Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Bringing the war home: Alternatives to our military's new psychiatric wards

(Photos are of a painting of my father in his Navy uniform and me and my father after World War II)

I just heard from a reliable source that the U.S. military is currently building new psychiatric wards on several of its major bases here in America. The new wards are designed to provide treatment for the increasing number of military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who have "brought the war home with them". This is both good news and bad news.

The good news is that the military is stepping up to the plate and taking care of its own.

The bad news is that we now have a noticeably increased need for facilities that can deal with our returning troops' Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, "PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal [including] violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat." As more and more veterans come home from the wars these days, we are seeing more and more cases of PTSD.

You know, being in Iraq is different from what most people think it might be like. One of the closest depictions of what it's really like in Iraq just showed up on the season finale of Gray's Anatomy of all places -- not the part where Arizona babbles on and on about how being in Iraq is keeping our country safe. That's pretty much bull-dookie. Many of the service guys that I talked with in Iraq know that Bush lied to them and that Shock and Awe was pretty much generated by Dubya's folly and lust for power and oil. Forget about that part of the show.

The part of Gray's Anatomy that did ring true about Iraq was the part when a young soldier with leg problems wanted his leg cut off so he could get a prosthesis and go back to Iraq and help out his buddies. "They are the only true family I know."

It's that feeling of being part of a family that keeps guys signing up for more tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq -- that and the respect that they get from the people they work with over there. When you are in the U.S. military, you are given important jobs, you have responsibility and you get respect. One young lieutenant I talked with in Baghdad put it this way: "Over here, I have as much responsibility and authority as a CEO of a corporation. At my age, you can't get that kind of experience back home."

You can't? Why not?

When our troops come home, there should be more waiting for them than just a bunch of newly-built psych wards. They should have jobs waiting for them -- decent, meaningful jobs. And not only that but let's talk about keeping platoons together. When you work side by side with someone else who is a good worker, a bond of respect and trust is created. And if a military platoon learns to work well together like a well-oiled machine in Iraq, then let's try to keep that crew together back in civilian life too. Each member of the platoon can help watch the others' back in times of stress while dealing with a new reality that is so different from the one they have been used to for the last three or four tours of duty.

They call this a "post-traumatic" disorder for a reason -- because it doesn't show up until the "traumatic" part is over. So when our troops get back home, that's when they will need their buddies more than ever -- and they also will need our help as well.

Let's see. How else can we help returning vets to combat PTSD? Like I said, give them meaningful work, leadership positions, jobs that require skill and responsibility -- like the ones they had back in Iraq. Jobs like you and I wish that we had. And also let's give our returning service men and women veterans' perks, healthcare, decent housing, economic support. You know the drill. Give them the stuff that we all should be having ourselves too but don't because we're not neo-cons, stock brokers, bankers or Blackwater. And giving vets this kind of help will probably cost us less in the long run than building and staffing new psychiatric wards. Plus this is a good way to prove that we really are patriotic and DO support our troops.

And just to make sure I'd covered all my bases regarding how to help our returning troops, I even consulted Madam Jane, my resident psychic. "Hmmm," said Madam Jane. "Ten years from now, I can see our returned Iraq and Afghanistan vets living under freeways, frequenting drunk tanks and generally going the way that our Vietnam vets did -- unless we do something drastically different right now."

"Got any suggestions?" I asked.

"Yeah." And boy did she. "Let's take back a trillion dollars from that bailout we gave Wall Street, a trillion dollars from the bailout we gave those loser bank guys as a reward for mis-managing OUR money, and another trillion dollars from the bailout we're giving to the healthcare insurance middlemen who know jack-dookie about how to make people well -- and give all of that money to our vets instead. All of it. Vets who wore the uniform of our country deserve our tax dollars. Wall Street Ponzi schemers in lizard-skin loafers, business-school drop-out bankers and bureaucratic healthcare bloodsuckers do not."

Madam Jane may just have a point here.

Economist Mike Whitney has also made some scary predictions recently. "Make no mistake -- we are selling off our future and the future of our children to prevent the bondholders of U.S. financial corporations from taking losses. We are using public funds to protect the bondholders of some of the most mismanaged companies in the history of capitalism, instead of allowing them to take losses that should have been their own. All our policy makers have done to date has been to squander public funds to protect the full interests of corporate bondholders."

So. How about that we "squander" our public funds to protect the full interests of our returning troops instead.