Sandy’s Other Storm Clouds

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Air Force photo / Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen

New Jersey National Guard Specialist Anthony Monte, mobilized for Hurricane Sandy, provides help to displaced residents at an emergency shelter at the Werblin Recreation Center, Piscataway Township, N.J., on Oct. 29.

The damage caused by Hurricane Sandy was shockingly widespread and severe. It will be days before we fully understand the actual cost to those communities most directly affected—and weeks before we can estimate the cost to our overall economy.

Sadly, there is another group for whom the destruction and recovery associated with this storm will be especially challenging. Many service members, veterans, and their families have experienced chronic stress for the last decade.

Some returning troops and their families are dealing with visible and invisible injuries that are the result of their service to our country. Like other vulnerable populations affected by Sandy, some military families and veterans will have an especially difficult time recovering and rebuilding.

For service members and veterans continuing to struggle with post-traumatic stress and other understandable psychological consequences of war, living through a raging hurricane may trigger a variety of symptoms and reactions.

The sense of being helpless in the face of danger; the loud and unpredictable sounds that accompany a storm of this magnitude; the inability to escape a perceived threat; and the sense of hopelessness in the face of destruction—these external factors and internal reactions may lead to intense feelings of anxiety and depression.

Family members, friends, and the veterans themselves may not understand the emotional impact of the storm. And this confusion only adds to the agitation and potential psychological damage caused by the experience.

In addition, some military families who are chronically stressed after years of coping with frequent deployments and repeated reunions, will have a difficult time absorbing the additional strain caused by the flooding, wind damage, and extra expense associated with this storm.

It is easy to imagine how these families—the ones who are barely making it through each day financially and emotionally—will struggle to manage the associated stress. Those of us who work to support the military community should look for an increase in emotional distress and domestic conflict among husbands, wives, and children who now face the challenge of rebuilding their lives—again.

As we look for opportunities to help our neighbors following the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy, let’s pay special attention to the impact of the storm on the men, women, and families who serve our country.

For some of them, this is one more difficult and stressful event that will require strength and resources they may be running short on. Perhaps we can offer assistance and support that is a tangible example of the appreciation so many of us truly feel for all that they have done.

Barbara Van Dahlen is a Washington, D.C.-area psychologist who founded Give An Hour, a private non-profit group that pairs volunteer mental-health professionals with U.S. military personnel back from war.

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