“We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.” Erich Maria Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front
Well my friends it has been an interesting week. Last week I was contacted by a Public Affairs Officer at the Pentagon who had been a student in our Winter Class because he had been asked by a reporter if he knew someone who could talk about PTSD. I was then contacted by the reporter, Maggie Ybarra of the Washington Times. I was interviewed and the paper sent a wonderful photographer Eva Russo to take pictures of me at Norfolk’s Harbor Park.
Now the Times is not my paper of choice. However the chance to talk about PTSD and the effect on veterans including senior officers in such a high profile forum is important. One does not have to agree with the political slant of news organization if they present the particular topic with sensitivity and balance. The reporter, editor and photographer involved all treated me and those who suffer with respect. I cannot ask for more. Since I was interviewed and quoted by David Wood of the Huffington Post last month for an article on “Moral Injury” shows a sense of balance, I will talk to anyone willing to fairly present the struggles faced by currently serving military members and veterans suffering from PTSD. My brothers and sisters mean more to me than my political leanings. This week I have been contacted by a producer from the BBC about a documentary on that subject but that is waiting on PAO to do something with it.
What matters to me is that veterans suffering from PTSD, TBI and Moral Injury are not forgotten. That happens far too often often after every war. The public forgets, the military forgets and the government forgets. Major General Smedley Butler wrote in his classic War is a Racket:
“I have visited eighteen government hospitals for veterans. In them are about 50,000 destroyed men- men who were the pick of the nation eighteen years ago. The very able chief surgeon at the government hospital in Milwaukee, where there are 3,800 of the living dead, told me that mortality among veterans is three times as great as among those who stayed home.”
Likewise I understand the stigma of PTSD. Many senior personnel both officers and enlisted, the career men and women effected by it PTSD, TBI or Moral Injury don’t want to identify themselves or seek help. I can’t blame them in some ways even though it is killing them. My choice back in 2009 was to decide try tell my story as honestly and transparently. When my shrink asked me what I was going to do with this I thought about it hard. I am very much an introvert and it was scary to “come out.” It was even harder then because though a chaplain I was for all practical purposes an agnostic hoping that there was a God and I was afraid of everything. But I knew that I had to start speaking out because very few senior leaders affected by this scourge had the freedom to do so. That is one of the reasons that I started this website.
It was risky to speak out. Despite efforts by some senior leaders to change the military culture the fact is that there still is a great stigma attached to “coming out” and seeking help for PTSD and other mental illnesses. In fact I know of numerous senior leaders, officer and enlisted whose careers have cratered due to the effects of PTSD and even some who have lost their families or even taken their lives. So for me this is very personal and serious.
The first time I spoke out being interviewed in the Jacksonville (North Carolina) Daily News back in April 2011 there were trolls who made some incredibly hateful and vicious comments about me in the comments of the online edition. Some were even threatening. The paper took the abusive comments down but the wounds remain, some people are simply assholes and I pity them. No wonder people don’t want to talk about the subject and would rather resort to silence, substance abuse and suicide than talk about it.
The fact is that despite the fact that some senior leaders are doing what they can to try to change the culture of the military from one that penalizes, marginalizes and trivializes the suffering of those that serve the stigma remains, and many feel it. One senior enlisted leader in an elite branch of the Navy told me that “leaders could seek help that they would never get any more career enhancing or important assignments.” That was only a few months ago after the suicide of a retired Navy Captain who suffered from PTSD and TBI, a man who meant much to both of us.
The fact is that as a Chaplain I feel pretty much “radioactive” to other chaplains, at senior chaplains. I can count on one hand the number of senior chaplains who have bothered to contact me or ask how I was doing. But that being said I have been contacted by others, chaplains line officers and enlisted personnel who tell me that I am one of the few people who “gets it” and that they feel safe confiding in. Personally I would rather have that be my legacy than anything else.
The fact is it will take a generation of leaders to change the military culture to give the men and women who put it all on the line and suffer for their efforts to get help.
But enough of that for now, I’m getting upset and I already have a terrible time sleeping, I don’t need to spin myself up any more than I am. If you want to read the Times article the link is here: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/apr/22/less-silent-suffering-veterans-post-traumatic-stre/
On a different note, I did something today that in more than 32 years in the military I have never done. I received a maximum score on my physical fitness test. The past few years I have come close but never maxed it. The sad thing is what I need to do now to get a maximum score is more than I needed to do as a young Army officer in the 1980s.
Anyway, until tomorrow when I will have another Gettysburg article for you, have a great night and remember to care for the veterans and families who suffer the effects of PTSD, TBI and Moral Injury.