The classical image of the uniformed solider returning from war is a shower of affection that honors their courage and dedication to the greater good of a nation. Those who didn’t return become memorialized as fallen heroes, the making of legends in the collective memory. One creates the posters for future recruitment, the other the monuments and somber holidays that aim to immortalize the nobility of war.
Warriors are supposed to be heroes. Where do today’s veterans at Walter Reed, and every other VA facility, fit next to the supposed pride in our history? If they aren’t being treated as heroes, what is the fate of the returning warrior wounded in our war?
To understand the possibilities of any contentious, complex and even confusing situation, we have to look hard at more than the facts as they appear. The obvious is often a distraction, and the easily imagined causes and solutions may do nothing more than sugar coat the more serious nature of the problem. But we have to begin with what we see, which is failure yet to be explained.
Once the problem at Walter Reed was finally exposed, the cry came from all corners of the country that there’s no excuse for the ill-treatment of our troops. The word scandal comes with every news story feeding itself to an outraged public. So the scapegoat procession begins. Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, Dr. Francis J. Harvey, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, three career casualties of the failure at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Scandals deliver focus to the issue, which is then supposed to enable the fix. Get the right people on the job. Extra funding for the medical needs of our wounded fits right in with the rest of the skyrocketing defense spending for our national security. It can’t cost that much next to the price for the weapons and overseas deployments of soldiers who vastly outnumber the ones suffering at home.
Where is the money needed? The situation which sparked the Walter Reed controversy wasn’t in the inpatient wards where the most seriously injured are treated. The news stories suggest the hospital itself is an example of the best care possible. While the place in the normal spotlight shines, the outpatient conditions many were living in combined with the bureaucratic insensitivity caught the nation’s attention.
According to Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull, the troops on the outside outnumber the patients in the main wards 17 to 1. If we go beyond Walter Reed and
In a Washington Post interview, clinical social worker Joe Wilson said the breakdown of care “creates resentment and disenfranchisement. These soldiers will withdraw and stay in their rooms. They will actively avoid the very treatment and services that are meant to be helpful."
Sgt. 1st Class John Allen, injured in
As soon as we imagine that the words “command element” allude to a systematic failure, the problem becomes much bigger than the three terminated careers. Can their replacements make a difference on the same budget, or will they seek an increase in funding to make the necessary improvements?
Money issues turn us to Congress and the administration, our elected leaders who are mere miles from Walter Reed. Don’t they visit the wounded in the hospitals out of genuine concern? Shouldn’t they have ample opportunity to assess the effectiveness of the staff, equipment and programs intended to care for the soldiers? Why haven’t they already funded the care the troops deserve?
It seems so obvious that with best care imaginable for our returning wounded vets they would they be then better equipped, mentally and physically, to transition back to civilian life? Yet by zeroing in on money and personnel, other questions might be forgotten under the assumption the problem has been solved? And we don’t have to look back far into our history to see the pattern of neglect may be just as likely to continue. Why?
Is doesn’t seem possible that Congress was in the dark on these problems. In fact, at least one congressman appeared to have spoken to hospital administrators about concerns. The day after Weightman was fired the Washington Post reported that Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-FL) had been voicing complaints about inpatient treatment since 2004.
The next day, the Young and his family had to explain to the media in
Young also claims his attempts to raise concerns were rebuffed by the higher level officials he spoke to. And soon after the scandal broke, the military brass enflamed it further by attempting to silence the soldiers who had begun to speak out. What are the administrators trying to avoid?
Clinical psychotherapist Edward Tick has worked with veterans suffering from PTSD for many years. In his book War and the Soul he explains that “Warriors need elaborate rituals cleansing them of pain and stain. They need to express their stories and related feelings. They need to transfer responsibility for their violent actions to the society in whose name they acted.”
Society is also a system of individuals. To imagine a soldier’s trauma is the “pain and stain” of war’s horror on the individual soul, we’d also have to imagine the transference Tick is talking about must move to other individual souls one at a time rather than to society en masse. If so, Young perhaps had begun to absorb the guilt but was also keenly aware of the political system’s resistance to it.
Tick also points out that the “recovery of each individual is no longer a priority of the larger social system because the system functions even with the loss of significant numbers of its adult population.”
When the individual soldier’s health is imagined as statistical irrelevancy, it becomes apparent that something larger than the individuals who make up Congress and our government may be at work. The monetary solution is reduced to treating nothing but the symptoms while leaving the disease to fester. If the collective self preservation of a large group is about power, what is it about soldiers who find their way beyond the trauma of war that is threatening?
David Connelly served in combat in
The truth of war’s horrors has the power to undermine notion that war, especially modern warfare, can be fought humanely. Truth to power is what the wounded warrior brings to the table. It is a truth beyond what the peace activist community alone can muster. Only the ones who have seen it can grasp it.
But we are also part of the society that they were sent to fight for. Do we also have to allow then to transfer their pain and stain to us? Isn’t it our turn to fight for them, to ensure they are healed so their stories can be told beyond those of us ready to listen?
Healing implies a return to what was normal before the wound. But it also means change. Tick explains that “After war and other traumatic loss, we are different forever. We can neither get the old self back nor return to a state of innocence. We have been through a psychospiritual death. But like the mythological phoenix, from death we attain a rebirth.”
We in general, and family members especially rightly want their loved ones to be whole again, to be the person they knew so well before the war. How does this natural expectation remedy itself with a spiritual rebirth?
Human beings are naturally uneasy in the face of change. If there is comfort in the security of what we know and trust, then there is also a discomfort when confronting what we don’t recognize. Whether we respond with a steady dose of resistance or confused apprehension, we can become stuck in the role of secondary victims when it comes to watching a family member or friend struggle through psychological turmoil.
In his bestselling book “Care of the Soul”, Thomas Moore explains when “we are the observers of depression and are challenged to find a way to deal with it in others, we could abandon the monotheistic notion that life always has to be cheerful, and be instructed by melancholy. We could learn from its qualities and follow its lead, becoming more patient in its presence, lowering our excited expectations, taking a watchful attitude as this soul deals with its fate in utter seriousness and heaviness.” (emphasis mine)
We’re back to wondering about the fate of the warrior returning wounded from our war? Perhaps the wounds of war that our soldiers seek to heal are larger than physical and mental wounds suffered on the battlefield. Might they be larger than life, the call of fate? Could there be no return to normal because more is wanted of them?
To hear our soldiers’ truths aren’t we going to be changed as well? Our fate too may be calling to let go of the normal life we wanted to return to? We can’t go back either. Would we even want to if normal means our children and grandchildren will relive their horror and our anguish through another war?
Our political establishment, including the high ranking military officers, is entrenched in itself and corrupted by power. Its focus is self preservation, resistant to change to maintain their idea of normal, their comforts, and their sense of security. The system seems to want to marginalize and ostracize our wounded soldiers so that no one will listen to their truths.
The power rests with the establishment. The truth rests with those who have lived it. The healing of our wounded warriors might shift the balance of power to where the truth leads the way.
In the stories of those suffering from PTSD the promise of change has a beating heart. Edward Tick believes that nations need to allow the “survivor to come home and serve the causes of peace, justice and healing”. Maybe then we might all find our “mythological phoenix”, and perhaps the end of political warfare.