A few days ago I received a thank you note from an American soldier who has been struggling with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As with many victims of TBI and PTSD, it had taken him a while to realize the true nature of his injury and to seek professional help.
In the meantime, his personal life had gone downhill and he was behind in the bills. We had heard of his plight and without being asked, provided him with financial support as he sought therapy. “I don’t like asking anyone for help,” he wrote. “But the gift your organization sent me on Easter was spent on our utility bills, and we thanked God for you over our meal that evening. I am not a religious man, but I do believe in a higher power. I see people like you giving to my brothers in combat and I get goose bumps.”
I withhold this hero’s name out of respect for his privacy, but his letter made our day and it underscores a continuing challenge for all of us who care about the precious few men and women who bear the burden of our nation’s defense. Because we depend on such a small number of professional military people to carry the flag, many of them must return to the combat zones time and time again. All too often they come home with both physical injuries and less visible afflictions that render them unable of participating in normal life and that continue to haunt their dreams at night. It is easier and simpler to accommodate a missing arm or leg than it is to heal a shattered spirit.
Memorial Day offers an excellent opportunity for the rest of us to stand up and express our appreciation for the sacrifices these heroes have made, and to listen to their testimony. That actually is the only proven therapy for PTSD. Medical science has come up with all sorts of wondrous devices — advanced prostheses — to help wounded warriors compensate for missing limbs, but there are no pills or other medical magic to treat PTSD.
But there are ways we can help. The wounded warriors with PTSD derive great therapeutic benefit from discussing their experiences with people who are sympathetic and do not pass judgment. Sometimes, they can share with professional therapists, but anyone who cares can lend an ear — a minister, a neighbor or just a friend. The wounded veterans are most comfortable with others who share their experience and can relate to what they have been through, but in a real sense, their stories are our own stories. They have gone through hell so we didn’t have to.
Memorial Day also offers an excellent chance to express support for the spouses of these victims of TBI and PTSD, who must often bear full responsibility for their households, taking care of the children and paying the bills, while the warriors struggle to return to normalcy. These spouses — usually wives — are heroes, too, and they also need someone to listen. If you know one of these heroes, today would be a good opportunity to take some time from your busy schedule and lend an ear.
• David Walker is president and CEO of Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes.