The pandemic crisis is fostering an increase in demand for mental health counseling and nowhere is the need greater than among wounded service people. The seemingly endless war against terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq – now spreading throughout Africa and Asia – is taking a toll on the volunteer military. World War II was a struggle but in fact the duration from the attack on Pearl Harbor until the Japanese surrendered was less than four years. Those who survived the battles got to go home and try to put it behind them.
No such luck for today’s volunteer army. The war on terrorism has gone on for more than a decade – even longer than Vietnam. The same small cadre of men and women in the U.S. Army and Marines are sent back to the war zones time and time again.
Human beings are not designed for this level of stress. It wears them down and changes their psychological makeup. Even the ones who return from the battlefields with arms and legs intact are often suffering from debilitating interior wounds usually defined as traumatic brain injury (TBI) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Until recently the medical community was baffled by TBI, which resisted simple analysis. Recent medical breakthroughs, however, have concluded that the actual physical impact of proximity to loud explosions disrupts a human brain’s chemical balance. The 2019 Iranian missile attack on U.S forces in Iraq was found to have inflicted TBI on several dozen of our troops. President Trump dismissed them as mere headaches but those people face months or years of rehabilitation and may never fully regain their health. I recently read Signature Wounds: The Untold Story of the Military’s Mental Health Crisis by David Kieran (NYU Press, 2020), which is a fascinating and troubling account of our current predicament.
PTSD is defined as a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Victims of PTSD find themselves unable to cope with reality. For those caught up in the longest foreign war in American history the respite required to begin the healing process often comes too late.
I work with a volunteer group based in Leesburg, Virginia that serves wounded veterans, the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes. I have acquired an appreciation of the pain these fine young people are suffering. Medical science can repair broken limbs and remarkably replace missing ones, but the trick to healing a broken spirit remains elusive.
I also have spent time with the caregivers – usually wives – of wounded warriors suffering from PTSD and TBI. They tell heartbreaking stories of husbands who live in the basement popping pills and drinking alcohol – unable to hold down jobs or even socialize with long-time friends. The sound of a automobile backfire can send them diving to the ground. Their sleep is disrupted by vivid memories of unspeakable war time scenes. Their wives are left to manage family finances, run the household and take care of the kids.
The Coalition struggles to help these heroic young patriots readjust to civilian society and find useful places in the economy. Usually these are marginal positions but at least they are a step in the right direction. But the pandemic has thrown millions of marginal workers out on the street and many of them are wounded veterans with few options.
The Veterans Administration (VA) was slow to recognize and come to grips with PTSD. For a time VA doctors relied too heavily on drug therapy which in many cases led to problems worse than the affliction. More recently the VA has recognized the pressing need for professional therapy but lacks the resources to fully meet the need.
In addition to professional therapy, we have found there is great efficacy in simple human communications, the most effective of which is to be found among the veterans themselves. They tend to have an attitude, no doubt justified, that people who haven’t walked in their shoes can never understand what they have been through – and are going through. But with other veterans, they can open up. They realize they are not alone. The Coalition normally host events for veterans’ families and sometimes weekend getaways for couples. It often makes a wonderful difference in their lives. Unfortunately, social distancing and the cancellation of events like these has already led to suicides.
We all have pain, these vets more than most, and like them, we all need to console ourselves with human connection and empathy. The coronavirus pandemic is proving to be yet another invisible, endless war. And we've all been drafted.