America is running short on a lot of things these days (sane political discourse to name but one) but the combat veteran is not one of them. We just keep turning out men, and now, women, who take and return fire. When they come home, some do fine, some struggle and some fall apart. Thus has it always been.
I grew up drinking bottled Coke on VFW and American Legion barstools, listening to my dad and his Big One brothers in arms trade their often grizzly war stories. By the time the fetching Miss Rita Clark turned me down in fourth grade, I knew more about Normandy and Iwo than our teacher. I knew more about war than a kid should.
Veterans posts circa the 1960s were a kind of PTSD drop-in center for aged-out, WWII combatants. Men with few if any other places to talk. Soldiers, sailors and airmen, some twenty years on, telling and retelling what theyd seen and done and survived. Men trying their best to undo war.
But you cant undo war. Not then, not now. Seven armed conflicts (depending on how you count) and twelve administrations after my father came home, the good news is that were doing a hell of a lot more for this generation of returning warriors than his. To the militarys credit, services are available in ways and places as never before. Its not enough. Itll never be enough. But it beats a Saturday barstool and eight beers.
The bad news:
As of last summer, the nation had lost more military personnel to suicide than battle: 817 to 761;
According to recent Defense Department figures, a service member suicides every 36 hours;
A Joint Chiefs of Staff study indicates that soldiers who kill in the course of combat are at increased risk for mental health issues in general, and suicide attempts in particular;
Although studies on US combatants who kill civilians or friendlies (amicide is the term) are by definition harder to undertake, direct-service mental health professionals posit that such killings further increase the likelihood of suicide.
Sobering stuff. But it shouldnt be shocking. Yes, war has a thousand faces, none of them pretty. But by what right does a civilized nation continue to register shock because so many who do its proxy bidding come home traumatized? Its war. Theres always blood. And somebody always has to do the bloodletting.
We are entitled to all manner of (sometimes conflicting) emotions about the wars that are being waged in our name; war-as-foreign-policy should not be allowed to stand. But nine years into these conflicts, we ought to be well past the shock stage.
This Veterans Day, enough with shock stage. Just assume that there are traumatized combat vets in your area; and some of them are not yet hooked up with the programs they may need and want. Theres the VA (va.gov.) and its suicide hotline: 800-273-TALK. Theres the plethora of informative websites and blogs. (Run a search on military-related PTSD and/or suicide services.) Maybe just call your state and local governments to find out what programs exist for vets in general, and combat vets in particular.
Bottom line: There is no do-over when it comes to war. There is, however, the absolute moral responsibility to minister to those for whom war never ends. Just one more reason to keep them home in the first place.
Rev. Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Spartanburg, S.C. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2010
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