April 26, 2008 – The movie “Stop Loss” filled the silver screen with haunting images of bad dreams, alcoholism and family strife in the wake of a tour of duty in Iraq. This film’s unerring look at the invisible casualties of war – the men, women and their loved ones who suffer emotional trauma long after the war is over – was long overdue.
Hollywood’s decision to shine the spotlight on the emotional burdens borne by soldiers who have served in the global war on terrorism and their families is significant. By taking us inside the hearts and minds of soldiers who have enlisted since 9/11, “Stop Loss” will undoubtedly open the eyes of millions to the emotional scars of war – and what we as a society must do to contend with this pressing issue.
In Massachusetts, six-plus years of war have taken an increasing toll on families of 26,000 members of the Armed Reserves and National Guards.
Unlike traditional military families, loved ones of members of the Reserves and Guard are spread across the country without the centralized support available at bases where regular military troops and families live, work and train together.
This leaves Massachusetts’ Reservists, the Guard and their families more vulnerable to the strains of war than their full-time soldier counterparts.
While the full extent of the war’s hidden casualties remains unknown, studies continue to report increased problems for returning veterans and their families.
In early March, the Army Mental Health Advisory Team released findings that soldiers on multiple deployments reported “more mental health problems and more stress-related work problems” than other soldiers.
Not surprisingly, the team found each successive deployment brings “increased risk for low morale, mental health problems and degraded performance due to stress or emotional problems.”
The stresses on veterans are heart-wrenching. The suicide rate for returning veterans is twice that of the civilian population. Some 31 percent of Marines, 38 percent of soldiers and 49 percent of Reserve and Guard will experience mental health problems as the result of deployment.
Across the state, many are answering the call for help. The Patrick administration, through the Department of Veterans’ Services, recently launched the Statewide Advocacy for Veteran’s Empowerment (SAVE) program. In collaboration with the Department of Public Health, the program is designed to assist veterans in need of referral services and is tasked with prevention of suicide.
SAVE was inspired in part by Kevin and Joyce Lucey, parents of Cpl. Jeffrey Michael Lucey, U.S. Marine Corps, a suicide victim who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). SAVE acts as a liaison between veterans and their families and the various agencies within the federal and state governments.
Strategic Outreach to Families of Army Reservists (SOFAR), an all-volunteer organization which is based in Cambridge, provides free therapy services to extended family of deployed and returning soldiers.
SOFAR also offers training to family members about how to identify whether a returning veteran needs treatment for mental health problems or is at risk of suicide.
These efforts and others recognize a painful reality about warfare – the inner war continues for veterans and families long after a soldier’s service ends.
Dramas like the one depicted in “Stop Loss” are undoubtedly painful to see, but we must watch and learn. A public health crisis faces our citizen-soldiers in the National Guard and Reserves.
As these proud men and women continue to cope with the effects of multiple deployments, they deserve our respect, support and as many services as we can make available to them.