Aaron returned from Iraq and went straight into a civilian job, riding on a "get the job done" mentality. Then his wife began noticing how things didn't seem quite right. He was angry and resentful. Aaron remembers having survivor's guilt and vivid nightmares of being back in Iraq.
What is guilt?
Do you blame yourself for things that happened in the past, whether or not you were somehow at fault or even involved? Maybe you feel as if there was something more you could have or should have done to prevent a tragic event. Perhaps you’ve done things you’re not proud of and you can’t seem to get those things off your mind.
Guilt is a feeling of responsibility for bad events, whether that feeling of responsibility is realistic or not. Some Veterans feel guilt because of something that happened in a military situation, such as an injury to a buddy in their unit, friendly fire, or civilian deaths. Other Veterans may feel guilt because of events that happened outside of the military. In addition, some Veterans may experience survivor guilt. Survivor guilt symptoms include feeling responsible for surviving when others did not, wishing that you had died instead of others, or thinking you didn’t deserve to survive.
“It took me a long time to accept that I wasn't responsible, but I still see his brand new boots and his shiny dog tags.”
Guilt can interfere with your everyday activities, and it makes it hard for some people to get through the day. Guilt may be related to stress and anxiety, or depression. Some people may try dealing with guilt temporarily by turning to alcohol or drugs in order to forget, or to feel better for a little while. Others may become withdrawn or irritable, or feel like their life has lost meaning. This can strain your personal relationships and may make it hard to keep a job or to go to school.
If I’m experiencing guilt, what can I do about it right away?
“The folks at the VA helped me to understand I wasn't in control of everything that went on around me in Vietnam and that bad things happen to good people. Even when you do everything right, really bad things can happen. They helped me to learn that it's okay to think about these things and to remember these things.
If you find yourself living with guilt about a past action or inaction, try to set aside time to think about your feelings. The following steps might help you cope with the guilt you feel:
- Write a list of what you think you should have done and what you think you should not have done during the event
- Remind yourself that everyone has things they would do differently if given the chance—but that no one can change the past or predict the future. Many things that look clear now would have been impossible to predict at the time
- Identify any regrets you can act upon in a productive way, such as finding a way to pay tribute to the fallen
- Forgive yourself for the regrets you cannot correct—you might talk to a chaplain about how to move forward with forgiveness
- Discuss what actually happened with others who were there—sometimes guilt can change the way you remember things and make you feel more responsible than you actually are
- Remind yourself that what’s done is done—you did the best you could, given your circumstances at the time
If you are having trouble forgiving yourself, talking to your family and friends may be a good first step. Many people find that sharing regrets or guilty feelings with another person helps them overcome them – sometimes the struggle comes from keeping things to yourself. They also may have perspectives on the situation you have overlooked. Your family and friends may be able to provide you with support and help you find services that are right for you.
Take the next step – Make the connection.
Every day, Veterans connect with useful resources and effective treatments for dealing with guilt. If guilt is affecting your health and well-being or getting in the way of your relationships, work, or daily activities, you may want to reach out for support. Consider connecting with:
- A spiritual or religious advisor, such as a chaplain
- A mental health professional, such as a therapist
- Your family doctor: Ask if your doctor has experience treating Veterans or can refer you to someone who does
- Your local VA Medical Center or Vet Center: VA specializes in the care and treatment of Veterans
Explore these resources for more information about guilt in Veterans.
Learn more about the possible associations between guilt and other issues such as stress and anxiety, depression, spirituality, posttraumatic stress, and alcohol or drug problems.
VA Medical Center Facility Locator
Problems dealing with guilt may be related to other health conditions that need attention. This website will allow you to search for VA programs located near you. If you are eligible to receive care through the Veterans Health Administration, you can enroll in one of VA’s treatment programs.
If you are a combat Veteran or experienced any sexual trauma during your military service, bring your DD214 to your local Vet Center and speak with a counselor or therapist—many of whom are Veterans themselves—for free, without an appointment, and regardless of your enrollment status with VA.