A Memorial Day for mental illness in the military

May 25, 2011
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Most of us in civilian service for the mentally ill are shielded from mental illness in the military. We also usually do not receive any training or education on the unique aspects of military mental health. Meanwhile, reports continue to emerge that mental illness, especially PTSD, continues to escalate in the troops in the Middle East and on their return home.

Less well-recognized is the PTSD that can emerge in the caregivers attending to the continuing exposure to unprecedented survivable physical injuries and/or mental trauma. To complicate this problem, available services are still inadequate, stigma against asking for help is still high, and obtaining benefits still difficult. The Federal Court in San Francisco has recently accused the VA system as “incompetent in handling PTSD and other conditions”.

Other than the recent killing of Osama bin Laden, general news coverage about Iraq and Afghanistan has seems to have diminished over time. The public seems less effected or concerned, especially since the 2008 economic crisis. Paradoxically, whatever concern that has remained may be further diminished by bin Laden’s death, as it provides a sense of celebration and closure for many.

This is also a world and culture different than ours. I know some of this first-hand, for I once served in the military, though not in a time of war. I was stationed in Anniston, Alabama from 1975-1977. When we physicians were oriented by the base commander, we were told: “it’s not if, but when, there will be another war, and your job will be to support the troops."
In the military, that priority can cause agonizing decisions for psychologists and physicians, since support of the mission takes ethical priority over patient care, as may have occurred in any cooperation with the “enhanced interrogation” of designated terrorists. Now it still seems uncertain how much, if any, that sort of interrogation helped in the quest for bin Laden.

Many years later, I’ve come to realize that the commander’s prediction has come true over and over. But, if anything, he may have downplayed our responsibility. Supporting the military must include one’s life outside of the military. Though I am grateful that my children have not had to face the dangers of serving in a war zone, and respect critics and conscientious objectors to war, I was honored to have served and still get chills when the Army song is played in public.

This upcoming Memorial Day holiday should be an especially poignant time for us all to support the military. Memorial Day was begun as a ritual of remembrance and reconciliation after the Civil War. This year is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Many feel we have reminders of that in the political conflicts between our two political parties.

In our time, Memorial Day has come to commemorate United States soldiers who have died while in military service. On September 11th of this year, we will also have the 10th year anniversary of 9/11/01 and the ensuing engagement of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan that has added so many military deaths.

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