“If a policy is wrongheaded feckless and corrupt I take it personally and consider it a moral obligation to sound off and not shut up until it’s fixed.” Col David Hackworth
Over the past couple of weeks I discovered just how mentally and emotionally fragile I still am. As those that follow my writings here know I wrote a couple of articles recently about the treatment that I was receiving at the local Naval Medical Center, and my perceptions of that command. Those, as well as the e-mails to my provider, which were then shared by the person in charge of fixing the problem with the Medical Center Executive Officer without my permission, (I think there is another violation of my HIPPA rights there as well) were very difficult to write.
They were extremely painful because of the emotions that were unleashed, especially because I thought of doing something that scared me to death. I considered, very briefly in my pain, anger and my sense that the system had betrayed me and for that matter all of us seeking help; the possibility of committing suicide, in a very public and dramatic way. It scared the hell out of me that I developed a perfectly executable plan to do it, a plan that for a moment would have drawn attention to the issue, but at the same time would have traumatized many others.
Of course I do not think I would ever do it. The death of Robin Williams by suicide yesterday shattered me, and no matter how bad things are I wouldn’t want my death to cause distress to anyone. Frankly, I love life too much, and God knows that one more dead body won’t change how the military or the Veteran Administration medical systems treat people in crisis.
However a living person, especially a pain in the ass like me, that won’t stop speaking out just might make a difference. That might take a while to do, but I will do it until war, and the indifference of soulless bureaucracies are no more. That may be unreasonable, unrealistic and unattainable but it is a windmill worth tilting at.
But I fully understand that people in a moment of madness and despair, would make the choice to end their life, and see as it as a perfectly logical and rational act. I have known senior chaplain colleagues and former commanders who have chosen suicide, and I am sure that none of them thought that they would ever make that choice, until they actually did it. Please don’t worry about me. I am not going to kill myself, the thought scares me too much. Honestly I would rather live to a ripe old age and be a thorn in the side of the system to get veterans the care that they deserve, and the care that this country owes them than to be yet another statistic whose death is swept under the rug as quickly as the system can do it. Unfortunately, that is the reality; any bureaucratic system, military, government or the private sector will go on with as little inconvenience and reflection as is required once the body is disposed of properly.
Just a few months ago I was talking about simple teaching history, religion and ethics at local junior colleges and for profit universities “for the beer money” as I joked with friends. I told people that my desire when I retire was to be like LT Weinberg in the classic movie A Few Good Men and “have absolutely no responsibility here.” The fact is that I am tired and I don’t want to be in charge of anything when I retire, either in the military, civilian or church world. What T.E. Lawrence wrote to a friend shortly before his death in 1935 resonates with me:
“You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.”
That being said, I want whatever amount of time left on this earth, and hopefully it is a very, very long time, is to make a difference in the lives of the men and women who have served in the military and who come home broken, in mind, body and spirit. I can think of no other option or higher calling at this point. To that end I have been referred to a therapist in the system, but not at the Naval Medical Center. The therapist was highly recommended by a chaplain friend who has also went through some very difficult times, even in trying to get help for himself. Thankfully, the person who I talked to a week ago agreed to the referral. So I will get help for me, something that I need and go into with a positive attitude based on my friend’s recommendation.
Now those who have never walked the dark path of long lasting, abiding clinical depression or other mental illness may not understand what I am talking about, but those that have walked this terrible path know it all too well. The feeling that no one cares and that you are alone is a major factor in the despair that overwhelms people, and acts as a trigger to suicide. Unfortunately far too many military personnel and veterans reach that point. The numbers are staggering. No wonder that Major General Smedley Butler wrote about the cost of war, or the “bill” as he calls it: “This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations…”
There are a number of ways that I could do this. I could go to work for the VA as a Chaplain, or I could go get a degree in counseling and do therapy or any number of other venues. But I think I would be limited by having to serve in ossified bureaucracies if I was to do any of those things.
Thus I am probably going to venture into the world of social activism, working with veterans organizations, political leaders and the media to draw attention to what is happening to veterans that seek care. Veterans like me who perceive that the system doesn’t really care about them, many individual providers may care deeply and deliver wonderful care, but the system itself is soulless and seems often to be clueless. Likewise I will work to expose the war profiteers who seek to cut back medical and mental health care for veterans even more and actively lobby the military, and Congress to enact those cuts. Personally I feel that is immoral and unjust and that it needs to be confronted and exposed.
I wish I could say that things were any better in the civilian mental health system, but they are not. My wife has battled and suffered from severe depression almost all of her life, and over the past 20 years what is paid for by insurance companies for people in crisis has shrunk to a pathetic “system” whereby a person that is hospitalized remains in hospital 2-5 days until they assure they providers that they will not kill themselves. There is no continuity of care, there is little or no therapy or medication management, it is simply warehousing. I’d like to take that on too, but I have to start somewhere, so I’ll start with where I am.
I am a dreamer, and I don’t mind tilting at windmills. Lawrence wrote: “All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”
I am a dangerous dreamer because as Lawrence noted I will act on my dreams with open eyes. I may not be able to do a lot while I am still on active duty, but when I retire I will be very dangerous because I know far too much and I won’t be afraid to speak out. My heroes include men like Major General Smedley Butler and Colonel David Hackworth and I have no inhibitions at following in their footsteps. I am very determined, persistent and I can be a total ass. When I determine to do something I don’t quit.
As Colonel Hackworth, who I had the honor of corresponding with in the years before he died said: “If a policy is wrongheaded feckless and corrupt I take it personally and consider it a moral obligation to sound off and not shut up until it’s fixed.” The way we are treating our veterans is just that and I won’t shut my mouth until the day that I die, which Lord willing won’t be anytime soon.
Pray for me, I do need it.