Wishing Away the Effects of Prolonged Combat on Troops

Vet Voice

February 7, 2008 – Kathy Dobie has a very troubling–but very important– article about PTSD in the February 18 issue of The Nation.  It centers on the high rate of post-traumatic stress within the Marine Corps, along with anecdotal evidence that suggests both the Corps and the Defense Department are handling the problem much like the Bush administration handles problems: By pretending it’s not there.

Dobie interviewed VoteVets.org Senior Advisor Dr. Katherine Scheirman and former Senior Advisor (and current U.S. Senate candidate) Andrew Horne for the piece:

“The funding has just been awful, the worst I’ve ever seen in my twenty years in the military,” says Dr. Katherine Scheirman, a retired Air Force colonel who served as chief of medical operations in the Air Force’s Europe headquarters from July 2004 to September 2006. Scheirman says the current political environment has made it “impossible” to give wounded soldiers proper care. “It’s all about money,” she says. “Every kid that gets kicked out with PTSD is gonna be a lifetime of disability payments for the government. Every kid who gives up and kills himself, nothing.” Scheirman’s unit was in charge of evacuating the wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan and transporting them to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and on to the United States. She says politics infused every aspect of care. When she tried to beef up the hospital staff at Landstuhl, she was told, “No, we can’t put more doctors or nurses in there because it will look like we expect more casualties.” She was not allowed to send the visibly wounded home on commercial planes. “The rule,” she says, “was they couldn’t fly commercial if they had injuries that showed because it would upset the American people.” The military planes were so cold the Air Force ended up running clothing drives for hats, scarves and mittens–a situation that continues today. In one e-mail requesting donations, a lieutenant colonel wrote, “Mittens are preferred because they often fit better over wounded hands/fingers.”

“What kind of Army doesn’t provide mittens for its wounded soldiers?” Scheirman asks. “What’s sad is this isn’t the way it’s ever been before. I came into the military under Reagan, and George Bush’s dad–they treated people well. The Clintons treated people really, really well. It’s only this Administration that acts like the lives of these soldiers are expendable.”

Scheirman’s last paragraph sums up the sentiments of many in this community.  Horne’s experience, while different, still highlights a systemic problem:  

Before Lt. Col. Andrew Horne left Iraq in 2005, where he was the civil military operations officer for western Anbar province, he and every marine under him above the rank of staff sergeant attended a briefing on PTSD given by the division psychiatrist, a Navy officer. “They said it’s been determined that it comes from a feeling of helplessness, and elite units like Marines don’t get it,” Horne says. “And the ones who do get it have usually been discipline problems before or have a pre-existing problem. So it was really designed to, one, make you not report it yourself and, two, be suspicious of anyone who was reporting it.”

I’m well aware that many in the veteran and active duty communities aren’t comfortable with the abundance of articles in the media that they see as portraying combat vets as broken down, volatile lunatics.  Either way, the fact is there’s a problem.  And it needs to be addressed by the leadership of all branches of the military.  People are failing to realize that it isn’t just exposure to violence, and prolonged, stressful periods away from home that cause PTSD.  It is the combination.  It’s the repeated exposure that’s causing all the problems.  

So in the end, I think it’s up in the air as to whether this article in The Nation reflects poorly on the military.  Perhaps it does.  But will the military become stronger or weaker if we don’t address this problem?  To me, the answer is an obvious “weaker.”  Because, as I see it, only unenlightened cowards refuse to recognize their own weaknesses.  And in doing so, they never conquer them.  

As members of the military, we must recognize these failings within the system so that we may correct them.  We will get no help from the Bush administration, so we must do it ourselves.

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