Dr. Ed Tick, an internationally known psychologist and founder of Soldiers Heart, came to speak at Albany Law a few days ago about the problems that combat veterans have reentering society.
Some of what he told us stunned me. Veterans comprise half the homeless population in the U.S. Twice as many veterans committed suicide than were casualties in Vietnam. Combat veterans are more likely than the rest of us to get in trouble with the law for violent offenses.
What Dr. Tick made clear is that this is not a problem of good vs. bad people. Part of the problem combat vets have is that they have been trained to react in ways that protect them and their buddies in combat, but those reactions are inappropriate elsewhere. They’ve built hair-trigger reactions to life and death situations. Ordinary sights, sounds, and surprises gnaw at the memories, the pain and jerk at the reactions.
And part of the problem is that our society has not worked out ways to help combat vets reenter society. Our general approach is typical American individualism. You’re home now. Great. Go find something useful to do. But many of these men and women are hurting deeply.
One of the veterans at the talk related in conversation afterward that when he came home he was so lost that he just stayed in his room. The military works hard to develop a strong team spirit so that vets in combat will help each other with little regard for the risks. They have very tight bonds with their buddies. Back in civilian life they feel alone. At precisely the time when they need that support for the transition to civilian life.
Many of the veterans come back emotionally disturbed by the loss of their friends, with memories of dismembered bodies, pain, and death. So deeply hurt and so imbued with the grin-and-bear-it ethic they cannot talk about their pain.
The military says thanks. Have a good life. See ya. Maybe we’ll meet again at a parade. Many of us are clueless, not knowing or not seeing the vets around us. The Tea Partygoers and politicians say doing anything for vets is too expensive. Providing support for soldiers with PTSD, too expensive. They made the choice. Now it’s their problem. We’re OK and we intend to stay that way – so don’t bother us.
That seems to be today’s ethic – the soldiers took responsibility, they took responsibility for America, for us. But it’s a time of irresponsibility. Taxes – not my thing. Service – not my thing. Be an American, be a consumer. That’s what we do for America – we buy stuff or stocks or bonds. But not one cent for tribute, not even for our soldiers.
I’ve never supported the Bush wars. But the men and women coming home enlisted out of patriotism, not politics. To me it’s immoral to take blank checks for their lives, send them through a hell on earth, for us, and then turn our backs.
But that’s exactly what we have been doing to our veterans. And I think it’s a national disgrace. We make getting help so difficult that those most in need can’t do it for themselves. We’ve taken apart the safety net. We’re cutting services. We’re ruining the economy. No help. No services. No jobs. Hey, this is good old America – you’re on your own.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 3, 2011.