If my dad were alive, I know he’d be hanging the flag in front of our house, where it would stay for the remainder of the weekend. A veteran of two wars, Korea and Vietnam, my father was fiercely patriotic. Yet, displaying the flag on Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day was as much a show of loyalty and respect for those he served with, and — I think — an acknowledgment of that they each carried home a part of those wars inside of them. I learned early on that my father carried his experiences in Vietnam and Korea with home him.
One of the earliest rules I remember learning as a child was how to wake dad up from a nap. Don’t touch him or shake him, I was told. He might be dreaming about being back in Vietnam, or the defensive reflex required to survive there might kick in and the reaction might be violent. So, when it was time to wake him up, we would stand at the door and call to him until he responded, even well into my high school years. Looking back, in think it was a way of not releasing the war inside — the war he carried with him — into our home.
I never knew what my father experienced in Vietnam, or what he re-experienced sometimes when he closed his eyes to sleep. We never talked about it. Even when I wrote a one act play about Vietnam for a high school literary competition. Two of my classmates and I interviewed Vietnam veterans we knew, and placed classified ads to reach more veterans willing to share their experiences. I was surprised by how many were willing, even eager, to talk to three high school boys about what they’d experienced.
But I never interviewed my dad. I was in charge of distilling the interviews into an initial script of monologues that my classmates and I would perform, after they offered their input and edits. But I don’t remember my dad ever reading the script. We performed the play at our county literary competition, and won the chance to perform it at the state competition. But I don’t remember my dad ever seeing the play, or even talking to him about it.
Years later, when my parents came to visit me in Washington, D.C., I took my dad to the Korean and Vietnam war memorials. I watched him walk the length of the Vietnam memorial, stopping at the names of the men he’d known. I witness his silent tears at each stop. Yet, we never talked about his experience. To this day I don’t know what he saw, or what he brought home from those wars.
I think that’s because, though he’d brought home his experiences from the war, he wanted to keep the war — the war inside — out of his home.
Though he passed away just over two years ago, I thought of my dad, and all he kept inside of him when I read about two of the most recent Iraqi veterans to commit suicide. Recruiter Nils Aaron Andersson, who suffered PTSD, shot himself at two o’clock in the morning, on the top floor of a Houston parking garage. Staff Sgt. Travis Twiggs, who wrote about his PTSD experience, fatally shot his brother and then himself after a cross-state car chase.
News stories about their suicides were published the same week news broke that of a Veterans Administration employee’s email suggesting that veterans with PTSD be diagnosed with disorders that carry a lower disability payment.
An internal e-mail message written by a Veterans Affairs Department employee suggested that the agency avoid giving a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder for veterans and instead consider a diagnosis that might result in a lower disability payment.
The message, dated March 20 and titled “Suggestion,” said: “Given that we are having more and more compensation seeking veterans, I’d like to suggest that we refrain from giving a diagnosis of PTSD straight out. Consider a diagnosis of Adjustment Disorder, R/O PTSD.” R/O stands for “rule out.”
“Additionally,” it said, “we really don’t or have time to do the extensive testing that should be done to determine PTSD.”
News of their suicides — Andersson was one of 16 recruiters to take their own lives since 2000 — came one week before documents released by the VA gave further evidence of the agency’s failure to address veterans’ mental health needs.
New VA documents obtained exclusively by VCS using the Freedom of Information Act indicate the VA is only paying disability benefits for PTSD to 33,247 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans, although 67,717 have been diagnosed with PTSD. According to Sullivan, VCS is calling for an investigation into this apparent discrepancy.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in September 2007 stated that the VA’s "lack of early identification techniques" led to "inconsistent diagnosis and treatment" of PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury. According to the GAO, early diagnosis is essential in preventing PTSD’s consequences – which could be deadly.
It’s bad enough that we sent men and women overseas to fight a war founded disinformation, in insufficient numbers, and with inadequate equipment. But, when they come home with deep psychological wounds from that war, and we give them less than the treatment they need, Memorial Day celebrations and speeches ring hollow.
Let’s all pay lip service to Support Our Troops. But if we want to be honest, we should edit those yellow-ribbon bumper stickers to say Support Our Troops — As Long As It Doesn’t Cost Anything.
Let’s acknowledge that this new generation of soldiers and Marines is amazingly motivated and talented. They’re expected to be good killers, good diplomats and ambassadors of American goodwill who operate under impossibly complex rules of engagement in impossibly dangerous and deadly environments.
But if they come home wounded, their brains rattled by the huge IEDs of the new way of war, and if they suffer the horrors of PTSD nightmares and flashbacks, let’s dump them on the streets with the least amount of help and benefits possible, as cheaply as possible.
For sure we don’t want to improve their chances, better their future prospects, by offering them the same college benefits we gave their grandfathers six decades ago. God help us if they all get college degrees and figure out what we’ve done to them.
If my father were alive this Memorial Day, he would still display the flag. But not without anger, if he knew how today’s veterans are abandoned to fight the war inside — the same one he fought when he came home — on their own.