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Best Medicine for Veterans: Prevention
What veterans need most from us is a commitment to keep them from going to war in the first place
Veterans Day, and once again I'm shouting in my head: You people want to honor veterans? How about we dump the patriotic tinsel and give them something they can use — like all the effort it's going to take to heal their wounds for years to come.
I'm working on the anger. I've been reading Paul K. Chappell's "The End of War," a shining little book that gives me hope. Mr. Chappell is a young West Point graduate who served in Iraq and now goes about the country making the argument — kindly, intelligently, unflinchingly — that peace is something we can actually achieve.
Veterans Day, and here comes a friend with news of the Wounded Warrior Project, an organization that advocates for injured service members in order to foster "the most successful, well-adjusted generation of wounded warriors in this nation's history." How can I tell my good friend that even though I applaud these efforts, it seems to me the very need for such an organization is proof that our nation allows its enormous military machine to bear down on its most precious components — real men and women — and then to drop them carelessly back into our communities all busted up, depressed and increasingly suicidal. Meanwhile, billions upon billions of our taxpayer dollars are quietly funneled into the pockets of war profiteers, who are all too happy to go about their business of oiling the other components of the machine.
Veterans Day, and another friend forwards a mass email: "Please pray for and honor our military." I scroll through photos of soldiers holding up under awful burdens — separation from loved ones, violence, fear and physical privation. I read the captions that feed the underlying message, which is that after all the hardships these soldiers have endured, they cannot help but take offense when we whine about potholes, bad weather, and our everyday, crappy jobs. The email exhorts me to keep my life "in perspective" and to reach out to returning soldiers with tolerance and compassion. I note that an Army mental health nurse is the original sender.
I want to hit "reply all" and type furiously that even though I agree that returning soldiers need our compassion, I find the manipulative sentimentality of the photographs disturbing. Maybe this is because I once served as an Army nurse myself (not overseas but in Texas), where soldiers suffered from wounds no amount of "tolerance and compassion" could ever heal — soldiers who really needed our outrage. But I know my good friend meant well, and so I hit "delete."
Veterans Day, and a friend who is a member of Veterans for Peace suggests I take a look at another "warrior" program, the Warrior Writers Project. I take a look — a long one — and have my heart ripped up by warriors, both women and men, who express themselves with courage and honesty about their experiences. I support them by purchasing their anthology. But it doesn't feel like enough.
This time last year, I attended a conference for writers and medicine professionals who use the humanities to help combat soldiers through the "aftershock" back at home. The keynote address was delivered by Tim O'Brien, Vietnam veteran and acclaimed author of "The Things They Carried." I recall how warmly Mr. O'Brien was applauded, and how, when the applause died down, he joked grimly that he might not have any friends in the audience by the time the speech was over. He looked truly unnerved (later he confessed to being "terrified"), but he waded right in, admonishing us not to turn veterans into victims. You could have heard a pin drop.
There can be no healing, Mr. O'Brien argued, if healing just means forgetting. A soldier needs not only to remember, but also to accept responsibility for the matter-of-fact "nastiness" of war. He then told us how he once stood by and watched a fellow soldier, just a fresh-faced kid from Minnesota, do something unspeakably cruel to an old, blind man in Vietnam. He didn't spare us the appalling details. He said that, to this day, the face of that old man returns to him in his dreams.
A combat veteran is entitled to the depression and anxiety and sleepless nights, Mr. O'Brien said, and we ought not dole out coping mechanisms that deny them their humanity with the old excuse, "That's war for you." He added that he didn't mean to denigrate either those who serve their country in the military or those who care for them. He kept a grip on his own guilt for the "bad stuff" he did in Vietnam, refusing to allow his own humanity to be whisked away by any falsehood or shallow coping mechanism.
In the end, Mr. O'Brien had some "layman's advice" for medical professionals dealing with PTSD: You want to ameliorate post-war suffering? Practice preventative medicine. If you can tell people to stop smoking, you can tell them to stop making war.
Veterans Day, and I will tell my beloved nation: Stop making war.