Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day

Most of us have seen a child, who when given a gift, must be prompted by their parent with “What do you say?” The child’s rote response is “Thank you.” Only, later, with maturity, the child learns to connect what the giver has done with a sincere sense of gratitude.

That’s similar, I think, to how most people view Veterans Day which we celebrate today. We know that the holiday requires something of us, and that we should care. We know that when prompted by the calendar we are to offer words of appreciation for what our soldiers have done. It’s especially true this year as soldiers from our region leave for Iraq. We get to see up close now what its like for men and women to leave their children or aging parents and families behind. But we often miss the greater sacrifice: Soldiers stand in harms way for us and they kill other people for us, and by doing that they give up pieces of their psyche and their soul--for us.

The term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is common parlance now. What we forget is that this fancy name for “battle fatigue” wasn’t invented in the Vietnam War. That term and diagnosis came years later because of the activism of veterans who were criticized and whose patriotism was questioned.

Some history: In the late 60’s and early 70’s thousands of returning vets were turned away from the VA hospitals because their mental health problems did not fit a category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual—the “DSM”--the bible of the American Psychiatric Association. With no specific category there could be no reimbursement or payment. That meant that vets were turned away or dangerously misdiagnosed.
Thousands of vets committed suicide, died of addiction or were locked in mental hospitals and were numbed to zombie-like states by mis-prescribed anti-psychotic medications.

The Viet Nam Veterans Against the War, which staged the 1971 medal turn-in ceremony, demanded that the United States Government and the Veterans Administration respond. By bringing attention to the bureaucratic and political malfunction, the American Psychiatric Association was pressured to include “Vietnam Syndrome” and later, “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” in the DSM, which meant that vets could receive services. Interestingly, the American Psychiatric Association had dropped an earlier diagnostic category, “War Neurosis” from the DSM in the early 60’s out of fear that the demand for services could bankrupt the government.

Today we are in danger of making a mistake again as we try to deal with the current war’s veterans. Some have said that Iraq is “like Viet Nam”, when in fact this war’s veterans face different psychological injuries and will need still different treatments.

A pattern is clear. When considering the kind of psychic damage soldiers sustain, our government and medical systems first deny it, then exaggerate it, finally accept it, but then forget. The rest of us forget too. We forget how bad war is. We forget the lasting cost to those who go to fight and kill and then come home broken. We forget that this war’s casualty list will be doubled or tripled by psychological injuries. So what do we say to our soldiers for bearing all of that for us?

Oh yes; Thank you.

No comments: