30 May 2012: Veterans need support, acceptance

Veterans need support, acceptance

“There were other ways of making people into ghosts.” (To Kill a Mockingbird)

That quote from the classic novel by Harper Lee came to mind as I listened to a discussion on the plight of our veterans on KYGT with guests George Clark, Rick Scott, and Troy Erickson.

Lee means it in context of how we can easily put on emotional blinders to block out those who make us uncomfortable.  Across society there are more closets than the one to which gays and lesbians have found themselves relegated.

“Hiding in plain sight” is the way George describes what happens oftentimes to returning men and women.  The reasons vary, from preferring anonymity to fearing their service being held against them.

It’s a strange morphing of attitudes since World War II, which is indicative of our cultural shift.  In 1945, the zeitgeist—popular attitude—was that of adulation; after the Vietnam War, soldiers at times faced scorn; today, they’re simply ignored, and the consequences are catastrophic.

In a piece of synchronicity, as I was pondering this topic and conducting initial research, my copy of Newsweek arrived and one of the lead articles was about suicide among vets.  The line that headlined the piece—“We pretend the vets don’t even exist—echoes George’s plaint.

“About 18 veterans kill themselves each day,” writes former Marine Anthony Swofford.

The number of veterans that have taken their own lives is estimated to exceed the combined 6.460 battlefield deaths of the Two Wars.  In addition, “male veterans have a twofold increase in death by suicide than their civilian counterparts, and that female veterans are three times as likely to kill themselves.”

In the past—before the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan—the rigorous training and intense discipline were thought to be sufficient in terms of helping military personnel, especially frontline, combat troops, to resist acting upon suicidal impulses.

But that has changed.  While the so-called all-volunteer military has been around for nearly 40 years, this past decade of Two Wars has put it—and necessarily the men and women who have served—through the ultimate stress test.

Multiple deployments and the minimal time between them have, according to Peter Gutierrez of the Denver VA and coordinator of the Military Suicide Research Consortium, been “more than a unique factor.”

Rapid redeployment can lead to a “moral injury,” in which “a soldier’s concept of trust and right and wrong do not survive the heat of battle,” which in turn can lead him/her returning to civilian life “hyper-vigilant and trusting no one,” to a society of which 99 percent has no skin in the wars and assuages its guilt—unwillingness to participate up close and personal—with bumper-sticker platitudes, cheering fly-overs before a football game, and occasional “thank you for your service” comments.

For the first time in our history, we are emotionally detached from the wars we are pursuing, and it has far-ranging catastrophic consequences.

“It’s there,” says George, “that isolation, that aloneness. I feel many volunteer to go back because of it.”

It’s as if the deployed men and women are members of some exclusive fraternity, separated from and incomprehensible to the larger culture, which is both telling and sad.

“At some point you’re sitting alone, late at night, in dead silence (for me, I could hear the clock ticking on the kitchen wall), trying to understand that while your gut feels like you’re still at war, America is at the mall.”

My niece Tami, who was deployed recently, talks about how quiet can be as unnerving as can be loud, sudden noises.

“You’re so used to background noise like generators running 24/7 that when you get in a place where you’re alone and it’s really quiet, you can get completely unnerved.”

I am convinced my brother who died from cancer in 2001 would still be living if not for Vietnam.  He is as much as a casualty of that undeclared war as is every one of the 58,000 men and women whose names are engraved on the war’s memorial.  It just took him longer to die from the effects of the trauma, specifically Agent Orange.

From that perspective, the veterans of the Two Wars who have taken their own lives are as much as casualties of them as are those who died in combat.  Simply because a soldier has been removed physically from combat does not mean he/she is psychologically separated from it.

Resources are available including the emerging Clear Creek Veterans’ Services Coalition.  Another is a veteran’s suicide hotline number: 1-800-273-8255.

Pro-war or anti-war—it ought not to matter when it comes to supporting our returning vets.

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