January 12, 2009 – The two sides of our nation’s “schizophrenic” approach to recognizing the special needs of military veterans were on display in stories last week in the Star Tribune.
The paper reported on the special courts being established in a number of states for veterans who find themselves charged with crimes before realizing the full extent of the treatment and support they need when returning from war. These courts provide support services, counseling and diversion from the punishment-based criminal prosecution system in recognition of the natural and predictable consequences of combat, which have been present in every war from Revolutionary to Iraq. From debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to substance abuse to feelings of alienation and disconnection that make reintegration difficult, many young men, trained as warriors, naturally find it difficult to admit that they need help.
These courts are a huge step forward from 1981, when PTSD first appeared in diagnostic literature and when otherwise law-abiding Vietnam veterans found themselves charged with serious crimes that actually resulted from their military service. It was the study of PTSD among these veterans that led to the understanding that the disorder can be a consequence of other sorts of trauma, too, such as rape, child abuse and other man-made and natural catastrophes.
On the other hand, almost the same day that we learned about these much-needed and forward-thinking “veteran’s courts,” the Pentagon announced that it would not award Purple Hearts to veterans who suffer from PTSD as a consequence of military service. According to the Pentagon announcement, PTSD injuries do not qualify because “the condition had not been intentionally caused by enemy action – and because it remained difficult to diagnose and quantify.” The Pentagon seems to have decided that physical injuries, whether debilitating or not, are more worthy of recognition than psychological wounds that can destroy lives and families.
The military “warrior culture” makes it hard enough to admit or seek treatment. The failure to recognize predictable, life-threatening psychological wounds resulting from service will only make it more difficult for veterans and their families to seek the services they need.
In the early 1980s, many of us thought the growing understanding that psychological damage would always result from war and that these enormous personal costs were usually borne by veterans and their families would eventually provide another measure to decide whether going to war was worth it. And that, if there ever were a full acknowledgement of the problem, that decision would be much more difficult indeed.
Minnesota’s late Sen. Paul Wellstone campaigned tirelessly to end discriminatory treatment of mental illness, with notable success. He was also a strong advocate for the rights of veterans to proper treatment and the best benefits our society can offer. One can only wonder what Wellstone would say about our society’s continuing “schizophrenia” regarding the consequences of wars.