In a nutshell:
In November 2018, a new definition of the term turned more than 10 million Germans into ‘veterans’.
Quote Minister of Defense:
On 26 November 2018, the Federal Minister of Defense declared:
‘Any soldier in active service or honorably discharged without losing their rank is a veteran of the Bundeswehr.’
After decades without any definition at all, maybe one should be grateful for this clarification. Unfortunately, this definition leaves an important group entirely unrecognised: Those soldiers who served the Federal Republic of Germany in military operations abroad, who from now on we will refer to as ‘combat veterans’.
Veterans in Germany
The armed forces in general and the servicemen and women in particular are not held in high regard in German civil society. At best invisible, but more often than not despised, insulted and even spat at, they live among us. Combat veterans hardly enjoy any recognition, let alone respect for their service. These are the circumstances German soldiers have to face every day.
It is the German Parliament, the Bundestag, and thus the elected representatives of civil society, who send troops into military operations abroad. This often happens almost unnoticed, with next to no media coverage and unheeded by the public.
After the mission
Life-threatening incidents, being physically injured, bearing witness to death and dying – all these are situations deployed soldiers have to face and cope with. The psychological challenges sometimes even outweigh the physical ones. No one returns unchanged from a combat operation, some soldiers will change a lot.
The situations the soldiers have lived through can take a heavy toll on their entire being. One of the psychological defense mechanisms to cope with a traumatic experience is so-called ‘dissociation’:
Basically, ‘dissociation’ means lack of connection or connectedness. The personality seems to be detached from the outside world, often appearing numb and distant.
In this situation it would be important to get in touch with one’s feelings, but this seems almost impossible in a military setting. No one speaks out for fear of being seen as a liability. Nobody wants to be the weak link or admit to being vulnerable. It simply does not fit in with the image of the brave soldier, so deeply ingrained in the military mindset.
What should be talked about is kept to oneself or remains hushed up, successively building up a pressure that cannot be released. Most combat veterans come home damaged: While their physical injuries may be noticed by their surroundings, the damage to their souls remains invisible and unaddressed.
If daily life is turning into a problem
After returning home, at first everything seems to be alright. The combat veterans are happy to be back with their loved ones and in a country that is free and secure. They may even be unaware of the changes in their personality and the way the war has impacted their souls.
It can take years, sometimes even decades, before a combat veteran recognises that something is not alright. The war is still raging on in their heads. Everyday life becomes a struggle. Some combat veterans constantly ‘scan’ their environment for potential threats, which keeps them in a state of high alert and unable to unwind.
A rubbish bag on the pavement (a potential IED), a balloon popping on a child’s birthday party, fireworks on New Year’s Eve, a simple barbecue (the smell of burned meat) – all of these situations might trigger a so-called flashback in a combat veteran, taking him or her straight back to the conflict zone.
Most members of civil society are blissfully unaware of these things, but for combat veterans and their families they can become life threatening. The tension of experiencing a traumatic event again and again can result in anxiety, insomnia and recurring nightmares. This may leave veterans irritable and aggressive even towards their loved ones. Or they might completely withdraw from social life and isolate themselves.
On top of these challenges, combat veterans and their families have to face the rejection by civil society. In Germany, it is not uncommon to call soldiers ‘murderers’ or to tell them that all they have been through is their own fault – why did they choose this career anyway? This leads to even further isolation and inhibits any meaningful communication with the outside world.
Relatives and family
The partners of combat veterans are often the first to notice the changes in their spouse. Unfortunately, breakups and divorces are all too common in military families. The feeling that something is going on with your partner, the emotional withdrawal, the latent aggression, all of this can put severe strain on a partnership. Military spouses often find it hard to talk to outsiders about their issues.
Very silently and at first often unnoticed, the children suffer under these circumstances. They cannot understand why their family is falling apart and often blame themselves for the situation. Children have very fine-tuned antennas, but they may not yet be able to articulate their fears and worries, and they still lack the coping mechanisms to deal with such intense emotions. This can result in trauma, which might take years to manifest. For children, any threat to their family, their safe haven, is the worst that could possibly happen.
And then there is the worst case scenario: The combat veteran takes his or her own life, leaving behind a family tangled up in helplessness and guilt at the loss of a loved one they couldn’t save.
Übersetzung: Stephanie Franke