War is harder on soldiers who kill

Soldiers are no less human for wearing a uniform, and so perhaps it’s not surprising that new research shows that soldiers who kill tend to have far more difficult lives than soldiers who don’t. 

That’s the conclusion of a new report produced on Vietnam Veterans by UC San Francisco and the VA Medical center.  Even compared to other combat veterans, soldiers who killed (or think they killed) are more likely to suffer long-term from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, violent behavior, and other psychological problems. 

To Stanley Krippner, a psychology faculty member at Saybrook and co-author of the book Haunted by Combat, this isn’t a surprise:  treating traumatic situation in a “one-size fits all” kind of way will never account for the unique experiences each soldier takes back with them from battle.  However you slice it, killing someone is not like being shot at – no two experiences are the same.

“Medication alone will not fill this existential void, and this is especially true for soldiers who have accidentally killed civilians, especially women and children,” Krippner says.  “In Haunted by Combat, Saybrook alumnus Daryl Paulson and I make the point that these post-combat ‘troubled lives’ are exactly the reason why humanistic-existential psychotherapy is an important resource for veterans.”

A “medical model” approach to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder will address the symptoms, but it cannot address the underlying cause, or help reconcile someone to who they were and who they want to become. 

“The veteran has to come to terms with the fact that war is hell, that many of these actions occurred during periods of sleep deprivation, and that most of them were defensive in nature,” Krippner says.  He also thinks that the results of the UC San Francisco study are as likely to apply to tomorrow’s veterans as yesterday’s.

 “As was the case in Vietnam, soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are never quite sure who the enemy is.  They might shoot a woman who seems to be carrying a weapon, only to discover that she was actually carrying a baby — once her dead body is examined,” Krippner says.  “A humanistic-existential therapist would find some way to help the veteran live a constructive life in honor of the dead victims, and even to construct rituals in which they would seek forgiveness and absolution. “

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