Two Colorado professors explore the local echoes of wars in the Middle East

The general perception of war and soldiers is largely shaped by depictions in the popular media — movies, books, news reports.

Two Colorado professors decided to take a deeper look into what happens to soldiers “off-stage” at home and back in the civilian world. They unearthed stories about soldiers’ sacrifices, about discovering new breaking points, and about developing new strengths. Sarah Hautzinger, associate professor of anthropology at Colorado College, and Jean Scandlyn, research associate professor of health and behavioral sciences and anthropology at the University of Colorado Denver, chase these echoes, exploring how “combat stress” and post-traumatic stress disorder radiate outward, drawing the community into their complexities.

The result of five years of research is their recently published book, “Beyond Post-Traumatic Stress: Homefront Struggles with the Wars on Terror.”

In 2008, when Hautzinger and Scandlyn began the project, they interviewed scores of veterans returning to Colorado Springs from the post-9/11 wars in the Middle East. They learned of soldiers’ wives who went to mental health providers to get anti-anxiety and other medications for their husbands, who were afraid of repercussions in their units if anyone found out they were seeking help. They learned of barriers to care and why soldiers weren’t seeking help on their own.

From there they began to speak to family members and examine the wider Fort Carson and Colorado Springs community to survey the kinds of resources and programs available to veterans and returning active duty soldiers. In southern Colorado, “all these different pathways are being used to help them heal from war — not just physical wounds but psychological as well,” Scandlyn said. “Only slowly now are some of the more recent Iraq and Afghan vets beginning to follow these pathways.”

While PTSD is an important diagnosis that brings resources and healing modalities to help soldiers post-war, it tends to be the “only language” of how society works with soldiers who are struggling, Scandlyn said. “It’s much broader than that. It doesn’t include the family members affected by war, the community itself affected by war. … We wanted to talk about the moral issues, employment, education, and getting back into the civilian world that are not necessarily defined by a mental diagnosis.”

The book is organized into three parts. The first part focuses on soldiers and their frequent resistance to being treated for PTSD. The section delves into the psychology of a soldier — how it’s cast as falling victim to something. “Treating it as a disorder contradicts their view of themselves as warriors going into battle,” Hautzinger said.

The second part explores the broader community, spouses, programs and treatments available within the community. Hautzinger notes that, for a lot of soldiers, treatment modalities extend well beyond a prescription. They include connecting to their community or developing new skills and a new direction in life.

The third part focuses on the gulf between the military and civilian populations. Less than 1 percent of the general U.S. population serves in the military, “so mutual stereotypes build up on both sides that can impeded productive dialogue,” Scandlyn said. “We explore places in the community where people have tried to reach out and create a dialogue. How do you explore what really happened and explore ways that dialogue can happen in a more mutual, productive way?”

For those who served, reintegration and the “new normals” for soldiers is a complex and layered process. In popular media portrayals, the soldier is typically cast as the hero. “It reproduces the idea that becoming a soldier is the only way for me, for example, to have a story of my own,” Hautzinger said. “When in fact processing what war is for soldiers and families, and what it means for society as a whole, falls to all of us.”

Scandlyn noted that the U.S. is only at the beginning of bringing soldiers back from the wars and that the reintegration process will continue for years to come.

The National Endowment for the Humanities collaborative grant “New Normals,” which has supported later stages of the project, emphasizes public dissemination of work of vital civic interest. With the book out, the coming year is dedicated to inviting community participation. University of Colorado’s President’s Fund supports extending the Sharing War project, a community-based outgrowth of the research, to CU Denver and the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, where veteran and military family members serve as envoys who engage civilians. This project began in 2013 through a Unitarian-Universalist social activist group invited the CU Denver-CC team (see community partners) to collaborate. After a kickoff talk, citizens are invited to events related to the long wars — veterans story-circles, public talks or commemorations, volunteer service, or protests — to sit in as observers or to participate as they choose. Later participants reconvene for reflection potlucks, completing a short, simple cycle of sharing experiences, burdens, and civic responsibility for war’s tolls.

The University of Colorado also supports a dissemination grant, through which Scandlyn and Hautzinger will donate bundles of the volume, for book groups at libraries across the region. This effort pursues the book’s argument that hard though it may be, people also have yearnings and needs to connect, through community, with all that has happened since 9/11.

The book is available through Left Coast Press, Inc.

(Photo: Book cover features a painting by Colorado Springs artist Laura BenAmots).

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