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PTSD's toll on our soldiers

'Support our troops' rings hollow when it comes to post-traumatic stress disorder.

May 25, 2009|Catherine Whitney | Catherine Whitney is the author of "Soldiers Once: My Brother and the Lost Dreams of America's Veterans." Website: soldiersoncebook.com.

My brother, Jim, was a soldier once, but when he died, at age 53, he was long past the time when anyone called him a hero. He died alone, in poverty, alienated from family and friends, his life and death complicated by war wounds that penetrated far deeper than the pieces of shrapnel that won him his Purple Heart. Jim was a Vietnam combat engineer who survived the war but later became another kind of statistic -- a lost soul, a veteran who never recovered from his experiences.

Jim didn't seek help, nor did the Army offer it during his 20-year military career. Instead, to try to deal with his pain, he began to drink. He was forced into retirement when he was 37, with nothing but a drawer full of medals, a subsistence-level pension and a crushed spirit.

We hear a lot of talk about post-traumatic stress disorder afflicting troops and veterans. To its credit, the military has tried to update its attitudes and systems to accommodate the growing number of traumatized soldiers returning from our current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But PTSD is still viewed as an abnormal response to battlefield trauma rather than the reaction of a normal person to the horrors of war. And so the stigma remains.

Tragically, it is often left to individual soldiers and veterans to seek help. Many are career military, as my brother was, and they fear the dishonor associated with a diagnosis of PTSD.

And when veterans do file a claim, the process is so convoluted, humiliating and intimidating that it creates fresh emotional wounds. The Department of Veterans Affairs places claimants in the position of having to relive the trauma, analyze its impact and recall names, dates and places that may be months or years in the past. The lengthy filing form includes a detailed essay on the exact event that caused PTSD.

But PTSD is not like a shrapnel wound that pierces the skin at a precise moment. It may develop over time and not be evident for years or even decades after the fact. There are so many roadblocks on the way to a successful PTSD claim that some veterans just give up. Some die before their claims have made it through the process. Some commit suicide.

Imagine how different this bleak picture might look if professional mental health screening were required for all troops, both before and after combat -- along with an adequate force of trained psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers to meet the demand. It's an obvious first step, but it would require an organizational and financial commitment from Congress, the VA and the current administration. Unfortunately, for most people, PTSD is an abstraction. The lonely battle of lobbying for better services is mostly left to independent veterans groups and families of the afflicted.

There is a significant disconnect between what we say about supporting our troops and what we actually do. We seem to despise the weakness of the wounded soldier, especially when it is manifested by mental illness, social alienation or undefined degenerative diseases. Today's war heroes too often become tomorrow's poor, many living in rundown apartment complexes around military bases, where they can squeeze out discounts for their essential needs.

We buried Jim on Sept. 10, 2001, and barely had a chance to grieve when thoughts of our brother were blown from our minds. A new war was engaged, with an army of fresh names and faces. The familiar chant spilled out from the soul of a nation blind to its meaning: Support our troops. Now, as so many of our brave soldiers make their long journey home, the question remains: Can we give dignity in peace?

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