This week we celebrate the fact that 235 years ago, our Founding Fathers declared our independence. We should never forget though, that the freedom proclaimed in words on July 4, 1776, did not become reality for five more years – only after the Continental Army sacrificed untold amounts of blood, sweat, and tears. From the start, the foundation of this nation has always been the brave men and women in uniform and that is still the case today. But as has happened before, we are not doing nearly enough to care for and stabilize that critical foundation.
Take Sergeant First Class Leroy Petry. Next week, he is due to be awarded the Medal of Honor by President Obama. While serving in Afghanistan, Sergeant First Class Petry lost his right arm while tossing away an enemy grenade that threatened his fellow Army Rangers. Then he put a tourniquet on his own wound, and miraculously, stayed in the fight. He clearly represents the very best of our military and our nation as a whole, and will be only the second living recipient of the medal for actions occurring since Vietnam. He is an incredible hero. But heroes need help, too.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars have led to a high number of severe burn victims and amputees, like Sergeant First Class Petry. Over 43,000 veterans have been physically wounded since 9/11. However, not all war wounds are physical. The mental scars of battle – the so-called “invisible wound” – are as old as war itself. What was called “”melancholia” in the Civil War, “shell shock” in World War I, and “battle fatigue” in World War II is now recognized as a diagnosable combat stress reaction.
These invisible wounds are very real and not at all indicators of weakness, despite what the General Pattons of the world believed. In fact, in World War II, one of every four soldiers evacuated from a combat area was done so for psychiatric reasons. No one has ever accused the Greatest Generation of weakness, and it’s important to remember that even the toughest of us have limits. But mental health is treatable and doesn’t have to be a lifelong affliction, as shown by the successes of the Greatest Generation once they returned to America.
Now, it’s a new generation’s turn. The grandchildren of the men and women who defeated the Nazis and Imperial Japan have fought tirelessly in Afghanistan and Iraq for nearly a decade. And while we hear about stories like Sergeant First Class Petry’s, we need to do better with the other 99 percent of new vets who won’t meet the President. One in five suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Approximately 300,000 have incurred a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
Suicide has become an absolute epidemic in the military community, with 16 veterans killing themselves every day, and more committing suicide than dying in combat in both 2009 and 2010. Thousands of service members have deployed multiple times and will only now start to seek out the benefits they’ve earned. Concurrently, they are dealing with a 13 percent unemployment rate nationally, something that is almost as high as 30 percent in states like Michigan and Minnesota. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Studies such as the RAND Corporation’s “A Needs Assessment of New York State Veterans” show that the mental health issue is complex and multi-pronged. 56 percent of respondents to that study either wanted or needed some type of mental health service. First, we need to implement the recommendations of the Department of Defense Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide, which includes standardizing suicide prevention programs and improving mental health screening programs.
Second, institutional barriers in the VA and federal government must continue to be removed. More guides to help navigate the complicated benefits system means local support structures must stand up and let returning vets know they’re there to help. And third, individuals in communities need to reach out and bridge the gap of isolation that so many new vets feel. Community and peer support are critical to a successful transition home.
As we prepare to honor Sergeant First Class Petry and our nation’s birthday, I am reminded of the words of Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta, the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor that served in Afghanistan. “I’m not at peace with that at all,” he said, referring to the spotlight placed on him because of the military decoration. “Everyone did something.”
Staff Sergeant Giunta is as humble as they come, and constantly downplays his heroic actions. But he’s right. Every Iraq and Afghanistan veteran did do something. They fought these wars in our name. Now we need to help them fight their wars back home. The Fourth of July is all about our nation’s history. And this chapter is still being written. Will we rise to the challenges faced by our returning veterans and stand with them, or will we ignore them and leave them to their own battles? Will the postwar treatment of this generation of veterans be a national scar or a badge of honor? Only time – and immediate action by all Americans – will tell.
Paul Rieckhoff is the founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and the author of "Chasing Ghosts: A Soldier's Fight for America From Baghdad to Washington."