Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Helping our Returning Soldiers Go On with Their Lives

A recent NYT editorial, Intolerable Rise in Soldier Suicides serves as a chilling reminder that just because a soldier may return from war physically intact does not necessarily mean that they are mentally intact from their war experiences.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff…predicted the toll this year will top the record of 2008, when the Army suffered 133 suicides. That was twice the number in 2004, before the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns turned into a slog of repeated tours.

About one in five (soldiers) returning home privately admit to post-traumatic stress disorders, but only half seek treatment. Soldiers fear their careers will be compromised if they reach out for help.
So while getting wounded in battle gets a soldier a medal in the form of a Purple Heart, mental stress disorders are all too often treated like so many other mental illnesses — as something to be ashamed of.

Those who saw the Academy Award winning movie
Patton will remember the reenactment of the infamous slapping incident during World War II.

According to witnesses, General Patton was visiting patients at a military hospital in Sicily, and came upon a 24-year-old soldier named Charles H. Kuhl, who was weeping. Patton asked "What's the matter with you?" and the soldier replied, "It's my nerves, I guess. I can't stand shelling." Patton "thereupon burst into a rage" and "employing much profanity, he called the soldier a 'coward'" and ordered him back to the front. As a crowd gathered, including the hospital's commanding officer, the doctor who had admitted the soldier, and a nurse, Patton then "struck the youth in the rear of the head with the back of his hand". Reportedly, the nurse "made a dive toward Patton, but was pulled back by a doctor" and the commander intervened. Patton went to other patients, then returned and berated the soldier again.
A lesser known but equally powerful movie The Outsider is a true story about Ira Hayes who became famous as one of the five Marines in the historic photo of the flag raising on Iwo Jima.
After the war, Hayes attempted to lead a normal life, unsuccessfully. "I kept getting hundreds of letters. And people would drive through the reservation, walk up to me and ask, 'Are you the Indian who raised the flag on Iwo Jima'?"

Hayes accumulated a record of some fifty arrests for drunkenness. Referring to his alcoholism, he once said: "I was sick. I guess I was about to crack up thinking about all my good buddies. They were better men than me and they're not coming back — much less back to the White House, like me."

On January 24, 1955, Hayes was found dead, face down and lying in his own vomit and blood, near an abandoned hut close to his home on the Gila River Indian Reservation.
But mental illness in our returning soldiers is a cause of a more common problem but one that we as a country should be no less ashamed of —
homeless veterans.

Although accurate numbers are impossible to come by -- no one keeps national records on homeless veterans -- the VA estimates that 154,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. And approximately twice that many experience homelessness over the course of a year.

The vast majority are single, most come from poor, disadvantaged communities, 45% suffer from mental illness, and half have substance abuse problems.

In addition to the complex set of factors affecting all homelessness -- extreme shortage of affordable housing, livable income, and access to health care -- a large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with lingering effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and substance abuse, compounded by a lack of family and social support networks.

While the very nature of war has always been hard on soldiers, the Iraq War has been especially hard on our troops due to the
multiple deployments that many of them have had to endure.

The head of a Iraq war veterans group pegged "multiple deployments" as a culprit (in the rise of suicides), and told MSNBC that it shouldn't be surprising, but the military seems to be grasping for answers.
It is certainly difficult to adapt to the change from civilian life to a war zone. And it can be just as hard to adapt back to civilian life after serving in a war. But with multiple deployments requiring adapting back and forth multiple times, is it any wonder that the strain of this has taken its toll — not only on the soldiers, but on their marriages and children?

This is the first time in the US that an all-volunteer armed forces has been asked to fight wars (in Iraq and Afghanistan) on such a scale. Insufficient numbers of recruits to maintain the troop levels being used there has resulted in the need for these disastrous multiple redeployments.

But the all-volunteer military has had an unintended consequence of promoting complacency on how our military is being treated. Back during the Vietnam War when sons, husbands, and boyfriends were being drafted to serve there, many more people were actively involved in whether we should have even been there along with how these people were being treated. Many people marched in the streets and said “Hell no, we won’t go!” and burned their draft cards.

Today there is less guilt by many about sending people to fight our wars like in Iraq. The thinking is that these people volunteered so they will be OK as long as they aren’t one of the roughly 4,300 that have been killed. But even for many of those who have returned without physical injury, they have paid a huge price in the way of mental injury, perhaps leading to divorce or homelessness — or even suicide.

We need to lose this complacency! We need to insist that our military puts in the proper mental health care resources for our returning soldiers. This means screening all of our returning soldiers from war for mental health issues and providing real help in the way of caring mental health professionals and social workers for those who need it — and not just by prescribing pills as some have charged.

We hear so many times from politicians when talking to or about our military personnel that they
"Salute Our Troops". That all sounds nice but we need to do more. Of course we need to care about those who have died fighting our wars. But we also need to care at least as much for the living who have returned from battle changed and need our help to go on with their lives!

1 comment:

bellevuebelle said...

Thanks for caring and writing about this, Tony. I appreciate your point about the "all volunteer Army" perhaps causing others in America to be detached and less concerned than they should be. I exchanged words recently in an online forum with a man on the "left" whose opinion is that anybody who volunteered after 2003 is some kind of idiot or idealogue anyway, and, by implication, not worthy of credit or concern. What a tragic state of mind in this great and powerful country.

Many don't seem to appreciate the fact that no matter what the politics of the moment, there have been and will be times when our national security requires all the military strength we can muster. For an American to be so belittling toward the military in our society is troubling, to say the least.

I chuckle, Tony, as I'm sure you know I'm something of a political "leftie" myself! :-)

In order for our military forces to be the best and most moral possible we must include thoughtful and moral people in the ranks. I, personally, have difficulty with those who would ban military recruiters from college campuses. We must respect, honor, and take good care of the people who make up our forces around the world. We -- all of us -- and our family members should be represented among them, with pride!

I am pleased to say that the Office of Behavioral Health at Allegheny County Department of Human Services has made efforts in recent years to coordinate with the Pittsburgh Area VA Healthcare System regarding access to mental health care and social services for returning veterans. I no longer am working in the public mental health system but I have seen some coverage on Pittsburgh television stations where social worker Lucille Underwood has discussed these joint efforts in outreach and service design.

Ms. Underwood is employed at the Office of Behavioral Health at Allegheny County. I'm sure any veteran or family member could get a referral from Ms. Underwood about services here in Allegheny County or at least a point of contact for getting started elsewhere in Pennsylvania. In the blue pages of the phone book, under Government, County [Allegheny or other], one would find the proper phone number. A direct call to the local area VA or veterans center would also get the process started, of course.

Your writing has to do with public perceptions. I'm ever so grateful that we've made at least some progress in combating stigma since the days of General Patton! We have a long way to go.

I spoke to a psychiatrist at the Pittsburgh VA a couple of years ago about her caseload. I assumed it would be heavy with recently returned veterans. Her comment was "I haven't been seeing them!" With outreach I hope that situation has improved.

Your efforts to promote awareness on this issue is a step in the right direction. Help is available but one must know about it and feel comfortable trying to get connected to it.