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.)


Tom Carter said...

PTSD has been with us as long as there have been wars and soldiers that fought in them. It's had various names--combat fatigue, battle fatigue, shell shock, etc. It wasn't always taken seriously, especially years after the experiences that brought it on. It's good that it's now recognized for what it is--not a combat injury per se, but a psychological reaction that can be devastating for many years and requires treatment.

It's more than just remembering combat experiences. Anyone who's been in actual combat never forgets. I remember things that happened and my comrades frequently, almost daily. But it doesn't reach the level of a disorder or bring on debilitating depression. That's the difference, and failing to understand that is one reason PTSD can be misunderstood.

PTSD in veterans is normally understood to be a reaction to the stress of combat, and it usually is. But anyone can suffer PTSD as a result of traumatic experiences, or in some cases as a reaction to psychological stress absent any physical experience. However it happens, it has to be taken seriously.

Jan Barry said...

More recent research has found that the impact of repeated experiences of mayhem to or deaths of friends, family members, other people around you can accumulate to the point of triggering PTSD/depression. I once wrote a poem about getting PTSD as a journalist from covering too many fatal traffic accidents and fires. That turned out to be mild compared to what I went through after my wife died, a couple years after my brother was killed in a motorcycle accident, all of this atop knowing Vietnam vets who committed suicide or GIs who died in the war. As a result of this problem getting more serious attention, there are grief support groups in many communities, which I personally found very helpful.