From May through the 4th of July, communities across the country are honoring our military veterans with events and awareness campaigns of all kinds. South Wasco County residents and businesses can participate locally by supporting the Poker Run on June 13th which will raise funds for veterans’ support organizations.
June is also “PTSD Awareness Month,” reminding us all that an important way to support our combat veterans and families is to learn more about PTSD, and about the many local and national programs, projects and services dedicated to addressing the “invisible wounds” of persistent post-traumatic stress.
Statistics provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs estimate that PTSD occurs in 11-20% of Veterans who served in the war in Iraq, 10% of Desert Storm Veterans, and 30% of Vietnam War Veterans. Actual figures are widely thought to be much higher, since these figures include only VA documented cases of PTSD diagnosed and treated at VA facilities. The figures don’t represent the countless current or former servicemembers who have either never sought help, or who may have been diagnosed and treated by private therapists, counselors or physicians.
In addition, the nature and culture of military experience has historically discouraged servicemen and women from seeking help for symptoms resulting from either combat-related or sexual trauma (it is estimated that over 70% of women and 30% of men experience sexual violence in the course of their military tours of duty), and secrecy vows required at discharge make it difficult for veterans to talk about their experiences even in confidential settings. And, as veterans will say, the world of military combat is its own reality, entirely different from the world of everyday civilian life and experience. It is a transformative experience, and soldiers come back from it profoundly changed, into a world which may thank them for their service, but which cannot even begin to imagine that experience, much less understand its effects.
While a diagnosis of PTSD is made based on a specific set of criteria which it is beyond the scope of this article to describe, typical symptoms include high anxiety, feelings of guilt, depressed mood, difficulty with focus and concentration, being easily startled and alarmed, quickness to anger, racing and repetitive thoughts, feeling “on edge,” difficulty sleeping, sensory flashbacks, and difficulty connecting emotionally with friends and family. These symptoms result directly from exposure to acute or repeated physical and psychological trauma, which causes physical changes in the brain.
Too often (but understandably) a veteran may turn to alcohol or other drugs to numb the overwhelming symptoms, which then creates additional problems, as do many of the medications typically prescribed by a VA health system which is itself overwhelmed .
The good news? An increasing number of governmental and private, non-profit organizations offer a range of healing and support services for combat veterans and their families, many of them at low or no cost. In Wasco County, the Veteran’s Support Office in The Dalles helps veterans with everything from navigating the VA to connecting with other education, health and support services which may be available. They are also the host organization for “Home Fires Burning,” a group which responds to the needs of families and widows of military veterans. (http://www.co.wasco.or.us/county/dept_veterans.cfm)
On June 20th in The Dalles, the Oregon Employment Department will be hosting a “Veterans’ Resource Day”—a kind of information and services fair for disabled veterans and their families (check The Dalles Chamber of Commerce events calendar for details).
For Post-9/11 warzone veterans in Oregon and Southwest Washington, the “Returning Veterans Project” (based in Portland) provides free (yes, FREE!) counseling and other health services. Services are donated by the licensed professionals themselves, and volunteers include providers in South Wasco County. For more information, visit http://www.returningveterans.org/
Other organizations offer hunting and fishing opportunities in our area. “Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc.” works through local fishing club chapters to provide “physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities including education and outings” (from the project website). Visit www.projecthealingwaters.org for local contact information. And “Outdoor Adventures for Military Heroes (which the Poker Run will help support) organizes hunting trips in Wasco County for wounded combat vets.
Thanking our military veterans for their service is an important gesture, to be sure. But we owe our warzone veterans much more: we owe them our active engagement in the ongoing challenges of “coming home.”
In the words of Paul Henderson (no relation), a combat veteran of the war in Vietnam and founder of “Soldier’s Heart” (www.soldiersheart.net), the “soul wounds [of PTSD] are sacred and, properly tended, can lead to wisdom and transformation.”
To suffering combat veterans themselves, he says (and I will let his words be the last), You have entered on the warrior’s path, but you may be struggling to see where it leads. You may not know how to complete your initiation from young fighter to warrior elder. A mature warrior is of great value to society, but you may not feel valued. Your soul may be stuck in the training camp or on the battlefield where it witnessed harsh and heartbreaking realities. As you have protected society in times of threat, it is society’s job to protect and tend to you now that you are back from military service. It is our responsibility to share any burdens of grief, guilt, and anger you may carry because of the things that were done to you, the things you saw, or the things you did in our name.