Tiffany Miller: Country needs to act now for veterans
April 9, 2014
With yet another mass shooting tragedy at Fort Hood, an historic military base has become the opposite of what it should be. No longer wholly a symbol of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the U.S. Armed Forces, Fort Hood now tragically symbolizes everything that is broken in America's moral contract with United States military personnel.
That moral contract is this: Soldiers give life and limb for us and in return they have the right to come home to a country that cares for them both mentally and physically. When our young men and women go to war at the behest of our federal government, "we the people" sign a virtual contract that supersedes the responsibility this country has to any other group of people. It should be a sacred obligation that we willingly fulfill, however, the holy promise between our federal government and our veterans has been damaged by the unholy mess that is Veteran Affairs. The news is littered with reports that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is months and sometimes years behind in their response to soldiers' claims; is it really surprising that some veterans are reaching their breaking point?
Veteran Affairs is not the only culprit in this debate, however. No matter how progressive of a society we think we are, many Americans are uncomfortable with the mere mention of therapy or psychiatric medication. We may not seclude family members in the attic or adjudicate patients into facility-bound life sentences any more, but mental illness remains the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. The irony is that statistically Americans are prescribed enormous amounts of psychiatric medication. So why have we trained ourselves to be silent?
Soldiers are necessarily trained to ignore physical pain and overcome weakness. The downside is that soldiers often perceive mental illness as weakness. Are many Americans' misperceptions any different? In this country, mental health is about as conversationally taboo as leprosy. The truth is that mental illness can be temporary and situational; it can also be hereditary and permanent. It is never contagious, however, and it is almost always isolating. For the families of the severely mentally ill, the symptoms of pain and isolation are just as real.
When a person has appendicitis, they're left with a surgical scar. When they break an arm, they wear a cast. For a veteran, the scars they carry are both mental and physical, making their recovery all the more complicated and urgent. Yet, the average soldier waits two months or more to receive psychological counseling. Telling a person who is dealing with depression or anxiety that they must wait for months to receive help is like telling a heart attack patient that they can't go to the emergency room. The military's perpetual system of red tape and denial only reinforces the misconception that a mentally ill veteran's pain isn't real and that they shouldn't seek help for it.
Whether this generation calls it shell shock or post-traumatic stress disorder, our soldiers need our help. We ask them to go through bombings and shootings. We ask them to take the lives of our enemies and give their own lives in battle. Is it any wonder that our soldiers need more than a parade on Memorial Day from America's citizens?
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If we are to set aside any prejudices we have about mental illness, let's set them aside for our soldiers. Our soldiers deserve at least two things: an immediate mental health evaluation upon reentry into civilian life and immediate psychological counseling if they need it.
Our veterans are tired of excuses and the rest of America should be too. If there aren't enough government sanctioned counselors, then Congress should allot funds for veterans to seek help from civilian counselors. If soldiers aren't seeking help, then let's bring the help to them by mandating psychological evaluations for every returning veteran who has ever or will ever serve in the United States military. Our military has the most sophisticated weapons on earth. It has recently developed one of the most sophisticated PTSD reconditioning programs on earth. Surely Congress can set aside some of the billions spent on weapons to psychologically protect the soldiers using those weapons.
It is more than tragic, it is pure insanity that any veteran would survive a war only to die violently after returning home. If two mass shootings on one military base in less than five years doesn't call this country to action, I don't know what will.
Tiffany Miller is a Tahoe resident and mother. Visit her website at http://mycrayonbox.org.