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After five years of counseling veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, I have learned this:  They don’t believe anyone understands, except other veterans.

Especially not those who love them most.  They try to protect their families and loved ones from the terror that eats away at their souls.

Veterans might show all the symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), yet won’t admit it out loud.

New returnees get a checklist of PTSD signs from military officials when they return from the battlefront, and many laugh at this.

Common reactions: I haven’t got PTSD; I won’t get PTSD; only the weak get PTSD.

Counselors know that PTSD can lie dormant until the next major stressor hits — a divorce, job loss, losing a house, going bankrupt, a death in the family.  That’s usually when tough soldiers finally seek help, and tell us they believed they were immune, that somehow, they had escaped the public stigma of mental illness.

Rehabilitation counselors, focused on wellness rather than pathology, start with this: “post-traumatic stress is a normal reaction to an abnormal event.”

The public perception of PTSD is linked to a litany of tragedies at campuses and neighborhoods across the U.S. It’s a “going postal” joke.  There’s a public assumption that PTSD is to blame whenever tragedy strikes veterans’ families. We think we know it, as a cause, when disaster hits.

Non-military families don’t hear the screams of night terrors; don’t witness the look of horror on a soldier’s face as he recounts seeing his buddies die in a flaming, IED explosion, or the mistaken guilt of not being able to save a fellow soldier from stepping on a mine. They don’t see the link between PTSD and so-called domestic violence.

We expect soldiers to shut up about the war front when they return home. We don’t want to hear it; we don’t want to know it, when two wars have decimated the treasury already. No one can prepare us for these future costs of war.

We don’t want to know that PTSD will eat away at this generation of warriors, just as it did the generations we sent to the Persian Gulf War, Vietnam, Korea, WWII and all the “little” conflicts in between. We also don’t understand that PTSD is not necessarily a threat to others, that it’s often more damaging, privately, to soldiers, than anyone else.

Since I began studying to be a rehabilitation counselor, I’ve worked and volunteered with veterans whose service goes back as far as WWII. I am always grateful that they have taught me far more than any help or support I have offered.

For those who want to believe that the terror of killing — and the threat of being killed — fades, without treatment and public sensitivity and support, I have learned this:  Untreated, it can get worse.

Read more about PTSD after war wounds.