Bill Newman: Helping veterans for whom the wars are not over

Last modified: Friday, April 04, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — If the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down, why did the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America feel compelled to place 1,892 new American flags at Arlington National Cemetery in late March?

The reason is straightforward. Each flag represents an armed services member who committed suicide this year.

You did not misread the previous sentence: In the first three months of 2014, almost 2,000 former service members committed suicide. That’s an average of 22 confirmed suicides by veterans every day. The actual number may be higher, and that statistic does not include suicides by spouses, children and parents of combat vets. There is no registry that counts those deaths.

If in 2014 we were losing 8,000 or 10,000 soldiers a year in Iraq or Afghanistan, Americans would be outraged and long ago would have taken to the streets demanding an end to the carnage. “End The War Now.” “Stop the Slaughter.” “These are Our Sons and Daughters.” You can picture those signs and imagine the protests, the opposition, the outrage and the media frenzy. But when is the last time you saw a media report about — or participated in — a demonstration demanding an end to the epidemic of death by suicide facing Iraq and Afghanistan vets?

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America placed the flags at Arlington in March as part of a mission called “Storm the Hill.” The group is seeking support for federal legislation aimed at preventing suicides and providing more mental health resources for returning members of the armed forces.

Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., the first Iraq war veteran to serve in the United States Senate, has introduced the Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act. For Walsh, who served as an infantry battalion commander, the issue is personal. A sergeant who served under him committed suicide after returning home. And after Walsh became adjutant general of the Montana National Guard, more Montana guardsmen took their own lives.

Walsh’s bill would address the many reasons vets don’t receive the treatment they need. For example, although service members with an honorable discharge receive five years of no-questions-asked medical care from the Veterans Administration, post-traumatic stress often does not manifest itself until more than five years after a service member has been discharged.

And more than five years can pass — with nightmares or drug abuse or failed relationships — before a former service member can recognize or admit that combat has taken a toll. One provision in the proposed legislation would extend the window of care to 15 years.

In addition, veterans who may have been injured but received a discharge other than honorable may receive no help. The proposed legislation would help cover this gap by requiring the military to establish a process for determining whether the behavior which caused the discharge was precipitated by emotional issues related to military service.

The bill also would provide the Veterans Administration with the funds and ability to recruit more mental health professionals and to secure and prescribe necessary medications. For Iraq and Afghanistan vets, the enemy no longer is the often unseen and difficult-to-identify detonator of improvised explosive devices. The enemy now may be a difficult-to-identify part of their psyche. The enemy the soldier carried home can be as lethal as the one confronted 7,000 miles away.

We civilians can claim that in 2003 we didn’t believe that Secretary of State Colin Powell would sell us and the world a bill of goods about Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction. We can find solace in the fact that we didn’t know we were sending troops to be maimed and die in insufficiently armored tanks. (“You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time,” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said.) More than two million Americas have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Two to three hundred thousand of them probably meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress and an equal number have suffered mild to severe traumatic brain injury. The VA does not have the resources adequate to help veterans who have brought the war home with them. And veterans who seek or have sought psychological help are discriminated against in myriad ways, including in employment and housing.

The responsibility to help the men and women who fought the wars America asked them to fight is ours, not someone else’s. We cannot claim we do not see the scars of war they carry, even if some are more visible than others.

Bill Newman is a Northampton lawyer and host of a WHMP weekday program. His column appears the first Saturday of the month. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.

The responsibility to help the men and women who fought the wars America asked them to fight is ours, not someone else’s.