Sunday, November 25, 2007

Forgotten Heroes

I recently profiled a piece by Paul Rieckhoff, Executive Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

His four points were:

1. Asking a troop just back from Iraq to fill out another form is not the same as screening them for PTSD.
2. Mental health issues are family issues.
3. National Guardsmen and Reservists are facing a special set of issues, and their concerns need to get heard.
4. Troops need more time to access to care.

This reminded me of a Newsweek piece I read several weeks back called Forgotten Heroes (

The article opens with the tale of Jonathan Schulze, a Marine Corps Iraq War Veteran (the article is fairly long and goes on to profile several more veterans and their struggles with "the system").

Schulze goes several months before he decides to get help from the VA. He is told that he can try group therapy. To me, this seems to be a variation on Point 1 from Paul's article - instead of filling out a form, he would be dumped into a group. So. now that the guy is in group therapy, he has been "evaluated". Never mind that he'll probably quit group therapy shortly after.

This may be a slightly better solution than nothing at all, but it doesn't seem to me too much better. Let's see. This guy has worked literally MONTHS to isolate himself. Now, you want to put him in a group where he knows no one (and trusts no one), and expect him to flourish? Maybe for some it might work. Maybe later in this guys recovery it might work.

The pain finally gets to be too much for him, and he checks himself in. He is asked if he feels suicidal. When he tells them yes, the intake person (who is probably a good person, but is working in a bad system, and is probably overworked and overwhelmed) keeps typing, then calls someone. The call reveals that no one is available to see him.

Again, as I mentioned in the previous blog, what is the point of asking if the person is suicidal if nothing is going to be done immediately?

The next day he finds out he is NUMBER 26 on a list. Several more weeks go by with Schulze calling and getting repeatedly pushed off. Finally, it seems, he loses hope, he gets drunk and hangs himself with an electrical cord.

At the end, Schulze is another tragic "statistic". Not a combat death. But to his family and friends, the pain is just as real as if he was killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

I don't want to be too flippant here, but let's say that your car has a problem. Would you ever tolerate being told by your garage that you were number 26 on a list, then have to call back several times over the next few weeks to try to get it repaired? I don't think anyone would tolerate those circumstances and would find a different place to get their car worked on. So why, when we are dealing with matters of life and death, are we operating this way?

Unfortunately (except for groups that are trying to help like Give an Hour mentioned several times here in this blog: unlike the case of getting your car fixed, THEY REALLY DON'T HAVE ANYWHERE ELSE TO GO.

Is Jonathan Schulze's case an anomaly or is it the rule. If it's the rule, are we making progress to make it not the rule?

I remember that Bob Dole and Donna Shalala were put on a blue ribbon commission to try to look at some of these problems (and Bill Lind has said that blue ribbon commissions were just kabuki to convince the rubes back home that something was actually happening, when in reality nothing was happening). I have seen sparse coverage on this subject.

Is that because they (the people who get to decide what gets put on the air) don't think we'll be interested, or is it that not much has been done?

We certainly have short memories don't we?

Friday, November 23, 2007

One Issue

As I've written this blog over the last several months (knowing that only a few of my friends read it anyway), I have often thought that at certain times I have only been writing about one issue.

I have written a lot on the Iraq war and the damage I believe it has done to this country.

I have written a lot on the possibility, that crazy as it seems, that we may be plunged into ANOTHER war in the middle east with Iran.

I have written a lot on what I believe to be issues such as the fact that our economy seems to be strong on the surface, but beneath is a shaky house of cards, the idea that our infrastructure is falling apart in a lot of places, and the question that a lot of others are asking: Are we like that late Roman Empire?

I have even written on Atheism and belief in God.

Lately though, I have been sort of a one-topic guy. And that is the topic of taking care of our veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan (and possibly soon Iran).

Today, I read a great piece by Paul Rieckhoff , who is the Executive Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (he is also the author of Chasing Ghosts: Failures and Facades in Iraq: A Soldier's Perspective, which is a GREAT book).,15202,156809_1,00.html

Paul's piece points up four great points:

1. Asking a troop just back from Iraq to fill out another form is not the same as screening them for PTSD.

2. Mental health issues are family issues.

3. National Guardsmen and Reservists are facing a special set of issues, and their concerns need to get heard.

4. Troops need more time to access to care.

With regard to point one, several weeks ago, I read about a soldier who killed himself (he got drunk and hung himself with an electrical cord). He went to the hospital, and was asked if he was suicidal. When he said yes, they said, essentially they couldn't see him anyway. What is the point of asking if he is suicidal if you cannot do anything about it?

Paul's point is great - filling out a form is not solving a problem. We should all know this from our dealings with any number of organizations. How many of us like filling out forms for routine, mundane things such as car repair or other services? We know they are blowing us off by making us do it, and that's why we get angry. Imagine now the feelings with critical issues of life and death.

With regard to point two, this should be obvious as hell, but it's really not. The US does not have a strong sense of "community" anymore. We tend to isolate ourselves from each other.

I have posted this organization called Give an Hour ( here before, but it needs to be repeated again, and again, and again and again.

I believe that this organization (Give an Hour), along with Paul's organization and others are trying to build the networks to solve these problems. I think the VA and other Military Treatment Networks are going to need all the help they can get.

If I'm becoming a one issue guy, it's an issue that's well worth it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Are you ready to shell out $40K?

I first saw this report on the "hidden costs" of the Iraq war about a week ago (it was put out by Congressional Democrats). I thought to myself that I'd wait and see how it played out.

A few days later, quite predictably, the Republicans demanded that the report be retracted (send it over to Winston Smith at the Ministry of Truth (this is a reference to George Orwell's 1984)), and that none of the numbers could be substantiated or connected to the Iraq war.

The report focuses on a few things, most notably that the "hidden costs" of the war come through things like higher prices for oil (from mid $30 range at the start of the war, to lapping the shores of Lake $100 now), the cost of caring for disabled veterans (I have written about this subject some in this blog), and massive interest on the debt paid - essentially, the Bush Administration has turned our country into a sub-prime lender to such wonderful "bankers" as China.

The Republicans certainly cannot say that these things are lies (unlike the "intelligence" that got us into the war). I think what got them most upset is that this is a great example of synthesis. Putting it all together into one article and laying it out there. No longer do the American people have to grasp at strands from the news and try to form them into a coherent whole to see the mess we are really in. THEN, attaching a $20 to possibly $40K price tag on EACH AMERICAN FAMILY.

This should really open our eyes, and make us angry as hell. But, the fact that Marie Osmond's son is in rehab seems to be more important to us. I haven't really seen anything more on this story.

Meanwhile, the President tells us that we can't "afford" health care for our poorest and most vulnerable children.

A lot of these things about the war have been hidden quite nicely from the American people. We are NOT a country at war as a lot of pundits (especially conservative pundits) like to say. The people patrolling Iraq and their families are certainly involved in an ugly, brutal, destructive war, but at home we are as detached as a country can be from the war. This was made easier also by hiring mercenaries (modern day Hessians) to fill in for those who might have had to become soldiers and go to the war zone.

All of these things are going to fundamentally change the way we live. We will look back and ask ourselves repeatedly in future years, "was it worth it"? If you fundamentally change the soul and psyche of your nation, and not in a good way, was it worth it?

What is our return on investment for the invasion of Iraq? Security? Even General Petraeus could not say that our country was safer when pressed specifically by Senator Warner.

I think the hidden cost that is going to be most painful and costly is treating the Veterans who are coming back, profoundly broken in body, spirit and soul. There is right now no end in sight to this carnage assembly line either - at least not for the next few years - and to hear the Democrats talk, not even then.

We cannot let them fade into obscurity, or homelessness, or alcohol and drug addiction, or madness.

It will in fact be very costly IF we do the honorable thing and do it right. We cannot do it on the cheap like we tried to prosecute this war.

They (the Democrats) can congratulate themselves for this report, but the fact of the matter is, they are every bit as much to blame for our foreign policy debacle and our budgetary woes.

If we don't do the best that we can, and treat the Veterans and their families right, we can forever hang our heads in shame.

Friday, November 9, 2007

A Tsunami is a comin'

A few days ago, I read a disheartening article about homeless vets.

The article was saying that the homeless even included veterans of our current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The article said:

"Some advocates say such an early presence of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan at shelters does not bode well for the future. It took roughly a decade for the lives of Vietnam veterans to unravel to the point that they started showing up among the homeless. Advocates worry that intense and repeated deployments leave newer veterans particularly vulnerable

“We’re going to be having a tsunami of them eventually because the mental health toll from this war is enormous,” said Daniel Tooth, director of veterans affairs for Lancaster County, Pa."

I asked a few friends (some who work with Veterans) to give their opinions as to why this has happened so fast. In addition to the reasons above (intense, repeated deployments), the idea was given that Reservists coming back have been having trouble getting their jobs back (or have lost their businesses from repeated deployments), and haven't been getting much help from the government they've spent the last several years serving in a dangerous war zone.

You don't have a job, you lose your home, your wife and family leave you, this sequence of events could take down even the strongest of people.

Several days ago, I wrote a blog called Change or Die in which I reviewed a book with the same title. I said that treating these vets was going to be a huge issue, and that there was someone out there who would be the Dr. Dean Ornish or Dr. Mimi Silbert of this crisis (they were two unconventional change agents profiled in the book). This person (or persons) will probably be someone who is doing it differently, against the conventional wisdom.

A few days later, I read an encouraging profile in the Washington Post about an organization called Give an Hour. According to their website (, they are:

"currently establishing a national network of mental health professionals and reaching out to our first target population, the U.S. troops and families affected by the current military conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq."

This is only a band aid and stopgap at best. I'm sure those in the military treatment communities probably don't like this one bit. But, it proves that there are people out there who are working on this problem, and are looking for creative solutions rather than just throwing the hands up and saying, well, the VA is full, or there is no military treatment facility in my area, so there is no hope.

According to Change or Die, the first step to lasting change is:

1. Relate. You form a new, emotional relationship with a person or community that inspires and sustains hope (the other two are: 2. Repeat. The new relationship helps you learn, practice, and master the new habits and skills that you'll need. 3. Reframe. The new relationship helps you learn new ways of thinking about your situation and your life).

Hope, and a shot to live a normal life. Isn't that something that someone who has served our country valiantly deserves?