Casualties of War: The Hidden Struggles of Veteran Children

by Donavon L Riley 

After the battle space has been reclaimed by nature. After the exchange of artillery and gunfire has been entered into history books. After sacrifices made become stories told in hushed tones over a beer or in school gymnasiums, a different kind of casualty remains standing at the back of the room, eclipsed by shadows – the children of veterans.

The sounds of war, both subtle and profound, resonate through their lives, carving trauma into their psyches, mental and physical challenges, and a unique spiritual path. So as we strive to honor the lives, sacrifices, and memories of our veterans, we must also not shy away from telling the stories of their children. They too bear wounds that deserve acknowledgment, compassion, and opportunities for healing.  


Invisible Wounds, Visible Impact: Trauma Passed Down

War’s vicious bite often leaves its marks on the children of veterans, even if they were never on the front lines. The invisible wounds – PTS, anxiety, depression – leave unseen blood trails that cross-cross the household, trailing behind them for the rest of their lives. Children sense the shifts in their parent’s demeanor, experience their night terrors, and are sucked into the wake of their emotional turmoil.

Growing up amidst this environment, they often absorb their parent’s trauma, not as an intellectual concept, but as a lived reality. This emotional inheritance can lead to struggles with their own mental health, as the lines between their parents’ experiences and their own become blurred.  


Shadows on Innocence: The Physical Toll

War’s consequences reverberate physically as well. Exposure to war’s aftereffects, such as exposure to harmful substances or being in environments of heightened stress, can lead to an array of health challenges for veteran children. These may range from chronic conditions caused by environmental factors to conditions exacerbated by the stress of the familial dynamic.

Additionally, veterans dealing with physical injuries may require long-term care from their children, putting them in the role of caregivers far earlier than most. This vocational reversal not only affects their physical well-being but also strains their emotional, psychological, and spiritual health as they are compelled to sacrifice their plans, relationships, and goals for the sake of a higher calling, caring for their parent.  


My God, My God, Why Have You Abandoned Me: The Quest for Spiritual Identity

The spiritual path of veteran children is complicated, because their identities are shaped against the backdrop of service and sacrifice that they may have been too young to comprehend (or even alive to experience) at the time of their parents deployment. They grapple with questions of patriotism, morality, and the nature of conflict itself. Some might find inspiration in their parents’ bravery, while others could feel resentment for the burdens placed upon them, ultimately blaming God for what’s happened to their family.

Moreover, the search for purpose often carries an added weight for these children. They witness firsthand the consequences of war, the complexity of human relationships framed by conflict, and the changes that have occurred as a consequence of their parents service. As a result, many clumsily seek deeper meaning, asking profound questions about God and the meaning of their life, striving with very few tools to understand their place in a world that seems both beautiful and barren at the same time.  


Breaking the Silence: Navigating a Scarred Landscape

Acknowledging the struggles faced by veteran children is the first step toward breaking the silence that surrounds their experiences. Open conversations are imperative, both within families and on a societal level. When veteran children are allowed to speak for themselves, describing their experiences, revealing what they have witnessed and how it’s affected them, then the necessary resources can be made available for them to grapple with, and ultimately learn to live with, the realities of life as a child of a veteran and all that encompasses, which will benefit both the child and their parents. 

For families, seeking professional help can be pivotal. Counselors, pastors, and other children of veterans who are experienced in engaging the challenges of veteran children can provide guidance in navigating the complexities of intergenerational trauma and often strained familial dynamics. These people can help children address the deeper truth about their personal experience, understand their parent’s struggle and afflictions, and develop strategies for managing the mental, emotional, and spiritual struggles they’ve inherited.


Healing The Wounds: A Shared Responsibility

Healing the wounds carried by the children of veterans is a shared responsibility. Communities must step up to offer the support and resources needed for their well-being. But of more vital importance is the commitment within families themselves.

Veteran parents can aid their children’s overall maturation and well-being by fostering an environment where honest, sometimes brutally honest, conversations are encouraged. Sharing their experiences, when appropriate, can provide context and allow children to sympathize with the physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual complexities of their parents’ deployments.

By acknowledging the influence of their service on their children and addressing the complexities of life after deployment that have affected their lives, veterans can help break the generational consequences of trauma (and also PTS, anxiety, depression, addiction, and a host of other factors that encroach upon them that their children may not grasp or understand).  


The Casualties of War: Compassion and Hope

The casualties of war aren’t always visible on the battlefield. Sometimes the most catastrophic wounds that a veteran brings home from the war are sitting across from them at the kitchen table, staring at them in innnocence, confusion, or terror. So the children of veterans carry a unique burden, a mixture of psychological, emotional, and spiritual challenges inherited from their parents’ experiences. But within these challenges also lie the seeds of resilience and maturation, if parents will simply nurture and encourage them to grow.

As a community, as families, and as individuals, we must extend our compassion to these casualties who are often eclipsed by the shadows of war. Through compassion, open communication, and a commitment to healing together, we can help these children navigate the scarred terrain of their lives. It’s in this commitment that we honor not just our veterans, but the generations they’ve raised, ensuring a legacy of strength and healing for years to come.

By Donovan Riley

Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, and contributing writer for 1517. He is also a co-host of Banned Books and Warrior Priest podcasts. He is the author of the book, "Crucifying Religion” and “The Withertongue Emails.” He is also a contributing author to "The Sinner/Saint Devotional: 60 Days in the Psalms" and "Theology of the Cross".

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