How to Watch for Signs of Trauma in a Combat Veteran

How to Watch for Signs of Trauma in a Combat Veteran

Loved ones should learn to recognize the signs of trauma and PTSD so they can encourage treatment and recovery

The symptoms of combat-related trauma or PTSD are challenging to describe to someone who has never experienced or witnessed trauma. Combat-related PTSD is more than just the effects of having to fight, harm or even kill others. Just being in a physical and mental state of continued stress, fear, and hypervigilance for weeks, months, even years at a time takes a massive toll on a person. Being a combat veteran is one of the most intense and traumatic experiences one can have and often times this experience is prolonged.

Research has proven that trauma actually alters the structure and function of the human brain. While studying the brains of combat veterans, researchers have found that there is significant changes or damages made to the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, adrenaline response and grey matter. Things like memory, emotional processing and regulation, stress hormones, and information processing are all affected by the trauma that causes PTSD. [1]

Clearly the damages and changes made to the brain will have an impact on how a combat veteran thinks, feels and behaves. The consequences of undiagnosed and untreated PTSD can be frightening and life threatening. Friends, family and close acquaintances of a soldier, veteran, or combat veteran should always watch for signs of trauma and PTSD. It is not uncommon for soldiers and veterans to keep fairly quiet about the aftereffects of their time serving. Many do not want to come off like they have been harmed or as if they are complaining or whining about their service. Soldiers are proud of their sacrifice and they are trained to remain both physically and mentally tough. Therefore, it is uncommon for a soldier to reach out for help from the negative effects of their time serving.

How Common Is PTSD Among Combat Veterans?

Statistics for PTSD among veterans are tough to generate. As an article on reports, “In 2006, the Journal of the American Medical Association stated that 35 percent of Iraq war veterans sought treatment for mental health conditions within a year of coming home”. A 2014 U.S. National Library of Medicine study revealed that “among male and female soldiers having returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, PTSD rates range from 9 percent when first arriving home all the way up to 31 percent, a year after deployment.”[2] Another factor that strongly increases the risk for PTSD among combat veterans is traumatic brain injury or TBI. TBI rates are exceedingly high among combat veterans as opposed to non-combat veterans and civilians.

What Signs and Symptoms of Trauma Should You Look for In Combat Veterans?

For friends, family and peers of a veteran or combat veteran, it is imperative to be supportive and vigilant in recognizing any of the effects of trauma. One should educate themselves on the signs and symptoms and PTSD, and be willing to listen to the veteran as he heals, copes, and expresses his feelings when returning home.

Signs and symptoms of PTSD can present themselves right away or they can appear months, even years after returning home. One should watch out for the following signs:

  • Re-experiencing the traumatic event. Having intrusive flashbacks or thoughts and memories about the event(s). Having nightmares and feeling intense distress when reminded of the trauma. Showing physical symptoms when reminded of the trauma, such as racing heart, nausea, sweating, muscle tension, etc. [3]
  • Avoiding reminders of the trauma. Staying away from activities, places, conversations and things that can bring up memories of the trauma. Blocking out the actual memories and things that happened during the traumatic experience.
  • Emotional or social isolation or emotional numbing. Not being able to experience joy or pleasure. Lacking an interest in activities or life in generally. Feeling detached from life and others, even helpless like one’s life and existence doesn’t matter. Having sexual dysfunction, and experiencing symptoms of depression. [4]
  • Heightened anxiety and emotional arousal. Having a hypervigilant, on-edge, or uneasy state. Being easily startled, showing sudden anger, irritability, having trouble staying or falling asleep and having trouble concentrating.
  • Having survivor guilt, shame or self-blame. Having suicidal thoughts and feelings and acting recklessly or self-destructively and engaging in things like substance abuse and other risky behavior.

When these signs present themselves, try talking to the veteran to see if he is willing to acknowledge the troubling symptoms and seek help. Treat the issue with tact and sensitivity, but also very seriously. Allow the veteran to express himself and if he is unwilling to talk or address the issue, think about contacting outside professional help if the situation is concerning. Remember that the symptoms of PTSD will not go away and there is nothing you a person can do to fix them on his own.

How to Help a Veteran Who is Showing Signs of PTSD

If you have noticed the signs or symptoms of PTSD in a veteran or active soldier, please do not hesitate to seek professional help. PTSD is a life-threatening mental health illness when it is not treated. By seeking professional help you are preventing the progression of the illness as well as several potential adverse consequences.

To find immediate help you can call our toll-free number and speak with a recovery professional. Our recovery professionals are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to assist you with your questions, concerns, and needed information. We have connections to several treatment options and recovery services across the U.S. and are happy to help veterans and their loved ones find the help that is right for their unique needs. There are so many treatment options available for individuals with PTSD and/or co-occurring issues. Please take the time to call and learn more about these options if you have any worry or concern at all about a loved one showing signs of PTSD.


[1] Vines, Brannan. Understanding Combat PTSD from the Inside, Out. Family Of a Retrieved from  on 2016, February 3.

[2] (2015, September 20). Veterans Statistics: PTSD, Depression, TBI, Suicide. Veterans and PTSD.  Retrieved from

[3] Smith, Melinda, M.A., Robinson Lawrence, and Segal, Jeanne Ph.D. (2016 January) Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder PTSD. Retrieved from

[4] (2009, January 12). Help for Spouses of Combat Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder From People Who Know.  National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from