Last week at the 26th annual Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Policy Symposium, I came away from the two days feeling like there are a lot of people who know and care about the issues discussed. This year’s topic was on helping returning soldiers — especially the National Guard and Reservists — reintegrate within their family, the workplace, and the community.
It seems timely to talk about some of these issues to honor tomorrow, Veterans Day.
The most moving stories for me came from the day’s first panel discussion, focused on the family. Ron Capps, a 25 year veteran of the U.S. Army and Army Reserves, told his story of dealing with the realities of war, and then of coming home and dealing with his feelings.
“At the end of the day, I found myself categorizing myself as ‘All right, vaguely not all right, and seriously not all right.'”
He also worked as a member of the African Union’s Cease-Fire Commission in Dafur, as well as a Foreign Service officer who served for many years with the Department of State.
After his 20 year marriage ended, he was distraught. Dealing with the trauma left by the impact of the war had taken its toll — “I take a pistol in my hand and come very close to killing myself.”
After going back and forth overseas after his active service had ended, he returned to the U.S. and began to get adequate care.
“But even with that care, I struggled. My brain did not and still does not work right… I still have panic attacks. I won’t go to restaurants.”
“I have trouble distinguishing the mundane from the critical, because everything seems critical.”
Ron is taking medication and is in counseling for his continuing mental traumas. But he still feels like it’s not enough.
“What I lack is a community of support. I’ve tried joining existing veterans groups, but I don’t really feel like I fit in with the Korean and Vietnam vets.”
What Ron says he’s looking for already exists — in the form of community rec centers, churches and synagogues, the gym around the corner, the neighborhood bar. He emphasizes the need for not just community with other vets, but with other, ordinary citizens, to help him feel welcomed back home:
“It’s any place where a member of the community reaches out to returning veterans to welcome them home. And to integrate them back into that community.”
“The Army can’t do this alone, and nor can the V.A. If we’re going to avoid a public health catastrophe of a half million Americans coming home with mental health trauma, it’s going to take all of us working together within our communities.”
“A soldier can arrive back home within a few days.
“But sometimes it takes a little bit longer for your mind to catch up.”
Major Mara Boggs has been an Army active duty officer since 1998. She was the first woman commander of an Airborne Engineer unit during the Iraq surge from 2006 to 2007. She’s married to a Lt. Colonel who’s currently deployed in Afghanistan, while she stays at home raising their 8 week old and 2 year old.
“We are getting better with mental health care [in the Army]. When I was a commander in Iraq, one of the things I did not do which is a failure on my part, is I did not make sure after every roadside bomb attack, we have everybody screened for traumatic brain injury. It’s changed, we are getting better.”
“In some respects, as hard as it’s been [for me], I think it must be even harder on my husband. To be over there and not to be able to hold his infant son. And it’s like that for millions of parents, and for brothers and sisters, and for the mothers and fathers serving over there.”
Mara, who has also worked on policy issues more recently in Washington DC, talked about some of the specific challenges military families face when confronted with active duty while trying to raise a family. One of those challenges is the frequent deployments, with a lack of predictability for those deployments.
She noted that social media sites like Facebook help with keeping a vibrant social network amongst returning vets.
Kelly Kennedy, who served in the Army from 1987 to 1993, is now a journalist. She talked about how times have changed about how our society treats its returning soldiers:
“Back in Achilles’ day, when people came back from war, the community embraced them. Everyone came back, they told their stories, they mourned their losses — everyone was involved.”
“That’s not happening in this war.”
“And I think that’s added to the mental health issues, because we know in post-traumatic stress, a part of healing is telling your story.”
Although not part of the panel on reintegrating within the family, I also found Liisa Hyvarinen Temple’s story interesting. Liisa is a freelance multimedia journalist whose spouse was embedded within the Afghan National Army in Afghanistan from mid 2009 to 2010, a 4th deployment he volunteered for.
He started a blog to detail his experiences, Afghanistan: My Last Tour, which his wife helped setup and manage for him. Liisa talked about the large online community and websites setup to help military members who are returning find a welcoming virtual community that gives each person an outlet to share and to heal from their experiences.
The last thing I’ll briefly touch upon is a talk by John Howard, MD, JD, who presented some sobering statistics about our returning vets and how they integrate within the workplace. We now have 1.3 million vets in the civilian workplace — 83 percent male, 76 percent white, and 52 percent older than 31.
Out of all the reservists currently serving in active duty, 72,558 are “involuntary reservists” out of 100,500 — yes, that’s nearly 73 percent of reservists serving.
Last, it seems appropriate to end on a note of remembering the sacrafice of the men and women who serve this coming Veterans Day. Out of approximately 1 million service personnel in theater in Iraq and Afghanistan today, we’ve lost 1,239 in non-hostile deaths, 285 to suicides, and 4,493 who have been killed in action.
But here’s an even more sobering number — 40,671. That’s the number of men and women who have been wounded in action, many losing arms and legs due to roadside bombs.
None of these numbers capture the extent of the wounds we can’t see, however — the mental health wounds that will haunt many of these men and women for many years to come.
As a society, it is our duty to honor those who have served us — voluntarily — to fight on our behalf (no matter what your political or war convictions may be). This Veterans Day, reach out to those vets living in your community and let them know not only that you appreciate and thank them for their service — but that you care.