By Bill Scheurer
Major Tammy Duckworth hobbled to the podium on her own power - aided by prosthetic devices in both her legs and one arm. An Iraq War veteran who was severely injured in battle and now serves as Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs, she spoke of one of her comrades who arrived first on the scene after the helicopter she was piloting had been shot down with a rocket-propelled grenade.
“Don’t Be Ashamed of Me”
She described how he and others had struggled to lift her body to safety because she had no legs and only one arm for them to hold on to, their hands slippery with her blood and tissue. Then she told of this soldier’s troubles adjusting to civilian life: a serious traffic violation; another tour in Iraq; a second traffic violation, causing the army to discharge him; another stint as a military contractor in Iraq with a private security firm - a fairly typical story for those of us who know Iraq/Afghanistan veterans.
One day she received a call from him. “Tammy, I think I’m in trouble and may need your help. Please don’t be ashamed of me.” This man had saved her life! Now he felt fear of shame when he needed to turn to her for help. She told him she would never be ashamed of him, that she was proud of him. As a committed peace activist whose own son served in Iraq and is on 60% disability with the VA, this story gives me hope - hope that those among us who paid the highest price will find room to heal.
I heard this story at a full-day symposium aptly named “Beyond the Yellow Ribbon: Diagnosing and Treating Anxiety, Depression, and PTSD in Returning Veterans,” sponsored by a local hospital network. The goal of this program was to help primary care physicians and other health care professionals to better understand what combat veterans have experienced and its effect on their families.
New Twist on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”
Extensive information in the popular and scientific press shows that veterans are “calling through the cracks” of our medical system. In a strange new twist on “don’t ask, don’t tell” military culture, many veterans do not tell physicians about their military service and health care practitioners do not ask.
Therefore, a veteran may have stomach pains, headaches, insomnia, or some other seemingly minor complaint that actually masks a much more serious condition. Key topics included suicide and the other “invisible wounds” of war - PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and mild TBI (traumatic brain injury).
This program gave me hope that these epidemics are finally coming out of the shadows. Reliable sources estimate that more than 300,000 Iraq veterans will be returning to us with PTSD and TBI. These injuries are as real as a missing limb or flesh wound from a bullet or IED, the consequences just as serious.
The event included high ranking officials from state and federal veteran administrations, military personnel, combat simulations, MREs (meals ready to eat), full armor field gear, Humvees, and medical and psychological professionals who were there to help guide their colleagues in incorporating these experiences and the latest research and clinical findings into their practices in the community.
Suicide, Depression, Survivor Guilt
Suicide was a key topic of discussion. People suffering from PTSD have fifteen times the normal rate of suicide attempts compared with the general population, and people with TBI have three to four times. These are enormous statistics, confirming what we in the peace community have been saying for a long time. Every military family, community, and healthcare practitioner needs to register these facts.
Depression is another big problem. Adjustment to civilian life can be very hard for soldiers returning from war, especially when a down economy severely constricts the job market. As one psychologist told us, one of his patients said he went overnight from saving lives to working in a 7-11 convenience store.
Survivor guilt was another main theme. Some veterans come back unharmed while the person standing or sitting literally next to them was killed. They wonder why it was their friend and not them.
What made this program and others like it so wonderful, so important, so necessary, was to see current military personnel (both ranking and enlisted), fellow veterans, and health care professionals acknowledging that it is okay to hurt, that the psychological wounds of war are as real, significant and respected as the physical. That is a major breakthrough for our armed forces and our society.
Imagine if we had more programs like this in every major city in the country. How much that would help our veterans, our communities, and our nation begin to heal from the wounds of war. Φ
Bill Scheurer is Coordinator of the Peace Garden Project, www.PeaceGardenProject.org, and author of Us & Them: Bridging the Chasm of Faith, a small book of interfaith inquiry. He is particularly concerned with caring for war veterans when they return to U.S. society.
Bill Scheurer photo: http://peacegardens.ning.com/profile/BillScheurer?xg_source=activity. Other photo: http://www.truthout.org/071009A.