Monday, February 7, 2011
Operation Recovery is the latest political action hosted by Iraq Veterans Against the War. What it demands is simple: that troops suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress, Traumatic Brain Injury, or Military Sexual Trauma not be forced to deploy again. We are in our tenth year of war, folks, and some people -- including my partner -- are facing their fifth tour.
All soldiers have an inherent sense that the mission comes first, and that their personal problems should wait. This is something they must overcome internally before they can seek help. Once a soldier has made that difficult decision, they should not be blocked by their commanders. They should not be forced to deploy again. They should not be turned away from seeking mental health services. We should be proactively seeking out veterans who may need a hand up to keep them on their feet. Instead, we are turning away those who voluntarily seek help. What do you think is happening to all those who can't speak out?
The epidemic of soldier and recently discharged veteran suicides is no real mystery to me. People argue that the military has changed, that it's not as bad as it used to be, and that the soldiers who complain are just "malingerers" -- people who feign ailments or purposely injure themselves to avoid duty. Let me say that if this is the improvement, I'd hate to see how it used to be. Take these examples:
*Jeff Hanks, denied treatment over and over again. He finally went AWOL on the day he was supposed to return to Afghanistan, and was committed to a mental health institution. Only the inpatient commitment was enough to stop his unit from arresting him and forcing him to return overseas, and he is still currently facing AWOL charges.
*SPC Kirkland, a soldier who was sent home from Iraq because he was believed to be suicidal, then ridiculed by his Rear Detachment chain of command and left alone in the barracks, where he killed himself.
*Suzanne Swift, a soldier who was sexually assaulted by members of her unit the first time she went to Iraq. Rather than go after the perpetrators or offer services to her, her unit demanded she deploy to Iraq a second time with the same individuals. When she refused, she was charged with desertion.
These are just a few published examples. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, more that we may never know about. Despite what the military Public Affairs Office puts out about taking mental health more seriously, the truth is that soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines are still routinely denied care and punished for speaking out. But as these examples show, some courageous veterans are refusing to be silenced. Please show them your support.
What you can do:
*Educate yourself and your community about the problems of veteran suicide, and the lack of care we are receiving from the military. You might start by reading some of the articles or watching videos linked from the Operation Recovery webpage.
*Print the free flyers and post them on your college campuses, military bases, Veteran's Affairs buildings, or any place where young people congregate, to let returning veterans know they are not alone. Post them at your natural foods store, yoga class, or farmer's market to draw attention to the issue for veterans and non-veterans alike.
*Host a traveling "Operation Exposure" art show.
*Request a veteran speak to your college class, book club, church, or other group. Connectting with your local veterans groups is a great way to find speakers, as well as determining what needs are most great in your particular region.
*Sign the Pledge of Support. I don't personally like putting my name on the internet as a petition signatory, but I know that lots of other people view it as a symbolic act.
*Host a film screening that will generate discussion about veterans and traumatic stress. I have heard good things about Stop-Loss and The Ground Truth, but I haven't yet personally seen either.
*Write to your Congressional representative and tell them to make mental health care for returning veterans a priority. Demand that they investigate access to care for current servicemembers.
*Donate. Lots of people don't like to give money, and that's ok -- the above options might be better suited to you. But if you support the cause and don't have the time, energy, or gumption to do any of those things, donating can be a way to help. Donated money allows us to bring traveling art exhibitions around the country. Donated money also allows us to provide travel scholarships to veteran's retreats, so that we can get to know each other. For some veterans isolated in their own communities, these trips that are fully funded by strangers are their only chance to interact with other veterans and can be tremendously healing.