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.


  1. We get too far removed from humanity when we devote hours to iphones etc. We think it is closer, but we enter a tunnel of our self interest ... and stay there. If and when I get an opportunity to make a change I do. It hurts to look around (out of your tunnel) and see the pain and helplessness. We each must do all we can with what we have for as long as we can.

  2. There are individuals who try to help. Organizations that make a difference. It's just not enough. This is a talked about issue. Human beings do care, but greed gets in the way. Greedy governments and companies who don't pay taxes... if they did, we could afford to help these men. I met an Army Ranger who was a sniper. The poor guy was traumatized about all the people he killed. He said he would never pick up a gun again. He had his coin to prove who he was. I met another soldier who couldn't tell me what his job was. I told him I understood because my brother was a Green Beret. We talked for a while and shared stories of tragedy. He started bawling in my car. I think about both men and hope they are okay. They obviously feel more comfortable opening up to strangers who are aware of the struggles and extreme pressure that come with special forces work. My brother ate a cat to survive during training. Bashed its head in after comforting it. The torture, the extreme physical and mental tests alone screw you up. They have to be sure you can handle anything, but inevitably these men break. They need support of family... strangers they meet with friends or on Uber rides. The secrets they must keep are dark. We have to acknowledge what a sacrifice they are still making after the deed is done, and transition them into society. Some need more time than others to adjust. Some have planned their post Army careers while in the Army and have worked civilian jobs before, which helps. My advice would be... start small and never feel ashamed of the struggle. Give yourself a pass. Open up to someone who isn't afraid of the darkness. We're here and want to listen. <3