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Veterans' forum to spotlight relationship issues

Jim Cronin

Fargo Vet Center counselor Jim Cronin understands the conflicts that sometimes can arise between veterans and their loved ones.

The former Army Reservist nurse has been a licensed clinical social worker since 2008, helping individuals, groups, couples and families navigate the sometimes-turbulent waters of emotional issues arising from military service.

Cronin will be the featured speaker at the Veterans' Relationship Forum, to be held on March 15 at the Riverside United Methodist Church. Sponsored by the Hubbard County Veteran Services Office and the Disabled American Veterans Local Chapter 38, the purpose of the forum is to provide an awareness of some of the sources of conflicts veterans and their significant others can experience.

The event runs from 6-8 p.m., and all veterans and significant others are welcome. There will be a free dinner from 6:15-7 p.m., but to guarantee your spot, RSVP to 732-3561 by Friday, March 8.

In a recent interview, Cronin explained that understanding where problematic behaviors originate, and addressing them within the relational system, can help change those behaviors and effect healing among those involved.

"What I like," he said, "is for clients to be able to separate the behavior from the person." He elaborated by saying that, while a particular behavior that might seem to a loved one to be a difficult personality trait, it usually is a symptom of a psychological issue a veteran is carrying. Given the nature of military training and particularly some of the experiences involved in deployments, those issues can come from many sources and lead to the relational conflict.

Readjustment counseling

The model of care Cronin and his fellow counselors follow at the Vet Center in Fargo is called "readjustment counseling," which targets problems that can arise when a veteran transitions from military service back to civilian life.

Something like deployment, or even pre-deployment, can interfere with roles and expectations that people have with each other.

"If you are married or in a relationship," Cronin said, "and you have roles that are occupied in your home — say, doing laundry or managing everything outdoors — and then you leave for a deployment, that role is either left unoccupied or gets taken over by the spouse left behind."

Cronin noted that often, that spouse will adapt those roles and gain new confidence in seeing that they can accomplish tasks on their own.

"So that spouse has been empowered," he said, "but at the same time, the veteran is off serving and could still be working on the old formula, thinking that when he or she returns, it will be to the same roles. But when they do return, those roles have been occupied, and they almost have to fight to get some of them back. That can create conflict, with the veteran thinking, 'You don't need me anymore.'"

Cronin has been trained in what is called "complex systems theory," which looks at how various systems interact. He explained that when one thing is changed, everything else likely has to as well, to avoid conflict.

"Trying to return to old roles often creates confusion that requires adjustment," Cronin said. "That dynamic has changed, so the relationship has changed, too."

Emotional numbing and social avoidance

Cronin noted that most of the people he counsels have diagnoses related to deployment, although he added that issues also can arise during pre-deployment training.

"If we start looking at disorders or dysfunction," he explained, "we're talking about emotional symptoms. PTSD is probably our biggest diagnosis, but other things we see with that include depression, misplaced guilt and moral injury," moral injury being an extreme example of a kind of cognitive dissonance that comes with the conflict between one's religious or moral values and the presence of killing in combat.

"All of our training from basic on up is about killing," Cronin reflected. "We don't always say that, but that's what it is. Once we develop training that has us looking at people as targets, people as enemies, we dehumanize it. Once we dehumanize, we become emotionally numb, but we may have to reach that point in order to do our jobs."

The numbness also can occur around losing someone in your own company. Since military forces in a combat zone must be "mission ready" all the time, there isn't time for a proper grieving process for those you may have lost. The feelings resulting from those losses then get pushed aside and left undealt with.

"This happened a lot in Vietnam," Cronin said. "New people would come, and no one wanted to get to know them because of the possibility of losing them. So they'd just keep the new guys at arm's length."

When this happens, he added, veterans often return home, expecting to be excited about being back, but they're actually feeling empty. The emotional numbness they needed to survive during deployments continues.

"You'll hear this very often," he said. "A loved one will say something like, 'You're a different person. You aren't the person I knew.' This, of course, creates a lot of conflict."

'There is healing'

Trust can be a difficult thing for veterans returning from a combat theater. If the things that have been pushed down in the emotional numbing process begin to come to the surface, loved ones or anyone with whom they have had relationships might misunderstand their lashing out or withdrawing, making healthy communication challenging.

Cronin explained that development of the therapeutic relationship, building a safe place where the veteran can begin to learn to trust again, is a significant aspect of what he does.

"In our practice," he said, "we believe that the relationship is the most important thing. We're willing to stick with them, even if they're irritable or angry or avoiding, and give them a non-judgmental approach. They may not get a lot of that from their primary relationships because there's the need for reciprocity there; they need to give and take. But we're offering a relationship that's working with them just on their own terms, with no consequences for making errors with us."

Cronin added that once they've developed a firm relationship and rapport with the veteran, trust begins to build, and some of the buried emotional issues that create negative thinking patterns can begun to be worked through.

Even with that progress, though, counselors tend not to talk about it as being "cured," but rather as having an improved ability to accept and cope better with the realities of what has been experienced.

"We're not curing something like PTSD," Cronin emphasized. "We're helping veterans give labels to what they're experiencing. Things don't look like they did before. It typically means feeling less shame and having more confidence, reducing negative self-thoughts, and being able to trust your spouse and significant others. There IS healing."

Cronin will talk more about these and other issues at the forum on March 15.

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