Monday, June 16, 2008

Father's Day and PTSD

Yesterday was Father's Day, but I don't have many happy stories to tell about my father. Forty years ago, when I was nine, I lost him to the Vietnam war.

My father was a Major in the U.S. Army Special Forces, a Green Beret, who did repeated tours in Southeast Asia starting in the late 50's. His luck held for a while, but eventually he was severely injured in combat. Sadly, he probably could have been saved if he had received medical care in time, but the seriousness of his wounds weren't recognized until it was too late.

The reason that my father didn't get the treatment he needed was that his wounds were mental, not physical. He suffered from what we would now call severe post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, and in the end he became so violent and dangerous that he had to be institutionalized.

Four decades later PTSD is still an enormous and unsolved problem. Many more soldiers who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan will end up committing suicide due to PTSD than will be killed in action*, yet we spend hundreds of times more on equipment and training to protect our troops in combat than we do on their mental health.

We ignore the problem because it mainly strikes after a soldier leaves the military. To put it bluntly, while every combat death is national news, a veteran who commits suicide is just a few lines in the obituary column of the local paper.

Please take the time to learn more about PTSD. A good place to start is a Washington Post article called The War Inside. It uses the stories of individual vets suffering from PTSD to explore the bigger issue, and it paints a picture of a military health care system that's crumbling under the strain of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan:
"The military is also battling a crisis in mental-health care. Licensed psychologists are leaving at a far faster rate than they are being replaced. Their ranks have dwindled from 450 to 350 in recent years. Many said they left because they could not handle the stress of facing such pained soldiers."
Father's Day will always be bittersweet for me. Although I have two wonderful sons, I never really got to know my own father. He served our country with honor, yet we failed him when he most needed our help. The children of today's soldiers deserve better. Learn about PTSD, and demand that we provide the best possible care, physical and mental, for our wounded soldiers and veterans. We owe them nothing less.


* A recent study of over 300,000 US veterans showed that they have a suicide rate twice that of the general population. This means that almost 3% of all veterans commit suicide, with about half of those deaths being due to service-related mental illness, as compared to the current combat mortality rate in Iraq and Afghanistan of a little less than 1%. Analysis based on the current US suicide rate (2004) of 1.4%, expressed as the ratio of suicide deaths to total deaths from all causes.

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