“The Words We Owe Our Soldiers”

In my local paper on Sunday, my favorite local columnist again wrote a perfect piece. This time it was in anticipation of Veteran’s Day. Diane Cameron wrote:
We know that the holiday requires something of us, and that we should care. We know that when prompted by the calendar, we are to offer words of appreciation for what our soldiers have done.
It’s especially true this year as soldiers from our region leave for Iraq. We get to see up close what it’s like for men and women to leave their children, aging parents and other family members behind. But we often miss the greater sacrifice: Soldiers stand in harm’s way for us and they kill other people for us. They give up pieces of their psyche and their soul — for us.
I’ve thought about this the past few months as we’ve heard the accusations lobbed at John Kerry for tossing away his Vietnam War medals. He did, along with other vets, toss away some medals, but many people don’t know the total impact of that event.
The 1971 medal “turn-in” ceremony was part of a protest against the war in Vietnam. But it was also a protest against the way that veterans were being treated when they sought help for injuries sustained in that war.
The term “post-traumatic stress disorder” is common parlance now. What we forget is that this fancy name for “battle fatigue” wasn’t invented in the Vietnam War. That term and diagnosis came years later because of the activism of veterans like Kerry.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, thousands of returning vets were turned away from VA hospitals because their mental health problems did not fit a category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual — the “DSM” — the bible of the American Psychiatric Association. With no specific category, there could be no reimbursement or payment. That meant that vets were turned away or misdiagnosed.
What Kerry and others saw were thousands of vets committing suicide, dying of addiction or locked in mental hospitals and being numbed to zombie-like states by misprescribed anti-psychotic medications. Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which staged the 1971 medal “turn-in,” demanded that the U.S. government respond. With attention brought to the bureaucratic and political malfunction, the American Psychiatric Association was pressured to include “Vietnam syndrome” and, later, post-traumatic stress disorder in the DSM, which meant that vets could receive services. The psychiatric association had dropped an earlier diagnostic category, “war neurosis,” from the DSM in the early ’60s, out of fear that the demand for services could bankrupt the government.
Today, we are in danger of making a mistake again as we try to deal with the current war’s veterans. Some have said that Iraq is “like Vietnam,” when, in fact, this war’s veterans face different psychological injuries and will need still different treatments.
A pattern is clear. When considering the kind of psychic damage soldiers sustain, our government and medical systems first deny it, then exaggerate it, finally accept it, but then forget.
The rest of us forget, too. We forget how bad war is. We forget the lasting cost to those who go to fight and kill, and then come home broken. We forget that this war’s casualty list will be doubled or tripled by psychological injuries.
So, what do we say to our soldiers for bearing all of that for us?
Oh, yes. Thank you.

And thank YOU, Diane, for explaining it all so much better than I ever could.

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