Monday, March 31, 2008

Support Our Troops?

By Timothy Rice

Four years ago the magnets were everywhere, everyone was slapping them on the back of cars, on their front doors, mailboxes, and businesses. Now it is 2008 you really have to wonder how many people are paying attention to them, and to the bigger picture, their namesake, Our Troops.

Shell Shock”, “Battle Fatigue”, and “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” different names which all highlight a troublesome fact: many soldiers can not readily reintegrate into society after deployment. The term shell shock was applied to the soldiers who managed to return home from WWI,physically, but mentally the war had taken something from them. Ninety years, six major wars and countless smaller conflicts later, we've obviously figured out how to cope with this situation.

Or have we?

The military certainly has programs in place. Disability payments are awarded to those tested and failing psychological tests. Numerous government programs run on an opt-in basis including Military Onesource, Courage to Care, and Operation comfort offer a wide array of help ranging from finding a temporary home for pets before deployment, information for families about helping their soldier cope with reintegration, to available suicide hotlines.

But the problem with these programs is that they are largely opt-in. Some soldiers are found early on as having a high chance of developing PTSD and are pushed into treatment, others ask for it, but still others fall through the cracks, a life shattering situation that often ends in suicide and at times also put the lives of the soldiers loved ones in danger. It is time for the government and military departments to step up mandate psychological testing early and often.

Critics attest that the suicide rate of returning soldiers from Iraq is no higher than in the general population. Hogwash. If you look at the statistics of the returning soldiers from Vietnam with the knowledge that little more has been set up to help soldiers cope, you know that there is a pending crisis. The numbers for post-returning suicides range from 20,000 to 200,000. The discrepancy of the large range has been explained by many doctors, that the cause of death has often been misrepresented out of respect to the families.

Many psychologists have highlighted two reasons why Vietnam created such a horrid situation for soldiers upon returning home. First, that the prevalence of guerrilla war is more detrimental to the human mind because it lacks a front line to show progress and creates a soldier who must be constantly “hyper-vigilant” about their surroundings, a situation which often doesn't immediately go away upon returning home. This situation is certainly occurring again in Iraq and Afghanistan as each of these wars are fought largely in city streets. The other cause that is often blamed on the increased prevalence of battle related psychological disorders is the expedited reintegration since the world wars. Before mass aviation transportation the soldiers' trips often took weeks on ships and trains during which could converse with other soldiers easing their stress with those that could understand before returning home to a relatively oblivious home and society.

Although very undesirable, delayed re-integration, may be a viable and helpful action that could in the end help soldiers. In addition across the board psychological testing needs to be completed in the warzone, at the time of homecoming and at times thereafter depending on the degree of need. Sessions with psychologists need to be more than offered, they should be mandated. More programs for group help need to be opened and strongly advertised. Soldiers need to get out of their houses and talk to other soldiers. Family members need to be better informed on their task of helping the soldier reintegrate.

In this digital age the military is unfortunately relying heavily on Internet and phone based opt-in helping programs. Psychological problems cannot be solved by the sufferer with research offered by the military on PTSD. Sufferers need actual personal contact help, and the military needs to take a more active role in opening up these roads to recovery and encouraging soldiers to seek help.

The military needs to learn from its mistakes in Vietnam. Beyond the fact that the United States lost a war, many soldiers who fought in have suffered from depression leading to drug use, homelessness, and suicide and even murder.

These same things are happening with the Afghanistan and Iraq veterans. These veterans have the added fear in the new smaller military ,of re-deployment, even repeated re-deployment. The excuse that this is an all volunteer army and therefore they knew what they were getting into is no longer an argument. USA Today reported last month that the use of Military Onesource, a military jack of all trades helpline, has increased every year by 40%, this shows that there is a strong need for this support out there.

The military has been stressed far beyond the expectations of everyone and new programs need to be put in place to protect these soldiers from themselves upon returning. Ignoring the knowledge that we learned from Vietnam is harmful to the soldiers themselves,their families and our society.

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