We must confront psychological toll of war

In 2012, we’ve just learned, more U.S. soldiers died from suicide than from combat. Think about that. More deaths from suicide than from battle. Then consider how much we love war in this country, how we glorify it. How we tear up as we salute our troops in a parade, how we stick magnets on our cars and trucks and call it supporting them. How little most people know of what wars do to those who fight them; how easily they rattle swords, knowing, far removed from it all, they’ll not be the ones asked to swing them.

I served in Vietnam, and although my injuries were mild compared to nearly all others, I have a Purple Heart. As a doctor there, I saw things, and I think I know of what I speak; enough to become infuriated every time some elected official or talking head agitates for the next war while comparing negotiation to appeasement. Or treason. Unless we fight a war every now and then, they tell us, we’re weak. Gotta do more than just shake that big stick.

It’s pretty easy to fight a war from the comfort of a couch, from the perch of a pundit. If some wars are necessary — and, given the nastiness of so much of humankind, I know they sometimes are — we should pay a lot more attention to the people we ask to fight them, whom we teach to kill and then to live with it, and with the constant awareness that they might be killed as well; and then assume the experience will have no effect, figure they can return to the world as if nothing happened. We’re better at the physical part than we used to be. Vietnam taught us a lot about treating battlefield injuries, and lives are being saved that would have been lost in other times. But, within the military and without, there remains the tendency to ignore the psychological toll taken by war, or to view it as some sort of weakness. It’s not. It’s humanity. What’s left of it.

As we subject our young men and women to war, we have an obligation to address and take responsibility for what we do to them in the process. Giving the legless a new limb makes us feel good, as if it’s all OK again. But acknowledging that, in sending them off to war, we’re causing unseen and maybe irreparable mental pain as well, is a lot harder.

Maybe I’m too much of a cynic, but when I see those “support our troops” pronouncements on vehicles, it bugs me, as I wonder what their owners think it means. Many of them, I’m sure, are families of soldiers or have been soldiers themselves, who’ve done enough. But I can’t help thinking the majority are folks who, despite being sincere in the sentiment, feel they’ve discharged their duty by slapping on the sticker. I try to imagine what would happen if I stopped by with a petition and asked them to sign it: one that demands a war surtax to pay for the care of returning veterans for as long as they need it, to help them live with the damage done to them in our name. To pay for research and treatment of traumatic brain injury and PTSD. To prevent the next suicide.

If “support our troops” means anything at all, first and foremost it’s recognizing that war, even when necessary, is an awful thing. It means considering war the last of the last resorts, and voting for representatives who agree. (It might also mean having a Secretary of Defense like Chuck Hagel.) It most certainly means willingness to spend whatever it takes to protect our soldiers from physical and mental harm; and when it happens anyway, to provide them the resources they need to deal with it if they make it back home. And that’ll cost real money, the kind you can’t get by cutting taxes and pretending revenue will magically roll in anyway. (Senate Rs filibustered a vets’ jobs bill!) It might even take not building another aircraft carrier or weapon system the military doesn’t even want, and which won’t stop a cyber attack or suitcase bomb anyway; and spending the savings on veterans’ care.

Supporting our troops takes more than a buck ninety-five for a car magnet, and doing a slow-clap when a soldier walks by.

Sid Schwab lives in Everett. Send comments to columnsid@gmail.com

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