There are certain jobs I would personally never want to have. I watched my father work many 12 and 16 hour days as a Boilermaker. I saw how dirty and tired he would be when he finally made it home and how generally frustrating that work could be. Only later in life did I understand some of the conditions he had to work through including chemicals, tight spaces, radiation, and other assorted unpleasantries. I wouldn’t want to be a custodian either. I already have profanity laced inner-dialogue whenever I see someone throw their trash on the ground so I couldn’t imagine the thought of having to pick it up for them. It would be a form of work that constantly danced on one of my highest forms of annoyance and I don’t think the compensation level could be high enough to balance out the self induced stress of it all.
Then there are jobs that I couldn’t do. I don’t think I could be a doctor. I personalize things and would attach myself to patients. I don’t think I could be an astronaut. The long periods of seclusion would eat at my mind. The one thing I am sure, however, I couldn’t do would be to serve as a soldier in any of our armed services.
Though there is no shame in any of those professions and some enlisted men and women are fortunate enough to serve without having to put themselves in harm’s way, increasingly few see tours of service that don’t involve traumatic experiences that leave them altered in some fashion for the rest of their lives. Even when these young men and women are coming home with no visible scars, the hidden ones just below the surface can be beyond debilitating.
According to a report published in February of 2013 with numbers compiled by the Department of Veterans Administration, veterans are taking their lives at the rate of one suicide every 65 minutes. As if this figure isn’t alarming enough, it is almost certainly too low to be accurate. How are these numbers low? They only include data from 21 of our states. In fact, three of our five largest states, California, Texas, and Illinois, did not make such information available. It is estimated in multiple reports that only 40% of our population are represented in the data.
To take that one step farther, another survey conducted by Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America report that a whopping 30% of troops serving in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflict have contemplated suicide.
None of that takes into account the numbers of soldiers that do something like drink to inebriation only to get behind the wheel and die in an accident. It also doesn’t list the many drug overdoses as suicide. None of this is to say all of our veterans are unstable but it is to call attention to the fact that many are self medicating to cope with stress, depression, and traumatic conditions that civilians just aren’t facing.
The same survey from the Department of Veterans Administration contains a few more numbers that are, I believe, crucial to the discussion. Of those who responded, 50% have had people close to them suggest they seek care for a mental health injury and roughly a fifth of those did not. The most prominent reason for not seeking help? Vets were afraid it would impact their careers followed closely by “I didn’t want to be perceived differently by my peers.” Finally, while 93% of respondents are aware of the VA’s crisis hotline (1-800-273-8255 and Press 1,) just slightly more than one third would actually use it.
Yes the reports referenced are nearly a year old and this isn’t necessarily a scoop of any kind but the numbers just aren’t getting any better. In addition to the stigma that mental health issues carry with them, soldiers in particular find seeking help a difficult task. These young men and women are initially excited to be coming home to their family and friends only to find that they cannot relate any longer to their “nasty” civilian life. I use the word nasty as many service members refer to their previous unkempt civilian lives as nasty. It is a quick jump from that point to see that the total reprograming of these individuals into soldiers makes the task of leaving a soldier’s mentality behind nearly impossible.
Take for instance former Specialist Carmelo Cruz. Cruz was a member of the Army Infantry who loved what he did. “I never wanted to leave the service in the first place, but family and health issues prevented me from putting the focus into being a soldier that is necessary.” In a job where you have to put your life on the line for yourself and your colleagues at a moment’s notice, that focus is critical.
The feeling of depression created by leaving his brothers and sisters in arms lead to issues with family separation. Like so many civilians and veterans alike, Cruz turned to alcohol as a means to self medicate which quickly turned into full blown alcoholism. The compounded result of the depression, division of family, and alcoholism was ultimately the inability to obtain and maintain gainful employment.
Cruz recalls, “I honestly noticed something was off months before returning in 2009. My family, both in and out of the service, cared enough to check up on me and make sure I didn’t sink too low; but I’ve had a few close calls.” It wasn’t until a fellow veteran that served with Cruz convinced him to reach out for professional assistance that he did so in the Fall of 2013. After nearly four years of what Cruz admits was, “a bit of a haze,” he has been able to quell his drinking and enrolled in college this last November.
Another veteran I spoke with at length, Barbara, United States Navy USNR(TAR), retired in June of 2004 after 23 years of service. Barbara was highly decorated during her service and has since been inducted into the Woman’s National Navy Museum in Washington, DC.
One of Barbara’s duties during the Iranian war was to bring back the bodies of soldiers that gave their lives overseas. “The protocol was heart wrenching. We were all brought into the ready room and drilled on how to place caskets onto our aircraft pallets…preservation was an issue in the beginning of the war. It was so surreal and some of us even vomited during the training but we had to overcome this to show our upmost respect to our fallen soldiers.” If you can imagine the thought of a C130 filled with the bodies of your brethren, you’re a special kind of person. “I was there when our flight returned from Dover and a few of my men were distraught and crying from this horrific ordeal. I took it upon myself to send them to the command Chaplin while myself and others hosed and scrubbed the cargo floor of lost blood and fluids.”
When you work that hard under such extreme stress, you begin to play hard to compensate. Barbara, as well, developed full blown alcoholism. At first, “the treatment didn’t work…. I continued to relapse and was diagnosed clinically depressed. After good counseling and the support of my command it was found that I suffered from PTSD. I was sent back to rehab twice more before retirement and I thank each and everyone who listened to help me finally get the help I desperately needed.”
Barbara’s helped to council a friend’s son who we’ll call Steve. Against the friend’s wishes, Steve wanted to join the Marines when he was 17. She wouldn’t sign off hoped that in the next year he would have a change of heart. “Steve turned 18 and we realized he had a calling and all we could do was pray. We were doing back to back missions on the movement of troops while Steve went to boot camp. I would look into the eyes of these young troops and see the eyes of children that looked like the eyes of ninety year-olds and everyone of those faces looked just like my friend’s son.”
Barbara went on to describe the events leading up to Steve’s complete disenchantment with the service and when his life turned upside down. He told her about a “mission” that troops were sent on Christmas eve kicking in civilian doors looking for weapon caches based on leaked intel. According to this account, this was something done not really on intel but more so on the level of keeping young troops focused on duty versus being away from home for the holiday. The following is the end of the story as it was retold to me.
“The last door kicked in was an abandoned building that was packed to the ceiling with American made weapons. They were ordered to ignore what they just witnessed and turn their back. It was then that Steve realized the Americans were arming the enemy.” No matter your take on this story you could imagine how disheartening it would be to a young soldier.
“After returning home, Steve was suffering incredibly from what he witnessed. He started drinking heavily and was extremely angry and volatile. The most wonderful time came when he asked my friend for help. She took him to the nearest emergency room where they contacted the Veterans Affairs and he was diagnosed with PTSD. “Steve and I both share this ailment.”
Barbara found out what so many of our returning vets are finding out at an alarming rate. “Upon coming home I discovered that there is no cure for PTSD; just like alcoholism it is progressive.” The progressive nature of the disorder coupled with extensive training and lack of treatment can be extremely dangerous for the veterans themselves and the people around them. The movie Rambo may be dated and extreme, but you see where this is going.
Barbara continues, “We as Americans don’t want to deal with the real issues and avoid facing it at all costs until something bad happens. I still have to do some serious footwork on getting the help that I know I will need probably for the rest of my life. I decided to put the stigma of mental health help aside since there are so many more who suffer just as I do. I advocate for veterans in crisis and follow up with making sure they are still getting the help they need. I think that myself and others speaking out will help others come forward and even give the public notice how neglected their veterans can be. I have my degree in addictions and psychology and it is my passion to work specifically with our veterans. I do this by referrals and a huge network of veterans who are in it to help veterans and their families.”
One such organization, The American V.E.T.S Alliance(AVA), pledges to “remain open to new ideas, new allies, and new venues to effectively reach out to our American Veterans with warm hearts, open minds, and nonjudgmental understanding that considers first and foremost the need and desire to promote and proliferate a better and more positive Veteran experience.” In short, help is available from people who genuinely care and won’t pass judgement. Best of all, these services are free.
By working with the VFW organization, AVA helps veterans through a variety of services and projects like Wounded Warriors and can help veterans with things like counseling, housing, and even obtaining service dogs. Just recently, the AVA launched Project Scuttlebutt to help a local veteran who couldn’t find financing to help acquire a service dog. In a pattern that the AVA continues to benefit from, after the successful fundraiser, the AVA found other organizations that specialize in that specific type of fundraising and have added them to the AVA’s growing outreach network. Their very open attitude of “If we don’t have a program to fit your needs, we’ll partner with people who can” has been a refreshing change of pace. One of the items lost in simple customer service any more is the passing of the problem off to another individual. AVA stays with you and keeps you in constant connection. You don’t have to reach out and explain your story to thirty different people. AVA pairs you with the right person and then continues to advocate for you from start to finish.
The AVA quotes Margaret Mead cleverly in one of their flyers: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The group exists solely to help the veterans who have served and could use some assistance by collaboration.
I spoke with local resident and AVA founder, Danielle Cranmer, MSW, in regards to the AVA and what it means. She shared these thoughts. “When Americans are grateful for the Services of our military members and our returning veteran heroes, and they want to thank them for their dedication and service to our country, membership in the AVA is the ultimate way of giving back to these service men and women. What is a better way to say thank you than to give back to those who have given so much by tithing to them your professional services free or discounted, your volunteerism, or your financial support. Thank a veteran today by joining the AVA team!” Even non-veterans can join their local VFW post and help in creating and preserving welcoming places for those in our community who have served. The AVA network can help give direction to that membership.
As I was wrapping up the interviewing process, Cruz left a resonating call to all of his fellow veterans that might be in need. He explained so that only a soldier would understand in stating, “People needed you once before. That’s why you served. They will need you again. You’ll do better for us all without the self-pity rather than with. You should maintain your gear like you always did. That includes yourself. We all ask for help maintaining.”
If you know a veteran, even if you think everything is just fine, check in from time to time. Let them know you care and that you are available. If you are a veteran that is in crisis, please refer to the Veteran Crisis Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1. None of this makes you any weaker or diminished. We as a community are telling you that we value you and thank you for your service. There are people and programs available to help you locally and beyond. Know that they are waiting to help you. That is their duty just as you had yours. Let them provide you with the service you deserve.
Oh and one last thought to share with the community at large. Stop calling these men and women heroes. I have found in talking with many veterans that they are uncomfortable with that language. Some of them physically shifted, others grunted or groaned, others completely disconnected from the conversation. They appreciate being sincerely thanked for their service but they believe, at least the vast majority I spoke to, that they signed up to do a job. They did their job as best they could and appreciate a thank you. They didn’t sign up to be a hero or looking for glamour and the term hero puts a weight, burden, and tag on these people that they do not want to accept. So say thank you and say it often. Reach out when you can. Have a chat, break bread, and share a drink when you have the opportunity but don’t call the person across from you a hero. Just call them your friend.