Thursday, November 10, 2011

Abandoned vets

If you come back in a box, you're a hero. It is easy to make a hero out of someone who has died. There's no responsibility to that person, no moral imperative to take care of them. Putting a Chinese-made plastic flag on their grave once a year seems to be the accepted token of appreciation.

But what about the abandoned vets? The men and women who manage to survive the hell of war, only to find themselves in a new hell at home. Physical wounds heal but mental scars are forever.

I have not been a member of the military but many of my friends are/were. My first experience with a PTSD victim was when I was still a teenager. My father took in a Vietnam vet as a tenant in one of his apartments. A former Green Beret, he was fiercely loyal to us but was prone to panic attacks, violent drunken outbursts and flashbacks. This was probably 15 years ago, before PTSD was even an accepted disability. Back then, they called it "shell-shock" and dumped them out of the military on a medical discharge.

Fast forward to 2004/2005...My friend and coworker Dan comes home from Iraq after an Army tour. Formerly mild-mannered, he came back with all the same symptoms. He'd drink himself into blackout fits where he'd lash out at everyone, then sob his eyes out on the bar before passing out. I moved away that summer but often wondered if he would finally get the help he needed. I got a call that fall, Thanksgiving evening to be exact. Dan took his own life by hanging himself in his parent's closet that morning.

He was one of many. We have veterans homeless on the street, in jails and mental institutions and there is very little attention brought to this. The Angola State Prison has their own color guard, comprised of incarcerated veterans.

So why aren't we running TV campaigns and sleek Facebook pages to draw attention to this? My answer is, it isn't something that people can make money from or use as political campaign fodder. It is convenient to slap a Chinese-made yellow ribbon magnetic sticker on your SUV and say you support the troops. It is easy to glorify the dead because they can't speak. They aren't shivering by a dumpster by your favorite Starbucks or asking for change outside the local Taco Bell. The homeless and the mentally ill veterans aren't a sexy dress blues photo, forever remembered as such and forever out of the way. They're here now. For the dead, their suffering is over. For the living, it has not.

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