While waiting for a plane in Dallas airport I read the New York Times staggering article that suicides among active-duty military personnel have eclipsed the number of troops dying in battle. These suicides among soldiers while still on active duty are “just the tip of the iceberg,” said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, citing a “survey of its 160,000 members that found that 37 percent knew someone who had committed suicide.”
A great many Americans have no personal involvement in a lingering war that is supposed to be ending and veterans groups and their supporters remain frustrated by the too little, too late response of the military to suicides, PTSD and the horrific brain rattling effects of traumatic brain injuries (TBI’s). The media of late have emphasized the severe effects of TBI’s on the mental and physical health of veterans but little has been written about the need to prevent traumatic brain injuries from happening in the first place.
Five years after IED’s, improvised explosive devices, began being used widely against the U.S. in Afghanistan, the military is finally looking into redesigning helmets with more protective padding. But they are issuing these to only a small number – 5 percent of combat soldiers – according to R. Todd Dombrowski of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization. “For everyone else the Army decided against immediate implementation because of the extra weight the change would incur,” wrote Monica Friedlander in Science and Technology Review. However, the military is hard at work devising lighter helmets because, as Dombrowski described it, “every year, we want to get a better helmet, period.” Perhaps they will include the extra padding.
What struck me when I Googled this information was an adjoining blog that urged citizens to help buy pads to send to troops to cushion their helmets. The Army-issue helmets are so hard and heavy that soldiers sometimes remove them in danger zones, risking even more injury and death. One could deduce that redesigning helmets to prevent brain injuries was obviously not a top priority for the past five years.
Suddenly I was catapulted back 32 years to when I was researching a book on the Vietnam generation. Shades of the indifference and scorn of the military and Veteran’s Administration! Back then Agent Orange was dismissed as causing nothing but “teenage acne” and PTSD wasn’t considered anything but a fake excuse for “losers” and “crybabies.” Back then the veterans had to invent and create for themselves the Vet Centers to deal with troubled veterans because the VA didn’t. Today, there are veterans campaigning on blogs for contributions to provide padding for helmets to stop brain injuries. What has changed?
The major difference – as speakers said repeatedly at Memorial Day services around the country – is that returning veterans are treated nicely, not like those returning from Vietnam. Great lip service is given to our “brave men and women in combat.” But a National Center for PTSD offers grim and sorrowful statistics not factored into wars’ budgets: The Department of Defense and the Veteran’s Brain Injury Center estimates that 22 percent of all casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan have brain injuries, compared to 12 percent of Vietnam related combat casualties. A whopping 60 to 80 percent of soldiers who have other blast injuries may also have traumatic brain injuries. Studies indicate that patients with TBI often meet the criteria for PTSD, compounding suffering and treatment concerns.
With such thoughts on my mind as I walked through the airport I found myself looking at all the young, attractive soldiers in their camouflage uniforms – the tan, grey and pale green pattern that is supposed to blend into desert terrain. Four young women were in one cluster, three males in another.
In line at Starbucks was a handsome, dark haired young man keeping in touch with his world on a cell phone. You should see this airport, he told a friend, enthusing about its three terminals and many restaurants. He was on his way to meet buddies in San Antonio. We started talking. He was from Oregon, his name was Tony and he was going to Afghanistan in November. He was a medic and would be working with Medevac units and also would be deployed on the ground. I mentioned the New York Times article on suicide. He had read it, too. And he was aware of the articles on PTSD. He was concerned for those who were victims but had the confidence of youth regarding his own future. He had become a medic because he loved helping others. He might want to be a doctor someday.
I told him “good luck.”
“Don’t worry,” he said with a radiant smile, “I’ll be back in a year.”
Myra MacPherson is the author of Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation.