August 21, 2015
Each one was facing involuntary separation from the military. Med boards. Chapters for misconduct. In every case, they started as good soldiers. Then something pulled them off the line.
Injuries. Divorce. Whatever.
They wound up in administrative roles. Separated from their peers. Things spiraled down from there. Self-medicating their depression. Self-medicating the feeling that they would never be as valuable to another person, as close, as they were with their brothers.
They were left staring into the void of the rest of their lives.
The boys who need help the most are least likely to seek it. Most of the ones who do seek it fail to follow through on the treatment. There are a variety of reasons for this.
Most fear the stigma of treatment. Servicemen, combat-arms types in particular, view themselves as tough and self-reliant. Asking for help”especially about something as intimate as their own mental health”feels like an admission of weakness and failure.
The military has recently declared a “War on Stigma.” Organizations cite a study published in Military Medicine (Vol. 171, No. 11) claiming that only 3 percent of service members who self-refer have career blowback.
The study was published in 2006, only three years into a war more than a decade long.
In February, the Army War College published a white paper titled “Lying to Ourselves.” It cited numerous interviews and research to demonstrate how unrealistic requirements and a zero-defect mentality have created a culture of lying in Army leadership. Leaders were simply “checking the box” to skew their numbers for success.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is undergoing its own cultural shift. There is high-level drive behind this initiative. People have resigned. Others were fired. Nine hundred were sacked in February alone after Robert McDonald took over as Secretary of the VA.
It was a dramatic action. Byzantine organizations with failure-to-care and dead veterans on their hands are compelled to make a statement. Organizations the size of the VA, with a history fraught with cultural failure, are not changed overnight.
Who picks up the pieces in the meantime?
There has been an explosion of veteran-focused charities since GWoT began. Wounded veterans have received scholarships, houses, funds to help them get back on their feet…carbon fiber or otherwise.
CharityWatch graded 26 of 53 veteran charities “F.” The worst offenders were cited for gratuitous executive salaries and spending the majority of their donations on fund-raising.
Wounded Warrior Project, one of the largest and best-known organizations, has been accused of bullying smaller nonprofits that encroach on their domain of “wounded warriors.”
The most effective charities, dollar for dollar, are veteran-operated. These are often small, unfunded organizations run and fed by current and former service members.
Unfortunately, their reach is limited. It is difficult for any organization, even one run by those so close to the problem, to identify the man who is a drink away from putting a gun to his head.
“All we have is each other,” he said.
I turned and saluted the memorial with tears in my eyes.