The Superman Complex: Veterans Transitioning from Deployment To Civilian Life

By Heather Martin

Veterans who return home after wartime deployment face a real struggle to re-acclimate to the civilian world. In December of 2011, we all heard the news that combat troops were being released from Iraq. But for veterans who never left on American soil, how do they survive the transition?

 David, a 32 year old Army veteran, was honorably discharged in June of 2011.  Now living in Long Beach, CA, he says his experience was both tough and rewarding. One year on and one year off, he was stationed at various locations in both the U.S. and foreign lands. Deployed at both Fort Benning, Georgia, and Fort Bragg, North Carolina, from 2009 to 2010 David was stationed in Tikrit, Iraq – Sadam Hussein’s hometown. 

After twelve months in an environment like Tikrit, the transition back to the U.S. is a challenge, says David.  Iraq “is not up to the standards” for living conditions that we’re used to in North America. David returned home, full of questions about what the next phase of his life would entail.  The army had taught him job skills that would presumably assist him when he returned to civilian life. But as he discovered, with the exception of a few positions, such as dental work or radiology technician, many of the skills he had learned in the army were not transferrable, unless he returned to war, became a police officer or became a mercenary.

 Fortunately, not all of his experiences in returning to civilian life have been tough.  For those who have served post 9/11 and been honorably discharged, the GI Bill provides financial support for education and housing.  David is taking the opportunity to pursue a degree in Psychology at Golden West College, Huntington Beach, CA. The new GI Bill covers his books and tuition and pays a small amount for living allowances.  He hopes to transfer to U.C.L.A.

 Yet the “superman complex” still affects him.  The army taught David to try and be super-human, to struggle through physical ailments, injuries and mental hardships, and to drive through any pain. Since his separation from the military, David has suffered from migraines, high blood pressure, and even a broken elbow.  But through it all he perseveres.  He receives limited healthcare through the Veterans Affairs (V.A.) office. He says V.A. care is provisioned for five years for injuries that are documented, and after that “you’re on your own.” But it is also David’s opinion that the superman complex – the feeling of being larger than life, instilled by army training – lends itself to not documenting injuries or illnesses.

 Through it all, David is hanging in.  He continues to pursue his education and has begun the year long process of becoming a police officer. He challenges those of us who are not veterans to: “Hate the war, but love the guy who fought for your freedom.” It is the American way to choose and to disagree with a war, he acknowledges. But given all of the struggles veterans face, from boot camp to deployment in some of the most dangerous parts of the world, we should offer respect to the service men and women who fight for this country.

 Another young service man, Mike, is a Marine Corps veteran who was part of a combat unit deployed to Iraq in spring of 2004.  He is a staunch critic of the ‘Hollywood-ization’ of military service.  “The Hurt Locker is one of the few movies I can relate to,” he says, because it was focused on survival, the mission and the desire to return home safely.  He emphasizes that most films are fictional drama, not the actual real life action of trying to take another human life, and of having others trying to take yours.  “Hollywood desensitizes people to what war really means,” he says.

 Mike vividly remembers his return to civilian life, admitting that he had “all the signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder(P.T.S.D.), being noticeably on edge.” He also noticed he had difficulties relating to civilians, including a moment where he over-reacted to new fashions, wondering “Who decided Uggs were cool?”

 And the Superman complex also had its effect on this strong, young Marine.  Although he knew he was facing a difficult transition in his life (returning from his overseas tour of duty), it was difficult to admit that he was just a human being, not invincible.  After a moment of clarity when he recognized he had to change course, he knew he had hit rock bottom, and finally sought V.A. counseling.

 Despite the challenges, Mike was a proud Marine and is now a proud Veteran.  He has advice for anyone with a loved one who recently returned home from a combat zone.  “When I returned home it was difficult to relate to civilians,” he says.  “They could not relate to my experience no matter how many stories I told.”  His advice is simple: “Don’t force them to talk, or bombard them with questions such as: Did you kill anyone? Did you get shot at?  When they are ready to talk, they will open the doors to communication. If you love them, just listen. It is important for civilians to be sensitive and non-judgmental, to listen objectively, and not to pry.” 

 Leslie Martin, Director of the PTSD Outpatient Team at the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs office, says there is a debate among their clinicians whether Post Traumatic Stress should be called a “disorder.”  A disorder is often associated with a value judgment or stigma.  Ms. Martin says for veterans to go from the military emphasis on peak performance to everyday civilian life is a like coming back through the” looking glass”.  Having stress is a reasonable response to what veterans go through in a war zone.

 Ms. Martin and her team are actively involved in a wide range of outreach programs designed to reach vets who need help, as well as to field incoming inquiries from all over the country. Their thorough approach to intake, screening and assessment allows them to determine the best ways to treat each veteran’s problems, up to and including medication if that is deemed appropriate.  Her team also offers ‘evidence based treatment,’ which includes identifying the worst incidences in a veteran’s memory and helping them unlearn the fear of new trauma, so that “the tail stops wagging the dog.”

 As of the writing of this article, Ms. Martin’s division is celebrating fourteen and a half years of operation, having evolved from a PTSD residential rehab unit. Ms. Martin co-created the new program with Jim Dwyer. With upwards of 1,800 veterans on their treatment rolls, her small staff of seven social workers, clinicians, psychologists and psychiatrists definitely have their hands full. But at the local level, they actively and proudly accommodate the needs of veterans at no cost to the vets, helping them resolve issues of pain that would otherwise prevent them from moving forward successfully into the next phase of their lives.

 Ms. Martin advises all Americans that “there is a misconception that people like her staff are burdened by the work they do, but actually quite the opposite is true. The pain and anguish of what they [the veterans] went through puts the staff’s issues in perspective. The veterans uplift us, keep us going and keep us learning. I just pray for the day they won’t need us anymore.”

 *Note: Ms. Leslie Martin and her team at the West Los Angeles V.A. can be reached at 310-478-3711 extension 48535 or on their 24/7 Hotline at 800-273-8255. I would like to thank Blake Anderson of the Communications & Public Affairs office at the Department of the V.A. for connecting me with Ms. Martin.



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