As our nation takes its annual holiday to recognize the sacrifices and service of the few among us who shoulder the dangers and burdens of national defense, we need to waken to the realization that many thousands of those heroes are suffering from lingering injuries that our government is struggling to deal with — thus far with little success.
To be sure, it is truly a wonder what medical science has been able to accomplish in terms of treating critical physical battlefield injuries. Many thousands of our veterans have survived wounds that would have killed their forebears in World War II, Korea or even Vietnam. They are not only surviving, but are learning to compensate for missing arms and legs. Advances in prosthetic limbs have achieved great things and new innovations keep coming. I know one young man — Marine Corps Cpl. Rob Jones — who lost both legs below the knee but still became a champion rower and recently concluded a coast-to-coast ride on a bicycle, an achievement that was warmly cheered by admirers across the country.
However, many of those who have suffered grievous injuries, and even some who emerged physically intact, bear scars the rest of us cannot see. I refer to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), often aggravated by traumatic brain injuries, that leave far too many of them in a constant state of anxiety, sleeplessness and panic attacks that render them not only unable to maintain viable careers, but also unable to conduct what most people would consider normal lives. Not surprisingly, this group reports extraordinarily high rates of depression, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, divorce and suicide.
Of course, veterans in every war have experienced this same kind of trauma, but never before have we as a nation relied upon such a small professional army for its defense, and we are now engaged in one of the longest running wars of our history. What this means on the ground is that we send the same small coterie of people back to the battle zones time and time again. Some of these people have served 10 or more tours. Even for those who do not suffer physical wounds, the stress is incredible. Human beings are simply not designed for this sort of thing.
The medical profession does offer effective therapies to victims of PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, but they invariably entail extended therapy in the care of professionals. With well-directed therapy, wounded veterans learn to live with their traumas by suppressing bad memories and focusing on positive things in their lives. They learn ways to relax and avoid situations that tend to trigger unhappy memories. Many victims of PTSD have derived great benefits from transcendental meditation. The doctors putting someone’s body back together know specific things to do, but professionals treating this kind of disorder generally offer a variety of approaches depending on the nature of the problem. In no case is treatment of PTSD simple or quick.
Unfortunately, the Department of Veterans Affairs does not have nearly enough mental health professionals to handle the case load of veterans with PTSD. Also, the standard military practice of moving people around like men on a chess board undermines the therapy that depends on in-depth relationships of trust between the victims of PTSD and their therapists. Every time one of these key therapists is transferred, their patients incur setbacks that disrupt their progress.
The unsung heroes of this saga are the caregivers — usually wives — who struggle on a daily basis to help their spouses cope with the tragedy of PTSD while taking care of the children and making sure the bills are paid. It is truly heartbreaking to listen to these women tell stories of husbands who live in the basement, who shun most human contact, who awake in the middle of the night screaming, and who are unable to sustain the most basic human relationships. It is heartbreaking, but also heartening, to consider their resilience and dedication to the men who came back to them in such damaged condition.
The military establishment has been slow to come to grips with this crisis, and many thousands of our heroes do not have access to the support and assistance they need. There is a profound need for Veterans Affairs and the Pentagon to recognize this unprecedented challenge and work with Congress to develop a strategy for dealing with it. These heroes have sacrificed a lot for our security and will be dealing with their inner scars for a long time to come. They need and deserve our support.
David W. Walker is president and chief executive officer of the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes.
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