Why Don’t U.S. Veterans Get the Support They Need?

With military suicides at an all-time high, we need to ask what we can do better.

Imagine being a soldier. Fighting war is the way of life. Death, destruction, and mayhem are everyday occurrences. Killing people you don’t know, because you are ordered to, for reasons you don’t understand. Living life on pure adrenaline, never quite sure if today is the day you watch a friend die. Knowing that even if it is, you can’t grieve, you must keep fighting, you must keep shooting. Watching brothers-in-arms lose limbs or suffer irreversible injuries. Hearing silence shattered by bullets and bombs, the anguished screams of people with whom you share an unbreakable bond, or even worse, innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of situations out of their control.

Then imagine what it must be like to have to reintegrate into civilian society. Having to live an everyday, ‘normal’ life, when, for months, normality has consisted of a permanent adrenaline rush, of seeing sights most people can’t possibly comprehend. To go from watching people die in agony, sometimes at your own hands, to doing the weekly supermarket run and playing catch with your children in the back garden.

The effect on the human psyche of undergoing such a massive paradigm shift is very hard to comprehend. It is unsurprising to learn that many service members return from war with mental illness, and are unable to adapt. Out of the 1.7 million who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, The Rand Corporation suggests that an estimated 600,000 suffer from mental health conditions. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs say that 11-20% of these service members experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), compared with 7-8% of the general population. Sadly, a study by Veterans for America discovered that soldiers are often expected to wait up to a month for psychological treatment, such is the demand for these services.

Due to how overwhelming the need for support is, many never receive the treatment they need. On average, 18 veterans and one active-duty service member a DAY reach a point where they feel unable to go on, and take their own lives. In 2012, 182 active soldiers died through suicide, with another 110 reported suicides that are still under investigation. In contrast, 176 soldiers were killed in combat. More soldiers took the decision to end their own life than those that had no choice.

The after-effects of army-borne mental health problems reach much further than suicide. Every single night, over 300,000 US war veterans find refuge in a homeless shelter or on the streets. Over the course of a year, the number of veterans who suffer homelessness is between 529,000 and 840,000 – 26% of the homeless population. 45% of these homeless veterans suffer from PTSD or another mental illness.

As ability to recognise and diagnose mental illness increases, excuse for these situations being allowed to happen decreases. If you risk your life serving your country, the very least you should receive is appropriate medical treatment, support and guidance, both in the midst of war and in the aftermath. It is shameful that up to 840,000 veterans risk everything for America, yet America cannot even provide them a basic home upon their return. It is disgraceful that 18 veterans a day take their own life; yet, if they seek help, they have to wait up to a month for an appointment.

There will be people reading this now saying the soldiers knew what they were signing up for. Yet, unless you have been in a war, nothing can possibly prepare you for the experience. The teenagers signing up for service can’t possibly comprehend what is to come; for most, their knowledge of war is based on Hollywood films and Call of Duty videogames, with their tendencies to glorify war. They aren’t mature enough emotionally to deal with the fact they aren’t killing ‘the bad guys’, but that they will have to take the lives of other human beings.

I have never served in the army; the thought of it is terrifying, and I strongly disagree with war. I steadfastly refuse to take the life of another human, whatever their perceived transgressions. However, I can accept that, sometimes, war is sadly inevitable. In those instances, armies need people to fight. However, when the persons’ fight is over, those that risked everything for their country need to receive support to return to a normal life, however long it takes and however much it costs.  They’ve earned it.

The Iraq/Afghanistan war was floated on the idea of protecting America. Now it is time for America to protect those that fought for her.

 

This article originally appeared at Andrew-Lawes.com.

Photo—familymwr/Flickr

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About Andrew Lawes

My name is Andrew Lawes, and I am afflicted with a condition definable only as the Lawes Disorder. I share my Uncensored Reflections each week exclusively on the Good Men Project, every Friday at 13:30 (10:30 Pacific time, 18:30 UK time).

I am also writing a series of books, based around my experiences of mental health issues, addiction, my career as a Support Worker for adults with learning difficulties, as well as a book about Newcastle United. Find out more about them at LawesDisorder.com

If you wish to get to know me on a more personal level, please do so either through Facebook.com/LawesDisorder  or  Twitter.com/LawesDisorder.

To contact Andrew Lawes, please use the above links, or email directly to [email protected]

Comments

  1. Dan Flowers says:

    Andrew,
    While I applaud your effort in bringing attention to the situation that our returning servicemembers and veterans face, I think you should confine your comments and suppositions our young soldiers are expecting and what they are prepared for to what you actually know. You are by your own admission someone who believes that you could never take another human life under any circumstances, and therefore you are projecting your own bias as an assumption that others are not capable of dealing with something so horrific. I will preface my next remarks with the fact that I am a former Army infantryman, a sniper and sniper instructor and have worked as a contractor in conflicts around the world. I may shock you with this supposition, but a majority of the young men serving now know EXACTLY the nature of war and killing before they join. We have been at war for over 12 years, and their exposure to it does not merely come from video games. Most of them still believe in the intangibles; Duty, Honor, Country and believe in what they do enough to create a quite sufficient justification for the violence they are required to visit upon others and have no moral qualms about it whatsoever. Men go to war voluntarily for 2 reasons. One is to serve a higher purpose, the second is to prove themselves. They will do just that. If injured, be it physically or emotionally, their brothers in arms will take care of them. They do not need a bunch of hand-wringing pacifists playing “pity the poor stupid soldier” or implying that their judgment in joining or choosing to fight was in some way impaired or wrong. I think you should apologize to the vast majority of these men for insulting them with the characterization of being video-game playing idiots who did not fathom reality until slapped with it.

    • The fact that over 1 in 3 of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from mental health conditions, 11-20% of which are PTSD, shows that others in your army are not capable of handling what is going on. The fact that more people commit suicide in Iraq and Afghanistan than are killed in active combat show that they cannot handle what is going on. With regards the “Brothers In Arms” taking care of them, where are the brothers in arms for the 300,000 veterans sleeping on the streets or in shelters each night?

      “I think you should apologize to the vast majority of these men for insulting them with the characterization of being video-game playing idiots who did not fathom reality until slapped with it.”

      I don’t believe I said anything like that. What I said was that you cannot truly appreciate what war is like unless you have been involved in one. I haven’t described anybody as an idiot. What I actually said was that most peoples’ exposure to war before signing up is limited to computer games and films. Is there some sort of field trip to warzones on offer to children that I am unaware of? I don’t think so. So how can they truly know the impact before signing up? How can they know how taking a life will feel until they do it? They just can’t – it’s not possible.

      With regards your assumption that I think them choosing to fight is wrong – again, I didn’t say that. I don’t agree with war, but I respect the hell out of people that risk their lives to protect others.

      You seem to have taken this article as “Anti-Army” when in fact it is staunchly pro-soldier. But next time you are in the field, look at the man to your left, and the one to your right. One of you is coming back with mental health issues. That’s the reality, and there simply isn’t enough support to handle that. This article was written to help your brothers-in-arms – if you can look past your preconceptions, you will see that.

  2. The fact the over 1 in 3 of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from mental health conditions, 11-20% of which are PTSD, shows that others in your army are not capable of handling what is going on. The fact that more people commit suicide in Iraq and Afghanistan than are killed in active combat show that they cannot handle what is going on. With regards the “Brothers In Arms” taking care of them, where are the brothers in arms for the 300,000 veterans sleeping on the streets or in shelters each night?

    “I think you should apologize to the vast majority of these men for insulting them with the characterization of being video-game playing idiots who did not fathom reality until slapped with it.”

    I don’t believe I said anything like that. What I said was that you cannot truly appreciate what war is like unless you have been involved in one. I haven’t described anybody as an idiot. What I actually said was that most peoples’ exposure to war before signing up is limited to computer games and films. Is there some sort of field trip to warzones on offer to children that I am unaware of? I don’t think so. So how can they truly know the impact before signing up? How can they know how taking a life will feel until they do it? They just can’t – it’s not possible.

    With regards your assumption that I think them choosing to fight is wrong – again, I didn’t say that. I don’t agree with war, but I respect the hell out of people that risk their lives to protect others.

    You seem to have taken this article as “Anti-Army” when in fact it is staunchly pro-soldier. But next time you are in the field, look at the man to your left, and the one to your right. One of you is coming back with mental health issues. That’s the reality, and there simply isn’t enough support to handle that. This article was written to help your brothers-in-arms – if you can look past your preconceptions, you will see that.

  3. I’m in the midst of doing research on military members grieving the death of a comrade, whether active duty or veterans. Survivor guilt is a huge factor in this. The programs available for them depend on the branch of service and of course availability.

    This is an absolutely silent epidemic, like TBI, which also factors in to the equation. The reading I’ve been doing is heartbreaking. I hope to meet with Navy and VA officials next month to get a better sense of the complexities.

    There’s so much that needs to be done.

  4. Dan Flowers says:

    “What I said was that you cannot truly appreciate what war is like unless you have been involved in one.”

    Sooooo… What exactly is your personal experience then that leads you to be such an authority?

    ” I haven’t described anybody as an idiot. What I actually said was that most peoples’ exposure to war before signing up is limited to computer games and films. Is there some sort of field trip to warzones on offer to children that I am unaware of?”

    Yes, there is. Everyone does not live in a bubble. Some of these guys come from inner cities where they have experienced crime and gang violence and may have seen more dead bodies by the time they join than they experience in theater. Others like me, were country boys raised hunting and slaughtering animals and living hard lives that have life or death consequences daily as a matter of course. Are these equivilent to combat? You tell me, but I am simply saying that many of the young men and women who are joining are not nearly as sheltered as you seem to think they are. They haven’t taken a tour of a war zone, but it is wrong to assume they have not necessarily had experience with things that have given them some mental preparation. As I stated before, the current war has been going on for 12 years. The media coverage was impossible to ignore. If they want to see graphic images of the reality and product of war it is out there, and most have seen it. They join anyway and they are to be applauded, as are you for your pro-soldier efforts. I still stand by my original assessment however that you seem to have a bias towards a vision of naivete on the part of these servicemembers when they chose to join which is misplaced. God bless their bravery because nobody has blinders on after the first couple years of a war.

    Read more at http://goodmenproject.com/conflict/why-dont-u-s-veterans-get-the-support-they-need/#q5uq3tx5qfKcXPBC.99

    • I’m not accusing anybody of being sheltered. Of course some people will have grown up around gangs. Of course some people will have seen dead bodies. And of course some people will have seen the news. I’m not saying that people aren’t aware of the reality of war, just that it is incredibly hard to truly comprehend what it is like unless you have been there. I also said that I can’t possibly imagine what it must be like. However, the basic truth of the amount of people taking their own lives and developing mental health problems due to war is a clear indication that they weren’t sufficiently prepared. That’s not me having a pop at them, or insulting them. The fact they signed up is worthy of endless admiration. But how can you be so blasé about the statistics? About more people taking their own lives then dying on the battlefield?

      It’s not a vision of naivete on the part of them. I’m sure that the vast majority knew the situation, and signed up in order to protect their country. But more than 1 in 3 of those servicemen now have mental health problems, which shows they need more support, both preparation beforehand and whatever support they need afterwards.

      Look, I don’t want to get into a row. I’m not claiming to be an authority on anything. The line about the computer games was intended as a critique of the glamorisation of war for entertainment, not as an insult to the brave men and women signing up for war. I was just stunned by the statistics of how many of your brothers-in-arms were struggling, and I was calling on your government to do more for these heroes. As a serviceman yourself, I would have thought you would have appreciated what I was trying to do. I’m on your side.

  5. ManofReason says:

    There is no doubt that too many soldiers are returning with physical and mental damage but that is true with any war. It is an ugly business. IMO, there is no “acceptable” percentage, but you accept that there will be casualties when you go to war. We have a solemn duty to provide our returning warriors with every assistance we can give them. Thank you for your efforts to bring awareness to this cause. That said, I understand Mr. Flowers’ point above. You should not speculate or make statements about the causation of the trauma vis a vis the lack of preparation or motivation of these young men or risk saying something unfounded and offensive. The “glorification of war” in video games is not an appropriate or relevant topic in a discussion of battlefield injuries.

  6. RICHARD HERNANDEZ says:

    I really dig this article. For someone who never served or deployed he captured the insight of what it feels to be a Soldier; to come back and be expected to be a full fledge member of the community and your family. Its tough to turn it on and off (deployment state of mind) but its very courages and admireable for those who try to return to normalcy, its not easy. Some never turn it off and in the end, it catches up to you.

  7. Another resource for fellow vets is IAVA. It’s a non-profit org that lobbies for vets on a variety of topics to include employment, health care, post 911 GI Bill, etc. This org is free for vets to join, no annual dues like the VFW or American Legion. They provide up-to-date info on events on Capitol Hill, VA, and DoD, volunteer opportunities, blog articles, donation opportunities, and fun stuff too.

    Here’s the link if anyone’s interested. http://iava.org/about

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