When I stay with my daughter and son-in-law, I have a morning routine that takes me out onto their front porch. There, with my cafecito in hand, I breathe the morning air and take in the view of the oleanders, the fruit trees in the neighboring yard, the dragonflies trying to avoid the aggressive bluejays. I love the quiet of these mornings and watching the earth wake up along with me.
This particular morning, Instead of relaxing and quiet thoughts, I recalled yesterday's conversation with a stranger about her brother who suffers from Agent Orange poisoning, PTSD and alcoholism. This conversation was particular poignant, because as a health care worker, she understood her brother's symptoms, issues and remedies, but after years of trying to help him, he continued to suffer.
She described to me, how their father, who is a WWII veteran, had advised his son, he was eligible for a claim with the Veteran's Administration, because of his poisoning and trauma symptoms. The father had told him where he could go, who to speak with and how to get some assistance with the claim. The son could not get past the forms. He became anxious and overwhelmed with the information required. His sister said to me "He wouldn't fill them out". I replied, "Perhaps, he couldn’t.”
I expanded on this comment by telling her that the anxiety of taking that first step for a veteran is not about filling out the countless forms. Forms are part of military life. Ask any active duty or veteran, forms are what runs the bureaucracy of our military. Filling out those forms for the PTSD veteran, opens the door to the past. A door they would rather keep shut.
For most of us, civilians or even dependents of active duty or retired personnel, forms are a necessary evil, a means to an end. For a veteran who has been avoiding the memories, dealing with the nightmares, flashbacks, or self-medicating, opening that “box” means dealing with the pain, the recriminations, the anger, the horror, the reliving of how you felt then, as a teenager or twenty-something, through the eyes of a middle age man, twenty, forty or more years later.
When I said goodbye to this stranger, she wished me luck with the book I am writing, telling me, “You have a perspective of your husband’s struggle to contrast with a story like my brother’s”. It gave me pause when I remembered that comment, this morning, because it took my husband twenty years to identify he needed help. There are thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans returning from the theatre who have had three, four, five plus tours, who, even with the current programs in place to help them deal with any combat trauma, suicide rates for combat veterans are up. For every active duty personnel or veteran, there are a number of family members that are touched by Combat Related Trauma or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. For every family member, there are a number of civilians and strangers that are affected…the ripple affect.
I have seen this nation come together for the families of natural and man-made disasters. Thousands of volunteers went to New Orleans and Mississippi. Millions of dollars went to these and disasters abroad. We have a vested interest in helping our active duty personnel, our veterans and their families deal with “coming home”. In our own communities, in our own families, everyone knows someone, who knows someone who served. Take the time to know who they are, to inquire about them, to ask about their family. Our future does not have to be about “contrasting stories”.