Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The silent costs of battle: Talking about PTSD

I have nightmares at night, and sometimes I get maybe a handful of hours of sleep for a couple of days straight.

This is one of the many marks that battle leaves on the human mind.

During my campaign for city council, I was terrified people might think I was ‘crazy’. That The Stranger, or Publicola, or The Times would get word that I’m still startled by loud noises and conclude I was some how unstable. This is a very common fear, one that isolates veterans, and it’s leading to a lot of men and women hurting themselves or hurting others.

Last week I learned that a friend from childhood, also an Iraq veteran, was suspected of killing two of his friends in a violent act that could only be related to his experiences at war. He was a good kid, raised by an amazingly devoted family and he like many of us had signed up to serve his country for all the right reasons. It is my hope that he is found innocent, but whether he is or not, we need to have a conversation about the mental effects of battle on our troops.

The military lifestyle is difficult even during times of peace. You spend days away from family and friends, training and drilling constantly. Within the last eight years that rigorous schedule has been topped by deployments of a year and longer.

This time is spent in an environment that does not often believe in mental illness. The idea is that if you can’t see the scars then it’s not a real injury. Soldiers who seek treatment are often times laughed at or ridiculed for reaching out for help.

Those who aren’t are reminded that the symptoms of PTSD are good for the battlefield, a place where it truly does pay to be hyper alert, slightly paranoid, and ready to kill at a moment’s notice.

When I returned from Iraq the first time I was asked two questions: "Do you have thoughts of harming yourself?" and "Do you have thoughts of hurting others?" I was informed that if I answered ‘yes’ to either of those I wouldn’t be allowed to go on leave but would have to stay and go through mental evaluations.

Luckily, I had thoughts of neither and was allowed to go home, but I wonder if everyone coming back was being told the same thing I was.... and if they were getting the help they needed?

It's essential that as our President looks to increase troop levels in Afghanistan that we press him to protect our soldiers from the increased demands on them and their families. We need to see military leaders continuing to receive training and being pressed to understand and recognize PTSD, and slowly working to a military culture that accepts wounded warriors regardless of their wounds.

We also need greater access to VA and non-VA related mental health services, and better supervision of counselors to prevent the just suck it up mentality that does exist in some VA hospitals.

Finally, we as a society must do a better job educating ourselves. We need to understand what it is that soldiers go through during deployment and what they deal with when they get home... so we can empathize.

For me, being a veteran in the Northwest is a very unique experience. I’ve met individuals who supported the invasion of Iraq and thanked me, I’ve met people who did not support the invasion and pitied me, and I’ve even had aggressive people yell and curse at me simply for having served.

It’s wonderful for people to have their own opinions and to express them, but as I watch a woman carrying a baby doll covered in blood around the Federal Building I often ask myself, is that a mark against me or war itself?

I wouldn't ask any progressive to stop protesting the occupation of Iraq. I no longer support the occupation myself. But I would urge activists not to protest veterans themselves. Half the time the things that might get said by protesters are nothing compared to the things a returned soldier tells himself when he wakes up in the middle of the night.

I didn’t choose to invade Iraq. We were ordered by the President of the United States to go into Iraq. We were duped like the rest of the country. Remember the phrase "weapons of mass destruction"?

The only way to combat the effects of war and PTSD is by having a welcoming and supportive environment to come home to. I was lucky, and I had that. Not everyone does, and part of the only way to fix that is for us to start talking about it.

I'm a veteran and I have PTSD. I am not alone.


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