person, at a minimum it’s on their heart: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). It’s the most sacred act in the military.

“I remember the first couple of years after being discharged from the military. I would drink by myself and go over old pictures of us. In my head, I would ask myself over and over, Why didn’t they make it back and why am I still here? I felt extremely guilty for not being able to trade my life for theirs.”

The 2016 VA Suicide Prevention Program shared that on average 20 veterans died from suicide each day. Among the interviewed group, most of us lost members within our units and identified with this conflict.

“I remember feeling that guilt. It kept eating away at me. It wasn’t until I finally shared that struggle with another unit member that I served with that I realized I had a choice. If I stopped living, then their sacrifice would be in vain. Instead, I could take their sacrifice and invest more into it. I could put my pride down, check into a VA, look for help, finish school, and work toward having the most productive life that I could. If I did that, then their loss wouldn’t be in vain.”

PTSD has been part of the combat experience since the beginning of time. Some generations called it shell shock syndrome or the thousand-yard stare. Until now, references to post-traumatic stress disorder within this article have been purposefully void of the accompanying D. The intent is to encourage veterans to approach life with PTS with optimistic expectations. Life doesn’t have to be marked by a disorder.

As one of the veterans shared, “You might feel down and broken now, but you don’t have to remain in that season of life. Yeah, some of the people that you talk to might not completely understand what war is like. But many of those same people have the tools to help you discover a new life with PTS—and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

The Patience of Family and Friends
As the family or friend of a veteran living with PTS, you are his or her frontline of support. Being that support can be an extremely difficult burden to carry. Several members of the interviewed group were apologetic when discussing their families.

“When my family tried to encourage me to get help, it was a slap in the face. It made me angry. I knew that I needed help, but I didn’t need my family telling me how messed up I was. Now I’ve learned that they weren’t accusing me of not doing my part. They just wanted to help any way they could.”

Another veteran shared, “All my wife wanted to do was help. And I wanted help. But I was so embarrassed by the stigma associated with the disorder that I would attack her for thinking that I was weak.”

The biggest advice for friends and family is to be patient and don’t pressure your veteran into talking. Instead, attempt to do simple activities together that don’t require you to be in large groups. Along the Texas coast, fishing is a great recommendation.

Also, be prepared for the day your veteran does begin to talk. When he or she does, let him or her take the lead and be a good listener. The truth is that unless you’ve experienced combat yourself, you will not be able to relate or understand.

“I remember the times that I felt the safest were when I finally opened up to my wife about some things and she just sat and listened. She didn’t try to fix anything. She didn’t judge. Having her listen and share that she loved me was enough.”

As your veteran builds trust and confidence in these discussions, you will begin to see natural opportunities to suggest veteran peer groups and other forms of help. This process might take months or years. The goal is to remain patient as you may often experience setbacks. Also, peer groups aren’t limited to veterans. It is equally important for family and friends caring for veterans to find similar peer groups to address questions and concerns common to caregivers.

Resources for Veterans Living With PTS
The VA has produced a separate website (, and it provides videos of veterans sharing their experiences with PTSD and PTSD treatment. It covers topics and questions such as: “Am I ready for help?” “What is treatment like?” and “How can treatment help me?”

The strongest advice for veterans from the interviewed group was joining a peer group. In Texas, veterans can find lists of peer-support groups on,, or

Most importantly, veterans dealing with thoughts of suicide are encouraged to immediately contact the Veterans Crisis Line at (800) 273-TALK (8255) and press 1.

How Can the Legal Profession Help the Veteran Community?
The Texas Access to Justice Foundation initiated a new Remembering Our Heroes campaign. This initiative partners with the Joe Jamail Endowment for Veteran Legal Services, which was created to provide Texas veterans with fair access to the justice system. Access to free legal services is critical for many Texas veterans who struggle with issues like PTSD. Legal matters make up five of the top 10 unmet needs of homeless veterans. Providing free legal services for our Texas veterans may be the lifeline that allows them to begin their road to recovery. It may save a life.

You can make donations to the Remembering Our Heroes campaign in the name of military veterans (living, deceased, or active-duty personnel), and the foundation will honor them through a series of events leading up to and surrounding Veterans Day. To make a donation and learn more, go to TBJ

Victor A. FloresVICTOR A. FLORES is a deputy city attorney for Denton, providing general counsel for all legal matters, and a U.S. Marine Corps Iraq War veteran.

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