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Opinion: Truth exposed: We haven't done enough for combat veterans

Posted: April 2, 2014 - 12:01am

“Our nation has a long tradition of according honor to veterans in recognition of their service, especially for those who fought on the front lines.” That’s a statement made by Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, in support of HB313. It’s a proposal that would rightfully allow judges to consider post-traumatic stress (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries as extenuating circumstances when sentencing combat veterans found guilty of certain crimes. It’s a well-meaning bill that’s long overdue, but it also exposes an inconvenient truth – we haven’t done enough to take care of our soldiers after they’ve come from war.

Last Friday in a ceremony commemorating Vietnam Veterans Day in Alaska, Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, reminded us how veterans of that war weren’t welcome home at all. It was the war we didn’t win, which is the gentler way of admitting we lost. It was unpopular long before it ended though. By and large Americans opted to forget it. However, our self-imposed amnesia added to the pain of those who arrived home suffering from PTSD.

No, America has no long-standing tradition of honoring all our veterans. If we did, Gara’s bill would have been recorded as law more than 40 years ago. Instead, we needed another war for PTSD to begin to resonate in the American consciousness.

The reality is PTSD has been around since the dawn of human warfare. The malady was called “soldier’s heart” during our Civil War, shell shock in World War I and renamed combat fatigue in World War II. It found its present day label after the Vietnam War. It was then that modern psychiatry clinically recognized it in their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

But as Gara pointed out during a committee hearing about his bill, veterans “don’t want to be labeled as having a mental defect.” It suggests something is wrong with them, whereas the real problem lies with what they’ve experienced. The pressure to keep their dark secrets from society spawns anger, depression and nightmares that in turn can lead to self-medication with alcohol or drugs.

Fortunately, there are a few psychological pioneers in this field. Edwards Tick is the director of Soldier’s Heart, a nonprofit that focuses on treatment of combat veterans. His work began in the mid-1970s and he believes PTSD is best understood as a soul wound. In his book, “War and the Soul,” he explains the importance for veterans to share their story with ordinary people as one way to be healthily reintegrated into society.

The difficulty with that, according to retired Navy psychiatrist William P. Nash, is combat veterans worry about being judged by a public who can’t possibly understand what they’ve been through.

Nash got his firsthand insights during the battle of Fallujah in 2004. Even though it’s not formally recognized by the Pentagon, he’s now actively treating veterans for moral wounds, an affliction first described by Jonathan Shay when he was working with Vietnam veterans in the late 1980s. In his book, “Achilles in Vietnam,” Shay defines it as a betrayal of what’s right by normal conventions and commonly accepted social values. Among other things it includes killing a civilian and seeing dead or wounded women and children after a battle.

Who amongst us wants to hear those war stories? Consider though that a 2003 study by the New England Journal of Medicine found that more than 28 percent of marines fighting in Iraq were responsible for the death of a noncombatant. More than 80 percent felt they were unable to help injured women or children. That means there’s a lot of veterans with secrets tearing at the seams of their moral identity.

Should those stories be stuck inside soldiers until they need a psychiatric defense when being sentenced in a public courtroom? No, for as Tick says, “healing needs to be, in part, taken out of the hands of specialists and put back into the hands of the tribe, which can do a lot of things that specialists can’t.”

In essence, Gara’s bill is a subtle acknowledgment that the disorder in PTSD is really in society’s avoidance of our soldiers’ suffering. We can start to change that by setting aside our moral anxiety and judgments and genuinely learn to listen to the terrible war stories our veterans have experienced.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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