The other day I was in the car with friends and we passed the VA Medical Center at 39th and Woodland. I cautioned the driver to ignore the woman inside the GPS because she tends to suggest you drive into a parking lot when you’re actually on your way to I-76. “You don’t want to drive into the VA,” I said. “It’s really inconvenient.”
Someone else in the car looked over at the faceless building and said, “I don’t remember there being a veterans hospital here. Huh.” And we drove on by. That comment stuck with me. It seemed to encapsulate a hard truth: When it comes to veterans, we drive on by.
While soldiers are at war, those who aren’t connected by blood or marriage pay tribute to them when we’re reminded—perhaps by a speech or a solemn moment at a ballgame—that they’re over there, fighting a mission we may or may not agree with.
When soldiers die, we take a breath. We look at their faces in military photos and wonder what they were like. Did that guy like classic rock? Did she dance salsa? A hurried moment of respect and then we move on to other things—cooking dinner, pestering the kids to practice the piano.
When soldiers come home, we see the moving footage of them rejoining their families and we sigh with relief. They’re back. They’re safe. Yes, we know they’ll have struggles; we all do. But what could be worse than being at war?
Perhaps the answer to that last question lies in the fact that soldiers diagnosed with mental disorders often willingly return to theater. The battle at home—with one’s own mind—is simply too hard to fight. Being at war is heroic; having a mental illness is shameful.
Charles R. Marmer, professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the NYU Langone Medical Center, recently wrote about these issues for Huffington Post: “Between April 2002 and March 2008, data was reported on 289,328 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans using VA healthcare for the first time; 36.9 percent received one or more mental health diagnoses; 21.8 percent received a diagnosis of PTSD; 17.4 percent a diagnosis of depression.” Yet many veterans don’t get help, which Marmer attributes, in part, to “concerns about an adverse impact on their military or civilian careers from being labeled with PTSD, and perceptions of being weak in a culture critical of vulnerability and prone to shaming mental illness.”
Though Marmer notes efforts are being made to de-stigmatize mental health services for veterans, advocates can tell you that change of that kind comes slowly. Despite decades of hard work to counter discrimination, the reality is that most people are still freaked out, to put it baldly, by the idea of “crazy.”
May is Mental Health Month. Most people will ignore that, despite the fact that health services—including those for veterans—face severe cuts. After all, Mental Health Month may be a public observance of a sort, but it ain’t Christmas.
It does, however, provide us with an opportunity to take a stand. I believe that stand should be taken for veterans, particularly those who are suffering the trauma of war at home. Let’s pledge, by writing our names below in the comments, to do one thing this month to benefit veterans: volunteering, donating, treating a person who served with kindness and dignity. I’ll come back next week with a list of resources we can use to follow through.
I know it’s easier to drive on by, but I think May is a good time to stop and do something tangible—and to acknowledge the humanity of those who came home.