This article is reprinted with permission from Ray Scurfield
“The Do’s and Do Not’s for Spouses and Partners of Combat Veterans”
By Ray Scurfield
The Do Not's
• Do not say, “I understand,” or “I know you feel.” No, you don’t. If you were not in war, you
don’t understand. Period. However, you may well understand from your own life
experience how it feels to not want to talk to anyone, or how it is to feel that no one can
understand about something you have experienced. You may know what it's like to hope
that if you could just ignore something festering inside you that it would eventually go
away.Seek help if you are hurting, whether or not your veteran partner does.
• Do not push or insist that your vet talk about the war if he/she does not want to. It is too sacred
a subject to attempt to pry the details out of someone. Remember, you are trampling on
• Do not say, “Did you kill anybody?” Or, “How did it feel to kill someone?” If the vet wants to
share this, the vet will share it. Otherwise, this is perceived as an invasive and unwanted
demand for the most extremely personal of information.
• Don’t take it personally when your veteran does not want to talk about it. Part of it is because
you are not a combat veteran. Your veteran partner will probably be far comfortable
talking about the war experiences in any detail with another combat veteran. It is crucial
to remember that the vast majority of war veterans feel that no one but other combat
veterans could possibly understand.
Side note: Also, the veteran may be very concerned about “taking the lid off” of all the pent-up
feelings and memories about war that have been buried. The fear is, “If I open the lid (of the
memories, emotions, trauma) I may not be able to put it back on again.” This reluctance is why
there are a number of other war veterans who just don’t want to talk much to anybody, not even to
other vets. As one such Vietnam veteran told me: "When I got back from Nam, the only people I
could relate to were other Vietnam vets---and they were the last ones I wanted to be around."
• Don’t make ultimatums or threats that have severe consequences and deadlines attached to
them unless you are absolutely at your wits end. An example of an ultimatum: “You need
to get it together now, it’s been ___weeks or ___months of being withdrawn, moping
around, etc. If you don’t go see a counselor this week, I’m going to leave you.” Big
mistake. Most combat vets do not respond very positively to threats. This is not a poker
game where bluffing and deception go hand-in-hand with winning.
• Don’t lay a guilt trip on your vet, or present it as a test of your relationship. For example: “If
you really loved me, you would share more with me” Or: "If you really loved me, you
would understand what’s going on inside me.” Your veteran partner may already be
feeling guilty about what he/she did or did not do in the war, or about the hardships you
and the family may have gone through while he/she was deployed.
• Do not ignore warning signs in your vet that there may be potentially serious problems, such as
excessive drinking, isolating, a deep-seated rage, mood swings, anxiety and sleep
disturbance. You need to point such things out, but not dwell on them, depending on how
severe the symptoms are.
• Do not ignore your own needs and wants. You have the right to have your needs and wants
met, no matter how troubled your veteran partner is. And so do your children.
• Do not ever allow your veteran partner to treat you meanly, disrespectfully, or in a threatening
way. This includes screaming, yelling and threatening behaviors. And do not EVER
tolerate your veteran partner hurting you or your family. Violence in war is one thing.
But to bring it back into the home is quite another. It is NEVER excusable. If you can’t
protect yourself or your family, then immediately go talk to someone who can help you.
• Do remember to reach down deep within and stay in touch with the love you have for your
veteran - even if it is more of a love for how he or she was before deployment than how
he or she is behaving right now.
• Do remember that your relationship that should be at least as important as the individual needs
and wants of each of you. Think about what is best for your relationship right now, not
what is best for you or what is best for your veteran partner.
• Do hold hands and look each other in the eyes. Try this: if you and your partner are having a
serious argument or harsh words, both of you stop. Be silent for a moment, compose
yourselves, stand in front of each other, hold hands, look in each other’s eyes, and start
talking to each other this way. You almost surely will calm down and start relating to
each other rather than talking meanly at each other.
• Do put yourself out there. Ask: "Do you want to talk a little with me about the war? Are you
willing to share with me some of the good times, some of the bad times? If not now,
possibly later?" And say, "I need to be able to ask you these same questions again at
another time, because otherwise you may never come to me first and start talking about
it. Tell me the best way to approach you."
• Do tell your vet partner about the warning signs and triggers about post traumatic stress and
combat stress that remind you of him or her. If you don’t know the signs, get some
literature ASAP from a military family support agency, a partner support group, a VA
Vet Center or a Veteran’s Service Organization.
• Do recognize that your veteran partner may well be very resistant to talking to anyone,
including you, about what is going on. The veteran may not respond positively to your
suggestions today or tomorrow or next week, and so you have to be both persistent and
diplomatic/gentle in continuing to bring up your concerns.
• Do say, "I know I can’t fully (or perhaps at all) understand what is going on with you, because
I wasn’t there in the war."
• Do say (if you genuinely mean it), "I really do want to better understand, and request that you
help me better understand. If you don’t tell me anything, then you are shutting me out and
it will be impossible for me to ever really understand. Please don’t shut me out
• Do ask your vet, "Are there any books, articles or other readings about war, or any
movies/songs/music that are personally meaningful that you could recommend to me that
could give me a better understanding of what it was all about, about what was so
meaningful for you? And then I would like to talk with you a little about it." Many vets
will be much more comfortable with you learning in this way, rather than you expecting
your veteran partner to talk in great detail.
• Do say, "Please let me know when it feels like I am trying to invade into your most deep and
personal feelings and issues. I really want you to tell me that gently, in a respectful
way. And that goes both ways. I am going to let you know when you may say something
offensive to me, or that hurts me, or when it feels like you’re trying to invade my most
deep and personal feelings and issues. I want to tell you that gently, in a respectful way."
• Do say, "I’m here for you. And I want you to be here for me, even if you can’t be here for me
as much right now as I want you to. Because I am in this for the long haul." However, if
you are having serious doubts that you still committed to this relationship, then that is
another matter entirely that requires immediate attention.
• Do put on your oxygen mask first. This is the bottom line do or don’t - to first take care of
yourself. As we all know, the proper procedure on an airplane when the oxygen masks
drop down is to put your oxygen mask on first; otherwise you will be in no position to
help anyone else. The same principle applies to you at home. Seek help if you are
hurting, whether or not your veteran partner does and whether or not your veteran partner
wants you to. This is your right. And one of the most powerful sources of support and
understanding will be with and from other military spouses whose spouses who have
returned from deployment.
from Raymond Scurfield,
War Trauma. Lessons Unlearned From Vietnam to Iraq. Volume 3 of a Vietnam Trilogy, New York: Algora, 2006,
Chapter 4, "The Return Home and the Ricochet Effect on the Family" (pp. 77-106)