Saturday, February 28, 2009

Community Action on War Trauma

Many communities in the United States have a hidden problem, one that is in grave need of the American tradition of neighbors helping neighbors. The problem is the burden of memories that many young men and women bring home from a war, which can often become harder to deal with as time goes by.

Many veterans try to deal with war memories by trying to forget, by drinking or taking drugs. Some join veterans’ groups that offer comradeship and service programs. Yet an increasing number of veterans and active duty soldiers have felt nothing eased their anguish and committed suicide. Most veterans find ways to cope with life after war. But too often, when a veteran realizes he or she has a problem and seeks assistance from government agencies, they run into a bureaucratic logjam. Family members and friends often feel they don’t know where to turn to find a helpful program.

This is where community networking and community forums can play a vital role. Non-profit agencies may have counseling programs that are not widely known. Some advocacy groups have trained counselors to help navigate the mental health care system. Government agencies are trying to figure out how to do improved outreach to veterans, active duty troops and National Guard members.

Adding to the problem is pent-up anger. Perhaps most of all, soldiers, veterans and family members need public forums or community gatherings where their concerns can be heard and responded to in supportive ways.

A forum on this issue at Bryant University in Rhode Island drew a small, but emotionally intense gathering of veterans and supporters on the weekend before Veterans Day last fall. The forum included viewing a new documentary film, Leave No Soldier, which explores how diverse activist groups of vets (Rolling Thunder, Veterans for Peace) cope with war grief. Speakers on a panel included the filmmaker, vet activists, Veterans Administration counselors, a National Guard public affairs officer and a Navy officer with a program to address post traumatic stress. Several Vietnam veterans in the audience bitterly described experiences that soured them in seeking government assistance. In response, one of the government representatives thanked the vets for helping bring these problems to public attention. The VA and military representatives talked about how programs are being revised to address what is now recognized as a widespread, national problem.

This problem has become even more acute since Congress approved legislation more than a year ago to boost programs that assist veterans with acute post traumatic stress. The Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention Act, signed by President Bush just before Veterans Day 2007, was named after a 22-year-old Army reservist from Iowa who killed himself after returning from Iraq. The bill requires additional mental health training for VA staff and improved counseling and treatment programs at VA medical facilities, as well as “outreach and education for veterans and their families, peer support counseling and research into suicide prevention,” as The Associated Press reported.

One way to help expand this outreach would be to hold community meetings on this issue throughout the country. Donna Bassin, the director of Leave No Soldier, who is a psychologist, suggests showing her film as a discussion starter, which she has done in Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York and other locations. In film fund-raisers, Bassin has done showings of the work in progress in friends’ living rooms, followed by candid discussions of these issues by veterans with their neighbors.

“Like a Greek chorus, our veterans express our collective sorrow; they warn of the dangers of ignoring and forgetting. They hold the grief of war for us who will not, and in so doing help us come to grips with its catastrophic impact,” Bassin says of the veterans of Vietnam and Iraq she interviewed. “Their communal mourning forces us to reflect upon our politics, and to pause and think critically about actions done in our name and that of our nation. If we as a nation send our children to war we have a responsibility to share the heavy load they carry.”

At a showing of the film at Pratt Institute in New York in December, Iraq veterans and I joined Bassin in a panel discussion with a roomful of mental health therapists. In the 1970s, I spoke to similar audiences on behalf of Vietnam vets beset by problems of readjusting to civilian life, in a time when many Americans dismissed or ignored what was then called post-Vietnam syndrome. Activist veterans, with the help of supporters around the country, helped identify what is now called post-traumatic stress and convince Congress to fund VA outreach centers to provide counseling and treatment—a program that still exists. This is one wheel that doesn’t need reinventing, but does need a renewed infusion of civic action.

For further information:

For PTSD resources:

(This article is also posted at Opinion Forum.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Suicide and Soldiers

The Army says it’s at a loss to explain the latest twist in US war casualty figures—which show that more soldiers killed themselves than died in combat operations.

“In January, 24 U.S. soldiers are believed to have committed suicide — seven confirmed cases and 17 more awaiting confirmation. By comparison, last January there were only five suicides in the Army,” NPR reported recently. “Last month's total is not just the highest monthly total since the Army started counting in 1980; it is more deaths than were sustained in combat last month by all branches of the armed forces combined.”

Addressing this issue, “Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the Army, says that the Army is actively looking into the deaths and is trying to figure out why the suicides are happening. ‘If we knew why, in every single instance we would, in fact, be able to stop this problem,’ Chiarelli tells NPR's Robert Siegel. ‘We've got to try to find out why the numbers continue to go up.’"

For a start, the generals ought to study the Rand Corporation’s report to the Pentagon last year, "Invisible Wounds of War: Psychological and Cognitive Injuries, Their Consequences, and Services to Assist Recovery," which found that “Nearly 20 percent of military service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan — 300,000 in all — report symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder or major depression. … Since October 2001, about 1.6 million U.S. troops have deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with many exposed to prolonged periods of combat-related stress or traumatic events. Early evidence suggests that the psychological toll of the deployments may be disproportionately high compared with physical injuries.”

"If PTSD and depression go untreated or are under treated, there is a cascading set of consequences," one of the Rand researchers wrote. "Drug use, suicide, marital problems and unemployment are some of the consequences.”

The generals ought to also study the Portland (OR) Tribune’s investigation last August titled “‘Suicide epidemic’ hits veterans,” which found that one-third of recent suicides in Oregon was a military veteran. “In 2005, the last year for which complete Oregon data has been compiled, 19 Oregon soldiers died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. That same year, 153 Oregon veterans of all ages, serving in various wars, committed suicide.

“The rate of suicide among Oregon men who are veterans is more than double that of Oregon men in general — 46 suicides out of every 100,000 compared to 22 out of 100,000 — according to the Oregon Department of Human Services Center for Health Statistics,” the Portland newspaper reported.

“Nationally, reports of high suicide rates among veterans began to gain attention in April, when a series of e-mails from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs officials came to light during a class-action lawsuit brought by a veterans group in San Francisco. The e-mails say that 12,000 veterans under VA treatment attempt suicide each year, and that more than 6,000 veterans succeed in killing themselves each year. There are about 25 million veterans.

“’There is clearly a suicide epidemic,’ says Paul Sullivan, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Veterans For Common Sense, which brought the lawsuit. Sullivan says the VA’s own data on calls made to its suicide hot line might be the best indicator of the depth of the problem. According to the VA, in July there were 250 calls a day to the suicide hot line. And veterans have made more than 22,000 calls since the hot line started in July 2007. “

The Portland Tribune found evidence of increasing numbers of suicide among Vietnam veterans, as well as National Guard, Reserves and Marines who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Linda Rotering, a social worker who counsels veterans at the Portland Vet Center on Northeast Sandy Boulevard, says she is seeing an increase in the number of Vietnam veterans coming in to see her with post-traumatic stress disorder. Rotering and others say many Vietnam veterans may have been able to keep the symptoms of their stress disorder at bay while they busied themselves with jobs and families after the war. Now, she says, many are retiring, with adult children, and may be more susceptible to the images from the war in Iraq.

“’There’s nothing to block out the memories,’ Rotering says. ‘I hear over and over again, if I have a 19-year-old sitting in my office or a 60-year-old from Vietnam, the exact same things are coming out of their mouths.’”

During the Vietnam war, the VA and the Pentagon pretended there was no such problem for veterans. Yet as early as 1963, nearly 10 percent of Army deaths in Vietnam were suicides or otherwise killed themselves—“accidental self-destruction,” “misadventure”—according to casualty reports. Only after massive evidence of veterans experiencing serious readjustment problems was presented by Vietnam vet and other organizations during the 1970s was post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) given a name and a treatment plan. Under prodding from Congress, the VA in 1979 created storefront Vets Centers that provided counseling and therapy services for PTSD.

With the US fighting two hellacious wars in Asia, the VA is overwhelmed by a tsunami of vets seeking help and the military is scrambling to stop a suicide epidemic among the troops. "It's going to take system-level changes — not a series of small band-aids — to improve treatments for these illnesses," a Rand researcher said.

For more information:

(This article is also posted at Opinion Forum.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Missing News

Here’s a timely, compelling story you didn’t see or hear in the news. I can vouch for the event, described (with minor adjustments in tense) by a news release that was ignored by the news media, as I was there in support of this group of war-torn Americans.

Washington -- Members of Military Families Speak Out from across the U.S. held a solemn procession from Arlington National Cemetery to the White House on Saturday to bring President Obama the message that they want him to bring an immediate end to the war in Iraq that has already claimed the lives of over 4,200 U.S. troops and more than a million Iraqis.

Marchers carried flowers – blue to symbolize Blue Star families who currently have a loved one serving in the military; gold, symbolizing Gold Star families whose loved ones have died as a result of the war in Iraq; and red for Iraqis who have died in this war. On Monday, military families planned to bring the same message to Capitol Hill: End the war in Iraq, and bring our troops home now.

In a statement before the march, Larry Syverson of Richmond, VA, said he is hoping President Obama won't send his oldest son back to Iraq. “I’m the father of three active duty sons who have served five tours in Iraq. On Saturday, I will be carrying two signs as I march from Arlington National Cemetery to the White House. One will have a picture of my oldest son and will ask President Obama to not send him back to Iraq this spring. The second sign will include the number of troops who have died in Iraq since President Obama took office. The President and the American public must continually be reminded of the unacceptable burden this illegal war places on military families.”

Dr. Javad Razani of Los Angeles, CA is the father of Spc. Omead Razani who was killed while serving as an Army medic in Iraq in 2004. Dr. Razani said "I march to honor the democracy my son joined the Army to serve. As a member of this democracy, I feel my duty is to speak out about how this country's finest, the men and women who serve us, are treated and where they are sent in our name. I march because I want President Obama to deal with the realities of the Middle East, not to continue the misguided policies of the past administration. President Obama, please bring the troops home as swiftly and safely as possible."

Celeste Zappala of Philadelphia, PA said "Our walk from Arlington to the White House is a symbol of the walk that families of the fallen make everyday- we mourn and miss our heroes, our lives will never be the same, and we promise in their name to do everything we can to bring the troops home and never again commit to a needless war- this is the message of our feet and the tears in our eyes." Zappala is the mother of Sgt. Sherwood Baker who was killed in Iraq in 2004 while serving with a Pennsylvania National Guard unit charged with searching for weapons of mass destruction.

Stacy Bannerman of Medford, OR said "My husband is serving his second deployment in a pre-emptive war of choice that was wrong from the start. His National Guard Brigade has one of the highest rates of soldier suicides in the US military. President Obama remarked that military families 'are carrying an enormous burden.' Make no mistake about it, the heaviest part of that burden is knowing that we are sacrificing another year or more, time with our loved ones and families that we will never get back, while our soldiers risk the loss of life, or limb, or peace of mind, for a war based on lies."

Paula Rogovin of Teaneck, NJ is the mother of a Marine who has served two tours of duty in Iraq. She said "Our hearts break to think of our beloved troops and the Iraqi people who died in this illegal and immoral war in Iraq, a war based on lies. Our loved ones joined the military in good faith but have been abused by repeated deployments to Iraq. The misuse and abuse of our military is a national disgrace. This must be stopped. The only way to prevent more deaths and injuries is to end the war in Iraq immediately, and to bring all of our troops home from Iraq."

When the group of about 50 marchers stopped in front of the White House, many began to cry as they held up photos of relatives who were killed or wounded in the war. “To be a member of a military family is a form of torture,” one woman called out. “Dear Mr. Obama,” read a hand-written sign, “We worked hard for you and the CHANGE you promised. Now we beg you to bring our troops home. This is the change we need. It is too late for our Jason, but so many other precious lives can still be saved. War is not the answer in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

The only immediate response from the government was issued by a SWAT team officer who ordered the peace marchers to move away from the White House fence. But another, more understanding officer arrived on a bicycle and asked to speak with one of the grieving mothers, who had previously been arrested while trying to lodge a war protest to the Bush administration. The bicycle cop’s diplomatic approach provided the group a bit more time to hold up their banners, flowers and protest posters as close as the public can get to the Obama White House.

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Monday, February 2, 2009

New Military Mission

With a fresh breeze sweeping through the White House, now’s the time for a new look at U.S. military operations overseas. In electing Barak Obama president, a majority of voters chose the “peace candidate” who pressed for winding down the war in Iraq. On the other hand, Obama also supported sending more troops to Afghanistan. Many close observers of the war in Central Asia are raising alarms about escalating military actions in a region of ancient feuds that are now flaming through nuclear-armed Pakistan.

“One lesson from Vietnam was that the United States should not go to war without broad public support. One lesson from Iraq might be that we should not go to war without a vigorous public debate in which an administration’s claims are carefully examined and challenged,” Ray Bonner, a veteran journalist in Asia, wrote in a recent New York Times review of two books about the Afghan war front. “Yet we are on the verge of significantly expanding the war in Afghanistan, which will inevitably affect Pakistan as well. Unfortunately, there has been little or no debate about President-elect Barack Obama’s plan to send in more troops.”

Days after Obama was sworn into office, former Senator George McGovern set off a big flare in The Washington Post to illuminate a simmering debate that will likely heat up: “To send our troops out of Iraq and into Afghanistan would be a near-perfect example of going from the frying pan into the fire. There is reason to believe some of our top military commanders privately share this view. And so does a broad and growing swath of your party and your supporters,” McGovern wrote.

“I have believed for some time that military power is no solution to terrorism. The hatred of U.S. policies in the Middle East -- our occupation of Iraq, our backing for repressive regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, our support of Israel -- that drives the terrorist impulse against us would better be resolved by ending our military presence throughout the arc of conflict,” McGovern continued. “This means a prudent, carefully directed withdrawal of our troops from Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and elsewhere. We also need to close down the imposing U.S. military bases in this section of the globe, which do so little to expand our security and so much to stoke local resentment.”

Some may dismiss McGovern as a failed presidential candidate trounced by Richard Nixon. However, Nixon subsequently resigned in disgrace for presiding over an administration that illegally attacked political opponents, and Congress heeded critics like McGovern and cut off funds for the widening war Nixon waged in Indochina. Given the history of the disastrous military campaign in Southeast Asia, a sober reexamination is taking place inside and outside military circles on how best to engage earth-scorching Islamic insurgencies.

“There is no battlefield solution to terrorism," The RAND Corporation, a top Pentagon contractor on national defense research, concluded last year in a study of military campaigns against insurgency groups around the world since 1968. “In looking at how other terrorist groups have ended, the RAND study found that most terrorist groups end either because they join the political process, or because local police and intelligence efforts arrest or kill key members. Police and intelligence agencies, rather than the military, should be the tip of the spear against al Qaida in most of the world, and the United States should abandon the use of the phrase ‘war on terrorism,’” the report to the Pentagon stated.

This reexamination was nudged by Washington Post reporter Dana Priest’s insightful critique, The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America's Military, published in 2003, and kick-started by retired Marine General Anthony Zinni’s broadside challenge to Bush administration’s policies, The Battle for Peace, which came out in 2006.

“Since the end of the Cold War, the imperatives of ‘global leadership’ have led the United States to assume ever-greater obligations around the world. With little or no consideration of the implications, policymakers have sloughed off the burden of handling those obligations onto the armed services, which are cheerfully assumed to be able to do anything, anywhere, at any time,” states a synopsis of Priest’s book on the U.S. Air Force’s Air University Library Web site. “That assumption deserves to be reconsidered -- as does the corollary, long cherished by conservatives, that other government agencies, such as the State Department, are incompetent beyond salvaging.”

For instance, “There can be no military solution to the problem” that violently divides Israelis and Palestinians, General Zinni told Priest after serving as U.S. military commander in the Middle East and as a State Department special envoy on Israeli-Palestinian hostilities. “You know, there is no military solution to terrorism, either.”

In his book, Zinni wrote: “Think about it: We’ve declared war on a tactic—terrorism—not on an ideology, not on a nation-state… This is no way to fight terrorism … Military responses by themselves will not do the job. ... We need a new strategic vision for our country—a vision that will focus our government and all its elements of power on the task of bringing peace and stability to the world.”

Based on his military career, which included enduring severe battle wounds as a young marine in Vietnam, Zinni concluded that “We have not been skillful in understanding how to effectively apply our power in ways that do not alienate or threaten other societies. We understand warmaking far better than we understand peacemaking.”

The remedy, he wrote, is to treat diplomatic negotiations and other means of resolving conflicts seriously. “A set of countries around the world—primarily the Nordic countries, Canada, and Switzerland—have traditionally centered their foreign policy on peacemaking, mediation, and conflict resolution, and have funded and provided resources for these activities.”

In his 2004 autobiography, Battle Ready, composed with military storyteller Tom Clancy, Zinni bluntly fired off a warning to the American public and to his former colleagues in the Pentagon: “The military traditionally goes out there and kills people and breaks things. … We have to ask ourselves how the military needs to change in order to actually deal with those political, economic, social, security, and information management challenges that we’ve already been facing for a long time. … Either the civilian officials must develop the capabilities demanded of them and learn how to partner with other agencies to get the job done, or the military finally needs to change into something else beyond the breaking and the killing.”

For more information:

(This article is also posted at Opinion Forum.)