The things they carry: Helping mend the psychological wounds of war

As one war ends in Iraq and another continues for the foreseeable future in Afghanistan, thousands of U.S. soldiers arrive home, only to face a more prolonged and far lonelier battle with the psychic aftermath of combat experience.

Rebecca Townsend was working as a school psychologist with a part-time private practice in Clarksville when she began to see the emotional toll warfare takes — and not just on soldiers. In 2006, with the entire 101st Airborne Division deployed to Iraq, she found more and more clients coming to her for help, including teachers at her school whose spouses were at war and students with absent dads or moms.

And then the troops started coming home — some injured, others with less visible scars. Army suicide rates have more than doubled since 2004, according to an Army study led by the National Institute of Mental Health. So many Fort Campbell soldiers committed suicide in 2009, that the post declared a state of emergency.

“There are so many that either won’t come forward for help, don’t know how, don’t trust anyone, or are so emotionally damaged they don’t know that there’s any way out of it,” Townsend explains. Her voice betrays quiet outrage as she describes one soldier she assisted, a homeless veteran of three tours who suffered from PTSD. “What bothers me,” she says, “is that I feel we’re going to lose a whole generation of kids to emotional damage. If they can’t find an outlet for it that’s healthy, we’re going to have a bunch of missing people, emotionally missing in action.”

She quickly realized that Clarksville’s tiny community of mental health providers — and even the Army’s OneSource assistance program — were overwhelmed with demand.

Townsend began offering free counseling to soldiers and families. But she couldn’t begin to address all that need as one woman in one small office. She decided to assemble a larger network of mental health professionals willing to offer free therapy to soldiers and families, called Soldiers and Families Embraced (SAFE), which she describes as “a place to be heard and have their feelings validated.”

“At Fort Campbell, there’s a warrior mentality,” says Townsend. “The Department of Defense does an awesome job training warriors. That’s their mission. Their mission is not mental health care. That’s where we as a community have to assist. We have to do our part for these guys.”

Townsend also began providing support services for military families through an organization called “Not Alone,” which offers web-based support groups for servicemen and families. Through this organization, she counsels individuals and couples and recently led a retreat for military spouses.

Since marrying a National Guard officer in 2009, Townsend understands better than ever the pressure on military families, both during and after deployment. “I have seen so many guys just fall apart in here and allow themselves to feel the anger, the sadness, the loneliness that comes home with them from war,” she says.

Those feelings, she adds, are often bewildering, even frightening for soldiers’ families. Many veterans don’t feel that they can explain themselves, or share the details of their combat experiences with a spouse. “They do it consciously and subconsciously to protect their loved ones,” says Townsend. “For many family members, if they knew what their soldier had experienced — and then also knew they would have to go back to that — it would cause a lot of anxiety for them.”

Often, it’s Townsend’s job to help newly stateside soldiers and their families get to know each other again. “We practice communication in here,” she says. “We think we’re hearing each other, but we’re really just building up our own defense.”

She says soldiers often feel like strangers in their own homes and in civilian society.

Townsend aims to help warriors find their place in the world away from war. “They feel helpless here. The soldiers come back, they don’t have a mission, and they feel guilty about the buddies that they left behind.”

Eventually, Townsend reimagined SAFE’s mission to one of education. She took postgraduate training in military mental health and has since led training seminars for psychologists, schoolteachers, and administrators all over the state, in the specific counseling needs of soldiers and families. “I can reach more people that way,” she says.

And SAFE recently merged with a nonprofit called Lazarus that matches soldiers with services they need, from immediate food and shelter to medical care and drug rehab.

“I felt it was my duty to offer something to these guys and these families who I felt like had not been taken care of, given all that they have given … I want them to feel like they belong.”

Not Alone offers support to warriors and families suffering from PTSD and combat stress.

SAFE trains mental health professionals in the special counseling needs of service members and their families.

The Lazarus Project
offers no-cost counseling, support groups, and other resources for soldiers, veterans, and families.


“At Fort Campbell, there’s a warrior mentality,” says Townsend. “The Department of Defense does an awesome job training warriors. That’s their mission. Their mission is not mental health care. That’s where we as a community have to assist. We have to do our part for these guys.”

JoeAnne's picture

I guess that a nursing career for her would be piece of cake. People like this do such good to the community. I wish there were even more of them. This way we would know that we will always get help.

cherrin's picture

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It's seems to be a genuine fact that every human being have certain amount of emotion and feelings; here in the above article we have found that how American soldiers are dealing with their frustrations and psychological structure and mental condition. It is naturally that while away from home and family for years a normal person adding some amount of frustration in his or her life and in order to deal with these frustration they used to go for psychological treatment.
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You have rightly said that there is great impact on minds of military so we have to make some great efforts to manage these by giving online counseling. Mental or psychological efects like post trumatic stress disorder
is common in wars.

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EllaRochelle's picture

We should work on tempering the PTSD, because not only will we lose a generation, we will also lose those who come after it. Evil spawns evil and sadness is taught from a generation to another. My husband is passionate about guns and hunting, he always checks for new acquisitions on, but he's never been to war; I can't tell you how happy I am about this. I don't think less of him, no way, I just want him to stay the way he is now.

I agree with you Kim Green. You are right about it... why our soldiers work for other countries! Of course we have a great tradition of taking things from other countries playing little games like these. But world is much changed now. We have to stop putting our soldiers in the harm’s way…
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Being a soldier is perhaps one of the most risky jobs. It is very difficult to recover from the psychological impact of war. This is why, when they come from war areas, soldiers are dealing with post-traumatic stress or even depression. It is difficult to see people dying but their job is to defend their territory. My brother is working in the army and he's been in Afghanistan for two years. Since he was a child his dream was to become a soldier and I am very proud of him. He has a professional gun with some great Benelli accessories and he is one of the best.

I have had some traumatic experience during my time in Iraq, but never thought of it as such, only after long hindsight. This time, though, I know I'm experiencing PTSD, and it can be triggered by seemingly unimportant facts, like seeing a jet fighter image like the one from It may, in fact, be exacerbating the problem. because I can identify it but I also can't stop thinking about it.

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