For those who mourn for only that day, who go on with their lives for the other 364 days of the year, it is difficult to understand what those who remember for 365 days go through.
I really can’t write another 9/11 post. On every year’s 9/11 anniversary, Facebook is full of mourning eagles and flags draped in the form of the Twin Towers — images that were posted by those it affected, but also by many more who were not. A good friend commemorates 9/11 as the day her spouse did NOT die in the Pentagon, an “alive day” for them. Others remember waiting for orders, service members deployed aboard ship waited to see where they were going. I’ve been writing about 9/11 for civilian publications for years and I just can’t explain anymore what this anniversary means to the military community every year. For those who mourn for only that day, who go on with their lives for the other 364 days of the year, it is difficult to understand what those who remember for 365 days go through. So, I decided not to remind you.
This year, I decided to write about the day after — the 12th of September. At the annual Military Officers of America Association, National Defense Industrial Association (“MOAA/NDIA”) Warrior/Family Symposium the theme was “Mental Health: Linking Warriors and Their Families, Government and Society.” With the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) in the news, and the number of suicides of both active duty and veterans climbing, it was timely. Panels composed of experts from the Veterans Administration, advocates for families, and Department of Defense doctors discussed approaches to treatment with a well-known blogger and a former NFL football player who suffers from debilitating depression and bipolar disorder. For all of them, and for the audience, the work is a passion, a need to help the wounded. These wounded are not only those from the battlefield; just as traumatic brain injury (“TBI”) is a known issue for sports figures, PTSD is an issue for police, fire and emergency personnel, survivors of accidents and natural disasters. What we learn from treating a population that can be easily monitored, one that is in the system from the time of injury and through treatment, is valuable information that can be utilized by medical science for all.
Two intertwined themes were brought up over and over — overcoming the stigma of seeking help and the importance of peer support. The peer-to-peer support was highlighted by Bonnie Carroll of the organization Tragedy Assistance for Program Survivors (“TAPS”) when she said, “The wounded have become the healers,” referring, in large part, to Vietnam Veterans, who understand what newer groups of veterans would be dealing with. Having their peers show them there is no stigma in asking for help, no shame in reaching out or in admitting to a problem is crucial to veterans, family members and even currently serving members getting the help they need.
No one ever anticipated the sheer numbers of those with catastrophic wounds and the signature wounds of this war, PTSD and TBI. Even within this “community of care” as Kevin Polosky, an Elizabeth Dole Foundation Fellow reminded us, “We can’t do it for you, you have to get/give to each other.” Peer-to-peer support has evolved, from the fondly remembered days of the American Legion and VFW, where World War II vets gathered to talk, reminisce and get their stories out over a beer to the new peer networks that have proliferated online, the Facebook pages and blogs and new peer-to-peer counseling services from the Veteran’s Administration (“VA”), in which veterans with PTSD and TBI counsel other veterans who are trying to cope with these same issues, by phone, in person or video conference (a boon to those vets living in remote locations).
So why should you, the civilian reader, even care about what is affecting such a small group – the one percent who have served and been wounded? Because what we learn from treating these men and women will be used throughout the country, by the aforementioned cops, firefighters, and survivors. Many, if not most, of the wounded are young, and they will need care for many decades to come. This means we must take a sustained public health approach to these issues. After all, behavioral/mental health is crucial to body health. We need an integrated approach, throughout our communities, counties, and states, to sustain veterans and their families and to return them to their communities. And because many of these veterans are National Guard members, the vaunted “citizen soldiers,” continued support and outreach will be crucial.
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders made a point one year, during his remarks, that I found amazing — approximately one-half of American veterans from the wars in Vietnam, the Gulf War, the Cold War, and the more recent Iraq and Afghan wars, don’t know what benefits they are entitled to from the VA, including access to veterans’ centers that are in many locations that are, helpfully, staffed by vets themselves. Fortunately, there are new commercials on radio, online, TV and every sports event, designed to help veterans find out what help they are able to access.
9/11 was the beginning of a long painful effort for thousands, which will last for decades. We need to not only remember that day, but we also we need to look forward and prepare not only our military members and their families for what can happen after soldiers come home from war, but also educate the country on what promises to be a long post war recovery.
Image via Wikimedia Commons/in the public domain/by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Lisa Borges