On dating civilians, ‘two really different worlds’

Some veterans seek counseling upon their return to help resolve communication issues with their significant others

By Jenni Muns

Kate Hoit was completely in love with her boyfriend before she deployed with the Army Reserve at 17.

But when she came home, she said she had nothing in common with him anymore.

“He wanted me to be who I was prior to war.” she said, “I was a weird piece [in the puzzle] and I 
didn’t fit in anymore.”

Michael Johnston

Photo by Jenni Muns
Michael Johnston, a 29-year-old Army and Navy veteran, said some soldiers struggle with their emotional health.

Hoit’s experience is not unique. According to marriage experts, many veterans struggle to resolve relationship issues after they return home from their deployments.

Dr. Carol Tanenbaum, a psychoanalyst and marriage and family therapist for The Soldiers Project, said one of the biggest problems veterans experience is an inability to connect with their significant other.

“The soldier is in one reality, and that is in a war or combat reality,” Tanenbaum said. “The person left home is in a civilian reality. They are two really different worlds, and it’s pretty difficult to be able to communicate that to your partner
or spouse.”

War experiences are often difficult to describe, and many soldiers are not used to expressing their emotions, especially in a “mission-driven” environment, Tanenbaum said.

“This leaves out a whole range of emotional life,” she said.

Michael Johnston, a 29-year-old Army and Navy veteran, echoed this statement.

Around 2004, during his first deployment with the Navy, Johnston said there was a mentality of “just deal
with it.”

Counseling and therapy can help struggling veterans

The increasing number of resources available to veterans has helped some of Johnston’s cohorts from his 2009 Army deployment understand the importance of reaching out to a specialist and getting their issues under control, he said.

Tanenbaum said she helps veterans and their spouses work through their issues by encouraging both people to listen to each other’s stories during the veteran’s deployment.

“You get them to begin to get used to the idea of communication at whatever level, and you start a process of reconnection,” she said.

Jason Hansman, 30, a senior program manager at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and a veteran of the Army Reserve, also stressed the importance of communication.

“One hundred times more communication has to happen when you come back to make sure that everyone is on the same page,” Hansman said. “Essentially you had a life together, you’re in a straight line when you leave and then you veer off in different directions. Getting people back into being in a relationship with someone else is important.”

Jason Hansman

Photo courtesy of Sameer Khan
Jason Hansman, senior program manager at the VA, stresses the importance of communication. 

Tanenbaum said the ideal time for veterans to ask for professional help is immediately after they realize they have an issue.

“If a wound is not tended to, it can fester,” Tanenbaum said, “and then it can work into a secondary wound or a secondary infection.”

Most veterans don’t get an intervention early because the military has taught them to
“soldier on.”

“Most want to tough it out,” she said.

“Some veterans have very mixed feelings about being a civilian again,” Tanenbaum continued. “Some want to go back. It’s very hard to tell your family, ‘I don’t want to be here with you. My real family is there. I don’t feel safe at home. I don’t feel safe in this world.’”

In addition, some veterans act verbally and physically aggressive toward their spouses because the military trained them to be aggressive, Tanenbaum said.

“There’s nothing to mediate that [aggression] very often when you come home and you’re overtired and exhausted,” she said.

Tanenbaum said sexual relations and intimacy can also be difficult for some veterans, particularly when they have post-traumatic stress disorder.

“You’re not able to function normally, and you’re not able to relax enough to be intimate in a way that is compatible for both people,” she said.

Female veterans face unique challenges


Photo by Jenni Muns
Jessica Giusti, a Marine, said she got used to treating male Marines like brothers. She’s had to make an exception for her husband.     

For female veterans, simply treating their boyfriend or husband as a significant other can be a challenge.

With the Marine Corps, only 7 percent are female. “I’m around guys all the time,” said Jessica Giusti, a 24-year-old active duty member of the Marine Corps. “We’re really hard on each other, just like brothers and sisters are. My husband is a Marine, but he’s not my brother; he’s my husband, so treating each other not like Marines but as a couple is funny sometimes.”

It can also be difficult for female veterans to date
non-veteran men.

“I fell madly in love with an Iraq War veteran, and I was convinced that was the type of person I needed to be with,” Hoit said. “It took me a really long time to realize that the Iraq War couldn’t define what type of person I wanted to love or
be with.”

Therapy often results in clearer thinking

Tanenbaum said many of the veterans she has counseled became aware of how difficult it was for their significant others when they return home.

“They’ll stand up in the middle of a crowd and say, ‘You know what, I was a jerk when I came home,’” Tanenbaum said. “[Or they’ll say], ‘I didn’t know my head from a hole in the wall,’ or ‘I was really messed up.’”

Tanenbaum said it’s normal for soldiers to feel that way after returning home from a tour of duty.

“You’re not crazy,” she said. “This is a normal, appropriate reaction to a very abnormal event.”

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This project, produced by journalism students at American University, explores the experiences of young veterans as they transition from soldiers to citizens.

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Why did you enlist?
Why did you enlist in the military.

From soldier to civilian - what problems did you face?
Challenge of transitioning to civilian life

What difficulties did you face upon returning to college?
Difficulties on returning to college

Word Cloud From Non-Veteran Survey

What challenges do vets face coming home? Non-vets

Top 5 questions veterans told ‘Half the Battle’ they hate being asked:

- Did you kill anyone?
- Do you have PTSD?
- Did you see anybody die?

- Did you get shot at?

- Was it hot?

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